Behind the Headlines

Facts, context and comment about issues in the media | 17 Dec 10

How the Bate's instruments of torture split the media

Andy Lamb, Museum Manager at the Bate Collection of Musical Instruments, based in the Music Faculty on St Aldate’s, installed a particularly creative exhibition in October 2010. The exhibition drew the attention of arts correspondents at The Times and the BBC - but also whet the appetite of a Guardian humour columnist.

Inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting The Garden of Earthly Delights and keen to show off the Bate’s extensive collection of replica instruments, Andy Lamb decided to create a three dimensional version of Bosch’s depiction of hell, bringing to life the musical instruments used to torture the damned in the triptych. Andy, a specialist instrument maker, experimented with designs based on Bosch’s drawings but found that none of the instruments made sounds that were at all melodious to the human ear. ‘Bate exhibits Bosch’s musical instruments of torture’, read the story on the University news pages. Andy Lamb and Richard MacKenzie, a third year Music student and renowned lute player, did their best, as audio recordings on The Times’ website of Andy playing a shawm and Richard playing a lute demonstrate. In an article in the paper version of The Times and interviews with BBC World Service and BBC Radio Scotland, Andy explained the exhibition further.

That weekend, Andy noticed an increase in visitor numbers at the Bate Collection, as visitors flocked to ‘see what the fuss is about.’ It quickly transpired, though, that the reason for the attention did not seem to have been the piece in The Times. In fact, that article caught the imagination of a Guardian columnist, who wrote an hilarious analysis of the exhibition.

“Hmm”, wrote Sam Leith. “You do find yourself thinking, as you look again at that fantastical masterpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights ... was there anything elsewhere in Bosch's triptych that might have given them some indication that its subjects weren't exactly drawn from life? Was there some little clue lurking? Something like the giant blue bird-monster wearing a cooking pot as a hat – and chewing the head off a man with a flock of pigeons flying out of his bum? Maybe that, perhaps? Or the mermaids? Could the mermaids have tipped them off? Or the gigantic pair of cauliflower ears with a huge knife sticking out of them?”

A funny critique, although with Andy due to make a speech to the Early Music Society next weekend, he couldn’t help but worry the joke might soon be on him.

In fact, setting aside some of the more surreal elements of the painting to which Sam Leith referred, Bosch does seem to have made a deliberate attempt to depict actual musical instruments. “There was a great tradition in Renaissance art of painting musical instruments,” Andy told Jack Malvern, The Times’ respected Arts correspondent. “Raphael, in his painting of The Ecstasy of St Cecilia, surrounds her with broken instruments to represent discord. They are utterly convincing as musical instruments.” To give an example from this particular painting, the trumpet is very similar to those in a manuscript in Lambeth Palace showing trumpeters accompanying Richard II to a tournament, which would have been available to Bosch.

The contrasting Times and Guardian articles also demonstrate why historically-informed performance is now on the national curriculum. It takes a certain type of exhibition to provide material not only for an interesting, straightforward arts article but also humour column-fodder. It is the enjoyment and understanding derived from playing and listening to music which also helps to capture the imagination of children. The Bate Collection welcomes thousands of children each year on school visits, where they have the chance to see, hear and, if they are lucky, play some historic period instruments. The new audio guide installed by the Bate Collection in July, which plays tunes recorded from the instruments on display in the museum, has made this easier than ever.

It’s often said that today’s newspapers are tomorrow’s fish and chip wrapping but, although the media spotlight has moved on from the Bate, the exhibition still takes pride of place at the Collection. The tunes played by Andy Lamb and Richard MacKenzie will soon be uploaded to the audio guide and can be heard at the original news story, but Bosch’s ‘instruments of torture’ do not sound pleasant – you can't say you haven't been warned.