Werner Forman—Treasures of the Celts

A Renewed Interest in this Mysterious and Somewhat Misunderstood People.

Guest post by ASPP member Julian Jackson

This is the fifth in the series of articles by ASPP Member Julian Jackson about Czech-born photographer Werner Forman (1921-2010), who spent his life travelling the globe photographing ancient artifacts, art and cultural heritage, as well as breath-taking landscapes. In 1992, he was in New Zealand photographing the Maori and their homeland.  All images copyright Werner Forman Archive/British Museum, London.

© Werner Forman Archive/British Museum, London.

© Werner Forman Archive/British Museum, London.

With the opening of the latest British Museum exhibition: Celts – Art and Identity there has been renewed interest in this mysterious and somewhat misunderstood people. Their influence remains in Britain, Ireland, and all over Europe, persisting to today, as the British Museum website says, “influencing everything from music and literature to sport and spirituality.”

Werner Forman (1921-2010) photographed many Celtic sites and artifacts for his fine book Celts of the West, co-authored with Venceslas Krupa, and these images, including some of the most outstanding pieces exhibited in the British Museum show are available for licencing from Werner Forman Archive.

© Werner Forman Archive/British Museum, London.

The intricate artworks and designs reveal that the Celts were not a simple, crude, unsophisticated, warlike, “barbarian” race, but a rich and complex culture, with outstanding skills in metalworking and goldsmithing. The view of the Celts as rural ruffians dates back to Greek and Roman authors, who, often making up for their lack of information with fantasy, created a mythology which unfortunately some people still hold. Recent discoveries of treasures and developments in archaeology have given us a clearer picture of this Europe-wide culture and the British Museum exhibition will help shine some light on these fascinating people of the ancient world.

The Celtic peoples of various different areas expressed their shared identity through amazing art, which unlike the mainly figurative work of the Greco-Roman culture, linked abstract forms and mythological animals, which were used on cups and jugs, religious ceremonial items, war gear, and for personal adornment. These designs were rich with hidden meanings, many of which are unfortunately lost to us now. Of course culture is not static. The Roman world and the Celts influenced each other creating “fusion” artifacts with stylistic themes from both cultures.

© Werner Forman Archive/British Museum, London.

The Celts were adept farmers. It has been established that their crop yields, using plants that were adapted to difficult lands, were often three times higher than the Middle Ages. These surpluses allowed them to have a coterie of priests, nobles and specialized art workers who did not need to spend time in the fields.

© Werner Forman Archive/British Museum, London.

Their cultural output encompassed metalwork in bronze and iron, carpentry – for wooden buildings and chariots, pottery and ceramics, as well as jewelsmithing – crafting astonishing creations in gold and silver, such as this torc and gold brooch.

Many of these precious artifacts were for ceremonial or religious purposes. Religion was central to the Celtic world, with a pantheon of gods. As they were a mainly oral culture, virtually no writings have come down to us until Irish monks started to record the legends and stories. This means that there are many gaps in our knowledge about the Celts, which probably will never be filled.

© Werner Forman Archive/British Museum, London.

Werner Forman traveled around the Celtic world, photographing many artifacts, as well as monuments and landscapes in England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany and Spain. He used photography to evoke the lost but dynamic world of the Celts, and we can imaginatively go back in time looking at these images.

All pictures copyright Werner Forman Archive.

Julian Jackson is a writer with extensive experience of picture research, whose main interests include photography and the environment. His website is www.julianjackson.co.uk. He also runs a Picture Research by Distance Learning Course www.picture-research-courses.co.uk. Linked-in profile.

In case you missed them, here are Julian’s previous articles on Werner Forman:

Werner Forman: Adventures in New Zealand, February 25, 2015
Ice Cream Made of Fish, December 23, 2014
Further Adventures of Werner Forman, September 17, 2014
First Travels by Werner Forman, August 11, 2014
Werner Forman Archive Uncovers New Images, July 9, 2014