Marc Chagall’s ‘Apocalypse in Lilac’: Holocaust Memorial Day

Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on January 27th to remember the millions of victims of the Holocaust and other genocides around the world. This blog features pictures by three artists, working in very different styles, who were part of the thriving art scene in Paris before the Nazi era wreaked devastation on Jewish and modernist artists in Europe. Jews were targeted for annihilation under Nazi dogma, and millions of other people also lost their lives due to their nationality, ethnic group, religion, political beliefs, sexual orientation, disability, or because they opposed Nazi rule. All three featured artists had migrated to Paris earlier from Russia and Eastern Europe. Their pictures are included in the current exhibition Out of Chaos at the Laing Art Gallery.

Marc Chagall painted his intensely emotional picture Apocalypse in Lilac, Fantasy in 1945 in response to the news broadcasts of the Holocaust. He was working in exile in America, where he had escaped after the German invasion of Paris in 1940. In his picture, he used traditional Christian imagery to represent the suffering of persecuted Jews. The main image shows a crucified Jewish Christ, with a prayer shawl hanging either side of his body. A Nazi soldier at the foot of the cross looms over tiny figures in scenes of mayhem and persecution.

Chagall, Marc, Apocalypse clockDreamlike imagery was an important element of Chagall’s art, and in this scene he shows an upside-down clock falling from the sky, symbolising the end of the world. Below this, a man clutches a Torah scroll, while a boat full of refugees is among the small figures further down the composition.

Chagall worked in the La Ruche studios in Paris together with many artists from Eastern Europe, including Chaïm Soutine, who died as the result of having to flee the 1940 invasion (see previous blog Chaïm Soutine, misfit artistic genius in 1930s Paris). After the Second World War, Marc Chagall returned to France, but many others did not get that chance. Artists who lost their lives during the war included Polish-born painter Chana Kowalska.

Kowalska, Chana, Shtetl x2

Chana Kowalska painted her picture Shtetl in 1934 in Paris, looking back nostalgically to life in her Polish homeland. The scene shows a traditional Jewish village, a ‘shtetl’, typical of thousands across Eastern Europe before the Second World War. The arrangement of houses facing inwards around the water-pump indicates the tight-knit quality of village life. Kowalska’s painting style drew on the directness and simplicity of folk art. After the German invasion, Chana Kowalska and her husband joined the French Resistance. Tragically, both were arrested and killed.

Lipchitz, Jacques, Study for Between Heaven and Earth

Jacques Lipchitz was one of the group of Jewish artists around Soutine and Chagall working at La Ruche studios. Lipchitz had come to Paris from a part of Russia that is now Lithuania. He also escaped to America following the German invasion, and remained there after the war. Throughout his career, he focused on spiritual themes, and his abstract watercolour represents figures reaching up eagerly towards the dove of peace. His picture was a study for a gigantic sculpture, titled Peace on Earth, which stands at Los Angeles Music Centre.

Pictures: Marc Chagall, Apocalypse in Lilac, Fantasy, 1945; Chana Kowalska, Shetl, 1934; Jacques Lipchitz, Between Heaven and Earth, about 1966: all pictures © The Artist’s Estate, Ben Uri Collection

A Victorian Christmas


Discovery Museum is all decked out for Christmas, and it inspired me to look into some of our most common Christmas traditions and where (and when!)  they came from.

In Britain, our Christmas traditions are so closely linked with the holiday itself that you might think the traditions we practice now have been around as long as the holiday has existed. But most of them have only been here for less than 200 years. Many of us decorate the tree, send cards to loved ones, pull Christmas crackers, and receive gifts from Santa. (If we’ve been good!) These traditions have grown into integral parts of celebrating Christmas, despite being relatively new.

Christmas Trees

Fibre Optic Christmas Tree, Fenwick 2010 TWCMS : 2010.4743.2

Fibre Optic Christmas Tree, Fenwick 2010 TWCMS : 2010.4743.2

The Christmas tree tradition began in England with Prince Albert, when he brought the traditional German ‘Tannenbaum’ to Windsor Castle. An etching of the Royal family celebrating Christmas around the tree was published by Illustrated London News in 1848.

Royal family christmas tree 1848

The Royal family around the Christmas Tree, 1848 © British Library Board. P.P.7611.







Soon every fashionable household had to have one! In the early days, they were decorated with lit candles (a real danger!), natural decorations like pine cones and dried fruit, scraps of ribbon and brightly coloured trinkets, sweets, and small presents like toy soldiers and dolls.


(We at Discovery like getting in on the Christmas tree action too!)






Christmas Cards

Henry Cole Christmas card 1843

Henry Cole Christmas card 1843

The first Christmas card in Britain was designed by John Callcott Horsley in 1843 for Sir Henry Cole (1808-1882). The card depicted a well-to-do family celebrating, and to either side the charities of feeding and clothing the poor.

Late Victorian/Early Edwardian Christmas card TWCMS : 2011.775

Late Victorian/Early Edwardian Christmas card TWCMS : 2011.775

(Charity by the better-off for the less fortunate is another Christmas tradition that comes from the Victorian period, influenced by Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.)

Horsley’s cards were sold for a shilling, putting them out of the price range of the poorer Victorian. But the sentiment was picked up quickly, and children were encouraged to make their own Christmas cards.

Late Victorian/Early Edwardian Christmas card TWCMS : 2011.775

Late Victorian/Early Edwardian Christmas card TWCMS : 2011.775



By the 1880s, sending Christmas cards was extremely popular, with 11.5 million cards produced in 1880 alone. The reduction of postage from one penny (introduced in 1840) to a halfpenny (1870) meant that even more Victorians could participate in this Christmas tradition.




Christmas Crackers

Box of Christmas Crackers circa 1957/58 TWCMS : 2007.3942

Box of Christmas Crackers circa 1957/58 TWCMS : 2007.3942

Christmas crackers were invented by Thomas Smith, a London confectioner, in 1848. He had seen Paris confectioners sell bonbons (sugared almonds) wrapped in twists of paper. He came up with the idea of a Christmas cracker, a package filled with sweets that snapped when pulled apart. It is said that the snap was inspired by the sound of logs crackling in the fire. The sweets were replaced by small gifts and paper hats in the late Victorian period.

Box of Christmas Crackers circa 1957/58 TWCMS : 2007.3942

Box of Christmas Crackers circa 1957/58 TWCMS : 2007.3942








Santa Claus

Late Victorian/Early Edwardian cut out of Santa Claus TWCMS : 2011.775

Late Victorian/Early Edwardian cut out of Santa Claus TWCMS : 2011.775

The image of Santa Claus, as we know him today, took shape in the Victorian period. The image is an amalgam of multiple characters.

Father Christmas is traditionally part of the old English midwinter festival, he dressed all in green and signaled the turn of the year and return of spring.

Sinterklaas originated in Holland, inspired by Saint Nicholas, and became known as Santa Claus in the 1870s in Britain. It is from Sinterklaas that Santa got his reindeer and sleigh and penchant for delivering presents.

Thomas Nast Santa illustration 1881

Thomas Nast Santa illustration 1881

In 1881 the American Thomas Nast created a drawing of Santa Claus that heavily influenced the modern image of Santa Claus. This accompanied Clement Clarke Moore’s poem ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’, generally known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’- “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house/ not a creature was stirring not even a mouse.”


Boxing Day

Now it might seem like Boxing Day has always been a tradition- to recover from celebrating and eat all the Christmas dinner leftovers, but Boxing Day is a surprisingly recent celebration.

Carl Larsson. "Ett hem åt solsidan"

Maid serving at the Christmas dinner table
Carl Larsson. “Ett hem åt solsidan”

Originally, Boxing Day was the day that the servants and working class opened boxes (hence the name) of gifts of money given by wealthier Victorians. It was sometimes given as a day off, because in Victorian times servants and workers were expected to be in to cater for wealthier people over Christmas.

What other Christmas traditions do you have that come from other places and times? What are you favourites?

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Discovery Museum!

The Great Frost of 1784, Newcastle upon Tyne

H18496 Great FrostIn March 1784, Newcastle was still gripped by the frost and ice of an exceptionally hard winter. The frost and snow was so bad, said local historian John Sykes in 1824, that ‘the Tyne was three times frozen over in one winter, a circumstance never before remembered by the oldest person living’. Despite the unseasonable weather, however, a pair of crows returned to a previous nesting site on top of the spire of the old Exchange, visible on the right of this view (more of the crows later). The bizarre combination of an ice-bound River Tyne in March with birds attempting to nest in such an ambitious location captured the attention of the anonymous painter of this view. Admittedly rather naïve in style, the picture is nevertheless an interesting record of Newcastle at an early date.

On the left is the Tyne Bridge, which had opened 3 years earlier, in 1781. It replaced an earlier bridge that had been swept away in floods. The rectangular block of the castle keep is surrounded by a dirty haze of smoke from the coal fires of the houses. St Nicholas Church (not yet a Cathedral) is in the centre of the scene.

The Great Frost of the winter of 1783-4 affected all of Britain, and the months from January to April were especially cold. Even the River Thames at London froze in February 1784. The big freeze was linked to the massive eruption of volcano Laki in Iceland, which took place over eight months from June 1783. It put a fog of ash and sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere over Europe, poisoning outdoor workers. Iceland is estimated to have lost 25% of the population from toxic gas clouds and famine. In the UK, the build-up of sulphur dioxide in the atmosphere towards the end of 1783 blocked the heat of the sun and caused the most severe winter for more than 200 years, which is thought to have resulted in 8,000 additional deaths.

H18496 Great Frost keelIn Newcastle, the Great Frost meant that coal keels had to be unloaded across the ice.

H18496 Great Frost menH18496 Great Frost womenIn the picture of the Great Frost, one man tumbles over, but several gentlemen are taking the opportunity to skate around on the frozen river. Some women have come down to collect water from a hole in the ice, and we can see how thick the ice is. A red shawl over bare arms doesn’t seem adequate protection against the icy cold.

H18496 Great Frost exchange detailIn this detail from the painting, the main part of the old Exchange is in the centre, with its tower and spire on the right. And right at the top of the spire is a crow’s nest. The painting is inscribed ‘12 o Clock Mar 1784’.

TWCMS_J9323 bewick exchange steeple 1783Newcastle historian John Brand, writing in 1788, described how the nest was, ‘above the weather-cock, on the very top of this steeple, in a truly singular situation, as the nest shifted about with every change in the wind’. This little engraving records the birds’ successful nesting in March 1783. However, the cold of the Great Frost of 1784 meant that birds were competing for scarce materials, and Brand said that other crows attacked the nest and ‘pulled it apart before it was finished’.

TWCMS_D4833 Edwards Exchange 1789aThis is the view of the Exchange and its tower from the town side. This print, from a drawing by Edward Edwards, was published in 1789 in John Brand’s The History and Antiquities of …. Newcastle, and shows the nest on the steeple (crows had continued to use the precarious nest site, said Brand). The building, designed by Robert Trollope, mixed Italian Renaissance and Gothic styles, and was built in 1655-58, replacing an earlier building. On the right, we can see the open arches of the Exchange, where corn was bought and sold wholesale. The Guildhall and law court was on the upper floor, along with the tax office and town archives.

H18496 Great Frost exchange detail 2The painting of the Great Frost seems to be one of the best images we have of the appearance of the river frontage of the old Exchange, confirmed by a print published in 1807, illustrated below. However, at the time of the painting of the Great Frost, the Exchange was about to undergo considerable change. Both the steeple and its tower were pulled down in 1796.

TWCMS_H7436 Exchange & quayside 1807(The prints in this blog and the painting show that John Brand got the river and town frontages of the building confused when he was describing the large window with swirling decoration and balcony, a mistake repeated by Eneas Mackenzie in his history.)

TWCMS_B6661Carmichael guildhall detailTWCMS_B6661 Carmichael resizedThen, in 1809, the riverside frontage of the old Exchange and Guildhall was remodelled with stone facing in a Classical style (the town side had already been redesigned). A small bell lantern on the roof took the place of the demolished tower. At the east end (on the right), a curved portico of pillars, designed by John Dobson, was added in 1823 to make a new fish market. Some other buildings were cleared away to open up access to the quayside from the town. Eneas Makenzie describes the changes in his Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, published in 1827. This picture detail showing the Guildhall is from John Wilson Carmichael’s View of Newcastle upon Tyne from around 1827 (the angle of view is slightly different from the watercolour view of the Great Frost, so St Nicholas’ Church seems be behind the Guildhall). Carmichael’s impressive painting is on show in Northern Spirit on the ground floor of the Laing Art Gallery.

The painting of the Great Frost is part of a display of snowy views in the All About Area at the Gallery, on until Sunday 19 March 2017. The Laing Art Gallery’s Learning team is running several hands-on workshops for schools, inspired by the snowy scenes and the artists’ varied techniques (details on the Laing website).

References: A Chronology of Notable Weather Events by Douglas V. Hoyt; Wikipedia: Laki volcanic fissure; “The eruption that changed Iceland forever”. BBC News. April 16, 2010“When a killer cloud hit Britain”. BBC News. January 2007: British History Online: Historical Account of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne Including the Borough of Gateshead, by Eneas Mackenzie, originally published by Mackenzie and Dent, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1827;  The History and Antiquities of the Town and Country of the Town of Newcastle… by John Brand, London, 1789.University of Oxford Text Archive; Local Records: Or, Historical Register of Remarkable Events, Which Have Occurred In Northumberland And Durham Newcastle Upon Tyne And Berwick Upon Tweed, by John Sykes, vol. 1, new edition, 1833, Googlebooks.

Showcase Shows Case for Paterson Pavilion

Model open structure with blocksand vertical uprights supporting a roof of crossbeams against blue background

And the winner…

…of the Hatton Showcase: Design For A Touring Pavilion 2017…


Oh get on with it

….Toby Paterson!

Cue shot of tearful artist receiving the crown and a kiss from last year’s winner before teetering down the catwalk to embark upon a year-long programme of travelling the world to spread peace, love and harmony (and if time, defeat the forces of Evil and Injustice).

OK, the announcement was a bit more restrained than that (we put it on the website). However it did necessitate Paterson attending a press conference and fielding questions from the artistically cerebral to the frankly just plain odd (‘What would you like on your gravestone?’), which unsurprisingly did stump him somewhat (although my personal favourite is ‘Well this sucks’).

Showcase is an external art installation designed to promote the Hatton during its closure, and will be located outside various Newcastle and Gateshead cultural venues from March to August 2017. An initial open call to artists resulted in three proposals being shortlisted, with Paterson’s being selected following an exhibition at the Laing that featured his design along with those of local artist Catrin Huber and a joint submission by Harriet Sutcliffe and Jack Mutton.

Paterson’s winning entry has had to tick a range of boxes: reference the Hatton’s collection and history, contain an interactive element to engage visitors and stand up as an art installation in its own right. And all this while being robust enough to cope with six months of touring, constant exposure to the elements and unsupervised visitor response, or what Paterson refers to as being ‘Friday-night proof’.

One feature of his proposal was the work of Victor Pasmore, artist and Head of Painting at Newcastle University from 1954-1961, in particular his design for the Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee in 1969:

External photo of large abstract building consisting of concrete blocks , set across a pond in a setting of open grass area and surrounding houses

Apollo Pavilion, Peterlee – Victor Pasmore, 1969 (image courtesy of Picnicin, Wikimedia Commons)

Left: Apollo Pavilion – Victor Pasmore, 1969 (image Right: Model for Hatton Showcase Pavilion – Toby Paterson, 2016

Left: Apollo Pavilion – Victor Pasmore, 1969 (image Right: Model for Hatton Showcase Pavilion – Toby Paterson, 2016

Paterson first saw the Apollo when he visited the site in 1998 and views Pasmore as one of the major figures of British abstract art: ‘He’s right up there in my top five. He constantly challenged himself, completely upending the way he was working and we don’t give him enough credit for that.’ The design for Showcase features concrete blocks (‘a little nod to Pasmore’s Pavilion’) and steel uprights, which Paterson is confident should be sturdy enough to ‘stop the shenanigans’.

Since graduating from the Glasgow School of Art in 1995, Paterson’s creations have included several outdoor installations:

External photo of large light-blue abstract structure sitting on grassed areas with London Twoer Bridge in backcround

Powder Blue Orthogonal Pavilion – Toby Paterson, 2008 (image courtesy of artist)

External photo of large abstract structure comprising stone walls within metal framework set in grassy parkland with trees in background

Resetting – Toby Paterson, 2013 (image courtesy of artist)

External photo of abstract large light-blue structure set on top of hill overlooking town with church steeple prominent

Points of Contact – Toby Paterson, 2014-2016 (image courtesy of artist)

‘I like people to interact with the works… Pasmore’s Pavilion was very consciously functional and while my Powder Blue Pavilion didn’t appear to be anything specific, I was there once when it was sunny and some kids had been playing in the fountains nearby – their mums had hung their t-shirts on the structure to dry and I thought “Yes! We did it!”’.

Another way Paterson hopes visitors will engage with Showcase is through a display of replica posters for Hatton exhibitions dating back to the sixties: ‘It’s a very visible connection with the gallery’s history and collection, and because we’ll be changing them every few days, hopefully people will keep coming back’.

Model open structure with blocksand vertical uprights supporting a roof of crossbeams against blue background - also displaying several small posters within model

Model of Hatton Showcase Pavilion by Toby Paterson, 2016

While delighted to win the Showcase commission, Paterson now has to deal with the many challenges of turning his concept into a full-scale touring installation: ‘At the moment we’re between “Great we get to do this!” and “Oh, how are we going to do this?”. But problems can force you to be more creative – there’s nothing more terrifying for an artist than having complete freedom to do whatever you want’.

Mid-shot photo of male, slim, red hair, grey sweater and wearing blue tartan scarf against grey background

Toby Paterson ( Photo by Johan Nieuwenhuize)

The Hatton Gallery Capital development is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Singing Sands of the Northumberland Coast

Several years ago while cataloguing material in the Hancock Museum rock collection I came across some packets of sand. They didn’t contain a great deal of information apart from the localities that the sand had been collected from – the Libyan Desert, Biarritz, Cote des Basques beach and Tasmania, Binnalong Bay, to name but three. Some samples were gathered much closer to home, from beaches at Holy Island (Lindisfarne), Druridge Bay and Alnmouth. Intriguing notes such as ‘Singing sand (Blyth D: sang on beach)’ provided tantalising clues as to the origins of the collection, but I was too busy to dig deeper.

Object number:  NEWHM : 2005.H1374

Sample of Singing Sand from Australia. Object number:  NEWHM : 2005.H1374

Object number:  NEWHM : 2005.H1322

Sample of Singing Sand from Japan. Object number:  NEWHM : 2005.H1322

Several months later a retired researcher contacted me about our ‘Singing Sand’ collection. Putting two and two together, the packets of sand started to make sense. A little online research revealed a series of publications dating from the 1960s that summarised the findings of a musical sand research project at King’s College (Newcastle upon Tyne).

MUSICAL SAND Part 1: The Singing Sands of the Seashore.

MUSICAL SAND: The Singing Sands of the Seashore, Part 1

In the 1960s, inspired by a passage from the ‘Cruise of the Betsy’ (published in 1858), a project aiming to provide an explanation for the singing sands phenomenon was embarked upon by a group of Newcastle-based academics. The starting point was a geological investigation to examine the physical properties of the sand grains – sphericity, absence of dust on the surface of the grains and uniformity of grain-size. It was concluded that dry beach sand would not sing in the absence of any one of these conditions. Acoustic experiments were also conducted in the laboratory, sound being produced by striking the sand with a pestle.

Intrigued by these findings, working with Tim Shaw of Newcastle University in the spirit of preliminary creative research to inform a potentially larger piece of work that is still being considered, we are hoping to make audio recordings on local beaches where the sand has been reported to sing.

I’m already planning a Summer break on Eigg, in anticipation of hearing the famous Singing Sands on the north coast of the island.

Druridge Bay, Northumberland

More information about singing sand in the collection can be found at: