The rise and fall of Sicily

A few weeks ago, I looked out on the Cathedral of Monreale from the platform on which once stood the throne of William II, King of Sicily. From there nearly two acres of richly coloured mosaics were visible, glittering with gold. In the apse behind was the majestic figure of Christ Pantocrator — that is, almighty. The walls of the aisles and nave were lined with scenes from the Bible. In another panel, just above, Christ himself crowned King William. It was a prospect of the greatest opulence and sophistication stretching in every direction from this regal vantage point. The mosaics are in the manner of Byzantium, and probably executed

Old masters

The Fitzwilliam Museum is marking its bicentenary with an exhibition that takes its title from Agatha Christie: Death on the Nile. But it turns out it was another writer of a different type of fiction who was directly involved. M.R. James, author of Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, amassed some of the exhibits in his capacity as director of the Fitzwilliam from 1893 to 1908. And almost any object on display would have made a perfect prop for one of his tales, because the subject is ancient Egyptian coffins. Generally, the main character in a story by James is a retiring gentleman scholar who comes across a venerable item which

Finders keepers

Isis’s blowing up of the Roman theatre at Palmyra should concentrate our minds: our world heritage is vulnerable. Not that we should need any such reminder after the depredations of the Taleban in Afghanistan, or Isis’s earlier rampage through the museum in Mosul and its attacks on sites at Hatra and Nimrud. A former director at the Institute of Ideas and a visiting fellow at the LSE, Tiffany Jenkins applies her considerable experience of cultural policy to construct an excellent survey that rehearses the issues. Who is responsible for the great examples of our shared heritage? Where should they be located: where they originated; where they have ended up; or


Last time I went to Thailand, there’d been something of a misunderstanding about accommodation, and my friend and I ended up in a dive on Khao San Road. In a grim room with stained mattresses and peeling paint, the thud of beats from the disco made everything vibrate gently. Stalls outside offered fake IDs, tatty souvenirs and novelty edible insects. I’m not averse to eating crickets, but these ones needed embalming fluid, not cooking oil. So we took a tuk-tuk across town to the Grand Palace, just seeking a break from sunburned students in short shorts drawling about full-moon parties. Instead, what happened next was one of the highlights of


Before cheap flights, trains were the economical way to discover Europe and its foibles. Personally, I enjoyed the old fuss at border crossings. By the time I was 18, I had memorised those warning notices in the carriages: Nicht hinauslehnen; Defense de se pencher au-dehors; E pericoloso sporgersi. Those three different ways of saying ‘don’t stick your head out the window’, one bossy, the other pedantic, another gently pleading, summarised the nice subtleties of national borders that were philosophical as well as political. Europe is a marvel. Its busy inhabitants discovered private property, social mobility, romantic love, democracy, secularism, antiquarianism, nationhood, industry, capitalism, technology, domesticity, privacy, vanity, revolution, modernism, exploration

Melting pot

‘Celtic’ is a word heavily charged with meanings. It refers, among other phenomena, to a football club, a group of languages, a temperament, a style of art and a fringe, once the stronghold of the Liberal Democrats. But who are — and were — the Celts? The curators of the new British Museum exhibition are not at all sure, and that’s one of the reasons why the result is so enthralling. There is a familiar answer to this question: the Celts were an ancient people who moved into Europe from the east in prehistoric times and occupied most areas north and east of the Alps, together with northern Italy and


A wet walk in a Glaswegian graveyard might not be your idea of fun, but then you might not have spent the past two hours in the Glasgow Science Centre. Endure that, and see the sodden Necropolis stroll swell in allure. The Science Centre is one of the emblems of the new Glasgow. Rising from the old docklands on the south side of the Clyde, beside the BBC at Pacific Quay, it is one of the shouty new buildings leading the regeneration of the old shipbuilding areas. These buildings and their outlying friends still look like awkward blow-ins here, isolated blobs of glitter studding the wasteland. There’s not yet much

Moving pictures | 21 May 2015

About six years ago the first section of the now celebrated High Line was opened in New York and made a palpable hit both locally and internationally. Locally it revealed what one might have guessed, that the inhabitants of Manhattan’s downtown suffered a severe lack of amenity. Every place to walk or run or ride a bike, every place to exercise the dog, is valuable and well used. This new and unusual park, restoring and converting the tracks of a disused overhead railway, was reserved neither for running nor biking nor walking the dog, but rather for strolling, sitting and sunbathing, and for the novelty of looking in on buildings

Rise early to see the Vatican at its best

The sun has only just risen in Rome and we are standing bleary-eyed in a short queue outside the Vatican. Our guide, Tonia, takes us through security, and within minutes we are in a nearly empty Sistine Chapel. In an hour it will be crammed with tourists — sweating, gawping, getting in each other’s way. Vatican officials will be shushing and clapping to quieten the chatter. Now, though, we are free to contemplate Michelangelo’s swirl of naked bodies in peace. Michelangelo claimed that he painted the ceiling entirely on his own. In fact, Tonia explains, he started off with 15 helpers, though he got rid of them all along the

Spectator letters: A history of Stepford Students; Brendan Behan and Joan Littlewood; and the Army’s tour of Pakistan

Silencing students Sir: The Stepford Students (22 November) are nothing new. The NUS-inspired ‘No Platform’ policy has been used to ban anything that student radicals don’t like since at least the 1970s — usually Christians, pro-life groups or Israel sympathisers. It should not be in the power of the narrow-minded activists of the student union to prevent individual students or groups from exercising their right to free speech and freedom of association. All students should have equal access to university-funded facilities, regardless of their beliefs. The student union should be seen largely as a social club with no powers to ban anything unless there has been genuinely bad behaviour, at

The reopened V&A Cast Courts are a fabulous spectacle of Victorian theft and reverence

The great municipal museums are products of the 19th-century imagination, evidence of lofty ambitions and cringe-making limitations. They are exact contemporaries of department stores: the whole world acquired, catalogued, labelled, displayed and inspected. Only at the moment of consumer interaction do they differ. In a department store, everything is for sale. In a museum, everything is for edification. The V&A is the most complete example. From the beginning it had populist and didactic intentions: collecting photographs began in the 1850s. There was a campaigning instinct: its exhibitions worked as Victorian social media, encouraging the public and rebuking manufacturers on questions of ‘taste’. And the magnificent Cast Courts were a database

A fitting exit for the self-publicising Lady Warsi

[audioplayer src=”″ title=”Douglas Murray and Tim Stanley discuss Baroness Warsi’s resignation” startat=462] Listen [/audioplayer]At the impressive Westminster Abbey vigil to mark the centenary of the first world war on Monday night, there was one big candle for each quarter of the Abbey, and one dignitary assigned to each candle. At different points in the service, each dignitary would extinguish his or her candle. Then the rest of us in the relevant area, all equipped with candles, would follow suit. The lamps went out, as it were, all over Europe. One thing niggled. I was in the South Transept, and our big-candle snuffer was Lady Warsi, Minister of State at the

Fifties domestic harmony

Our love affair with the 1950s has been going on for years and shows no sign of abating. Pangolin London, the city arm of the Gloucestershire foundry, has cleverly used the visceral appeal of Fifties design — if ever a period merited the term gay in its original sense, this one does — to show how sculpture can be incorporated into a domestic setting (until 17 May). All too often works of sculpture, whatever their size, are put on pedestals or instinctively relegated outdoors or to public spaces. Sculpture in the Home, inspired by a series of promotional touring shows staged by the Arts Council between 1946 and 1958, closely

The boom in private museums

In the past ten years museums of modern and contemporary art have proliferated around the world. New institutions have appeared in Los Angeles, Venice, Doha and Beijing. Even Camden has seen a burst of activity — the Dairy Art Centre opened in April of this year, spread over the 12,500 sq ft of a former milk depot, with an exhibition of the Swiss artist John Armleder. A similar size space, The David Roberts Art Foundation (Draf), opened last year in a mews near the Mornington Crescent end of Camden High Street. They joined the Zabludowicz Collection, which has been housed in a former Methodist chapel on Prince of Wales Road

Museums in dire straits forced to sell treasure to raise funds

It is a desperate state of affairs when museums and art galleries sell outstanding works of art in order to raise funds. It is even worse, perhaps, when they do so because they no longer want them. Next month, on 5 June, Sotheby’s New York is offering some 25 classical carpets on behalf of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, which includes what the auction house describes as ‘one of the most important and revered carpets in the world’. No one taking the trouble to contemplate the 17th-century Isfahan ‘Clark Sickle-Leaf Carpet’ (right) for more than a minute could fail to be entranced by it, or to recognise

The new Design Museum: Prince Charles will prefer it. But should we?

Twenty-five years ago I went to St James’s Palace to ask the Prince of Wales if he would open the new Design Museum. Before us was the model of the building, an elegant, austere, uncompromised white box that was very much along Bauhaus lines. We knew that ‘modern’ no longer meant ‘of-the-moment’ but had become a period style label. Even at the time we acknowledged the layers of irony in this historicist gesture. The Prince, sounding pained, I recall, asked, ‘Mr Bayley, why has it got a flat roof?’ And that was the end of that. Next time it will be different. The Design Museum is moving from a creatively

Wedgwood Museum: At risk

We are fairly certain that the late Robert Maxwell never met the even later Josiah Wedgwood, but Cap’n Bob’s nefarious legacy is now being keenly felt by Wedgwood’s descendants. For it was in the aftermath of Maxwell’s plundering of the Mirror Group that the Pension Protection Fund was established to compensate pensioners in the wake of insolvency. And now this legislation is being used to asset-strip one of the great museums of England. On the southern edge of Stoke-on-Trent stands the Wedgwood Museum, dedicated to ‘The People Who Have Made Objects of Great Beauty from the Soils of Staffordshire’. A museum that in 2009 won the £100,000 Art Fund Prize