By Weiao Xing (@WeiaoX)
In early January 2020, a newsletter disclosed an unknown pneumonia spreading through Wuhan, China.[i] This understated report failed to lade me with extreme anxiety on an otherwise ordinary day in Cambridge. Many of my peers did not anticipate any interruption to our annual schedule of international trips, but lockdowns and travel restrictions were looming. The infectious virus, later named as COVID-19, fermented an ongoing crisis that enveloped the world within months. It marks an unusual epoch when the globalised world has suddenly become suspended with immobility.
By Mobeen Hussain (@amhuss27)
The sari as national dress was contested across the early twentieth century as people imagined visions of postcolonial national futurity. Amongst Indian Muslims, many scholars have identified an Islamisation in dress reform from the late nineteenth century. National, religious, regional and transnational modalities ceded into dress debates within various Urdu periodicals read by cross-religious Urdu reading publics. Women’s magazines also discussed local and transnational shifts in conflicting identifications of a unifying mulki [national] or qaumi [community] dress. This comportment project emerged long before a separate nation for Muslims became a viable reality. In 1927, an Ismat article entitled “Hamari Labaas” (Our Clothing) was written in response to a 1926 article on Muslim women’s clothing by male author, Mohammad Zafar. The disgruntled Hamshir Nalwar from South India contested Zafar’s assertion of the superiority of pajama dupatta [trousers and veil] over saris. According to Zafar, saris displayed the nakedness of the body. Nalwar, in contrast, states that Muslim women tie their saris in a different way to Brahmin (high-caste) women so that they remain identifiable from Hindus through wrapping techniques and supplementary clothing items such as jackets, sari corners [anchal] and skirts [lengha]. In doing so, she exalts southern regionality over religion in observing dress customs. This response questions the homogenous construction of a “qaumi Muslim labaas” [national Muslim dress] and reminds us of the distinct junctures of race and class between northern and southern India. Reformers discussing “qaumi Muslim labaas” variously cited Islamic sources of authority (Quran and the Sunnah), questioned the sari’s regional popularity in east Bengal and drew on localised connections across the Indian Ocean (Burma, Malaya and Jeddah) to argue that different Muslim communities had their own dress. Others looked beyond the distinction of saris and shalwars [trousers] to argue that dress was “qaumi” if it was comfortable, modest, simple, and economical [iqtisadi] and “pak saaf” [ritually pure and clean]. This simpler, purer choice was actually very similar to the gendered elements of dress reform advocated by Hindu reformers.
Image: Ravi Varma, “Woman holding a fan” (c.1895- 1900), this work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas.
 The Lahore Resolution of the Muslim League in 1940 formally advocated the establishment of a separate homeland for Muslims.
By George Pliotis (@gpliotis)
How do we picture ancient Romans? In the case of Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c.4BC-65AD), eminent littérateur and statesman of his day, we have no contemporary depiction; but something about this bust (which most likely dates to the Hellenistic period) has made it a persistently popular visualisation since the end of the 16th century.
The story seems to have begun with the Italian antiquarian Fulvio Orsini, who included an image of the bust in his 1598 Imagines Illustrium and, despite its lack of authentic inscription, christened it “Seneca”. His justification was that the figure resembled an image in a Roman contorniate (a kind of medallion) that allegedly bore an inscription of Seneca’s name. However, no record of that contorniate remains. We may therefore suspect that Orsini’s (mis)identification was a consequence of the way the bust manifests an appealing image of Seneca: beyond resembling the “senile body” mentioned by Tacitus, this elderly, ascetic figure, haggard but still possessing an intense gaze, capures much of what we want to see when we read Seneca — the sexagenerian castigator of vice, exhorter to the life of Stoic simplicity, and sage counsel to the wayward emperor Nero.
Such idealisations are hard to shrug. Today, Seneca has proved a popular figure amid interest in mindfulness and self-help, often presented as a voice of ancient wisdom in a way that takes us back to the wizened look of this “Pseudo-Seneca”: not for nothing will you still find that very image attached to his name. “False” or not, it is an image that’ll be with us for some time.
Campbell R. (ed., tr.), Seneca: Letters from a Stoic (Penguin: 2004).
Strandman, B., “The Pseudo-Seneca Problem”, Konsthistorisk tindskrift/ Journal of Art History 19.1-4 (1950), pp.53-93.
Image: Courtesy of the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Faculty of Classics, Cambridge: https://museum.classics.cam.ac.uk/collections/casts/seneca-so-called.
By Tamara Fernando (@TamaraFernando3)
Before the 1920s, visual renderings of the seafloor largely relied on drawings and engravings. This was true even in places where bodies routinely inhabited the underwater, such as the pearl fisheries of Ceylon. Here, photography did play a role: on the shore and on the decks of colonial steamers, British administrators and elite local and European visitors used photography as a tool of art, surveillance, documentation and science.
In the early twentieth century, Ceylon was a laboratory for the biology of the tropical seas. This photograph here, for instance, was made over the course of a of a Royal Society sponsored investigation into the conditions of the fisheries. In one trawl-netting exercise to deduce which fish fed on pearl-bearing oysters, a suckerfish or remora was brought up. The diver in the photograph is unnamed, and the composition is staged, with the fish placed deliberately on the man’s back to attest to its suction-generating maw. The image is a testament to both direct and indirect violence wrought under colonialism on environments and bodies. But it also invokes a space between the sea and land: a fish out of water, a body that was often submerged within it; a place within photography’s reach which gestured also at spaces that—at this point in time—still lay beyond it.
Image credits: Report to the Government of Ceylon on the Pearl Oyster Fisheries in the Gulf of Mannar (London, 1903), vol. I, 65.
By Stephanie Brown (@StephEmmaBrown)
This axe can now be found at the National Museum of Iceland in Reykjavik. It was used on 12 January 1830, to execute Agnes Magnúsdóttir, a maid, and Friðrik Sigurðsson, a farmhand, for their role in the murders of ‘womanizer’, Natan Ketilsson, and Pétur Jónsson, an unfortunate bystanding victim. The crime took place in 1828 at Natan’s farm, Illugastaðir, where they lived and worked. This was the last execution to be carried out on Icelandic soil. Although, Iceland did not abolish capital punishment until 1928.
By Xinyi Wen (@HPSWarburgian)
Red, umber, carmine, massicot yellow, ultramarine… in a 15×15 inches humble drawer, 63 kinds of pigments constituted a vibrant, colourful world. Each pigment was held in a labelled paper box lining inside the wooden grid, indicating these ingredients’ mobility and their flexibility of spatial arrangement. This drawer, together with other 28 counterparts of seeds, stones, fruits, roots, and animal parts, made up the cabinet of John Francis Vigani (c. 1650–1712), the first Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge.
By Weiao Xing (@WeiaoX)
Basking in the sacred light, the Virgin Mary is greeted by Gabriel in an oriental wooden house ornamented with delicate lines and patterns (fig. 1). This unique Annunciation, as one of the fifteen hybridised images, appeared in a seventeenth-century print for Chinese rosary prayers. Its source version was Evangelicae historiae imagines, which was published in 1593 (fig. 2). The Portuguese prelate João da Rocha (1565–1623) is believed to have ‘translated’ these copperplates into indigenous-inspired woodcuts in Nanjing, a vibrant city in East China. This endeavour was completed in around 1620, after the local persecution of Christians which erupted in 1616 when European missionaries were arrested and repatriated to Macao.
By Miles Kempton (https://www.oocdtp.ac.uk/people/miles-kempton)
This image shows a chimpanzee painting; not an abstract portrait of a chimpanzee, but a painting by one. The artist was Congo (1954-64), a captive chimpanzee at London Zoo who in the late 1950s caused a scientific and artistic sensation with his uncanny aptitude for painting and drawing. Desmond Morris – zoologist, broadcaster, and author of the international bestseller The Naked Ape (1967) – was behind it all. Between 1956 and 1959, he made Congo the subject of a scientific-cum-artistic experiment into ‘the biology of art’. For Morris, Congo’s pictures were not mere ‘random scratchings’ but displayed the ‘germ… of visual patterning’.
By Sakae Gustafson
Sculpture of Sir Isaac Newton (with prism), Trinity College Ante-Chapel. 1755, Louis-Francois Roubiliac (detail)
On 13 November 2009, NASA announced ‘a new chapter in our understanding of the moon’.[ii] The crash of a satellite and the resulting plume of moon dust testified to the presence of water through spectrometry. Originating in Isaac Newton’s paper on Opticks, spectrometry measures the colour of light reflected or absorbed by materials as evidence of their composition.[iii]
By Emily Rhodes (@elrhodes96)
In the early modern era, women had a direct way to contact their king or queen: a petition. Women could and did take their complaints and pleas to the highest authority in the realm. While the petition would go through various secretaries and court officials — such as Gervase Holles, Master of Requests of Charles II, whose entry book lists this petition — the monarch personally had to make the ultimate decision about the lives of even his neediest subjects.
By Anna-Marie Pipalova
This sign, on a house on the main square of Hudcov, a village in the Sudetenland, announces that the house was in the property of Wenzl Pokorny-Renner, landlord. Further signs on the house state that it was the ‘Gasthaus zum Reichsadler’, the Inn of the Imperial Eagle. The continued presence of these German-language signs harks back to the bilingual nature of the Sudetenland before 1946, when its German population (estimated at around three million people) was expelled, and the territory became Czech-speaking.
By Aoife O’Leary McNeice (@aolmcn)
The coast surrounding Cork Harbour is dappled with little holiday cottages. Ivy and gorse break through the flimsy plywood walls of these boxy bungalows, and paint flakes off to reveal the curious industrial origins of these summer homes. These bungalows started life in the Ford Motors Factory, which opened in Cork City in 1919, and manufactured Fordson Tractors.
By Meg Roberts (@megeroberts)
Fancy some Regency-era cheese on toast? By the late eighteenth century, cheese toasters were all the rage among the British upper classes. The six removable trays in this particular toaster from the period could each hold a small slice of toast or bread, topped with cheese. To make the toast, hot water would first be poured into an opening in the stem of the handle until it filled the container underneath the six trays. As the heat quickly permeated the silver plate and copper interior (both excellent heat conductors), it would simultaneously melt the cheese and keep the toast warm.
By Nicole Sithole
This hand-propelled trolley system ran on interconnected rail tracks that skirt the iconic Victoria Falls Hotel in Zimbabwe. Since their debut in 1920, a substantial number of black African men pushed and pulled approximately two million white guests to various scenic points around the Victoria Falls. Plaques displayed under the preserved trolleys, which can be found today in the courtyard of the Victoria Falls Hotel and the National Railways of Zimbabwe Museum in Bulawayo, point out that these trolleys stopped running after “37 years of romantic, yet reliable service”.
By Basil Bowdler (@BasilBowdler)
Playing cards were meant for much more than games in late seventeenth century England. They flourished as a medium for conveying political events and (mis)information. This particular pack, which was illustrated by Francis Barlow, details the ‘Popish Plot’ (1678-81): a fictitious conspiracy alleging that an extensive cabal of Catholics were plotting to assassinate Charles II and place his Catholic brother, James Duke of York, on the throne. The Plot detonated latent anti-Catholic paranoia in Restoration England and resulted in the greatest political crisis of Charles II’s reign. At least 22 alleged plotters were executed – the five of clubs depicts the hanging of five Jesuit priests. The country was brought to the brink of civil war and opposing ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ parties began to crystallise in Parliament.
By William Gaby
Towards the end of a telephone conversation with my grandmother a few weeks ago, I was startled by a surprising revelation. As if a fleeting afterthought, she revealed that her mother had recorded an oral history in the early 2000s. “It was only a very amateur recording – I can’t imagine it would be of any use to you”. Demanding that the transcript be posted immediately, a few days later I sat down to read it. The following sprang off the page: