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Great Works: Leviathan (1651), Abraham Bosse and Thomas Hobbes

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Great Works: Leviathan (1651), Abraham Bosse and Thomas Hobbes

British Museum, London

By Tom Lubbock

Friday, 20 February 2009

English illustration is a strong tradition. There are many books that can hardly be imagined without their images. Edward Lear's nonsense rhymes come with his nonsense drawings, and Beatrix Potter's tales are more than half-told by her watercolours. The world of Lewis Carroll's Alice books is partly the creation of John Tenniel's pictures – and ditto Dickens' Oliver Twist and George Cruikshank's.

William Blake is the supreme joiner of text and image. Meanwhile, there are many less graphic artists who have used their talents to visualise Paradise Lost, The Pilgrim's Progress and Gulliver's Travels. The tradition of English illustration has typically been devoted to the fantastic and visionary.

Yet one of the most fantastical and memorable examples of the tradition isn't connected to a work of imagination. It's found in a famous treatise of political philosophy – on the first page of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan: The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil. This illustration is an Anglo-French work: drawn by a French artist, Abraham Bosse, but designed in collaboration with the philosopher. It shows a giant which represents Hobbes' idea of the absolute state.

The text along the top quotes the Latin Bible, from the Book of Job, and describes the monster Leviathan: "There is no power on earth that can compare with him." The giant wears a crown. He rises above a landscape, and wields a sword and a crozier, emblems of civil and church authority. But his most striking aspect is the way his torso and arms are made up of numerous densely crowded little figures. He is a swarm-man.

The Leviathan giant embodies the answer to Hobbes' great fear, civil war. (He was writing after the English civil war, in exile in France.) The populace agree to surrender all their individual powers. They are incorporated into an undivided, conflict-free body, the all-governing, all-embracing state.

The mass of people is gathered like a congregation. They face inwards, reverently, towards the head of the mortal god, who gazes out. The figures in the multitude are very similar, wearing the same respectable hats and cloaks. They are all male. In other words, they represent the 17th-century franchise – though within that, no class distinctions are registered. The people are equal in their submission.

But this great archetypal image can be seen in numerous ways. See it as a big body packed with little bodies: maybe it was an inspiration to pictures of the Wicker Man. The first one appeared, published by the eccentric English antiquarian Aylett Sammes, 25 years after Leviathan. Or see how the giant's body arises from behind the horizon, out of nowhere. It's the same way that The Colossus emerges beyond the landscape in the painting now de-attributed to Goya. One way or another, fantasy is this picture's destiny.

National Gallery and Tate end row over 1900

Britian's leading public art centres have reached an agreement after a row broke out over the National Gallery's plans for a Picasso exhibition, set to open next week.

 Last Updated: 12:38PM GMT 20 Feb 2009

Defining any period of history is a tricky business, but when it comes to art history, fixing the dates of movements and styles can be especially contentious – with important financial ramifications for museums and galleries.

Next week, the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square opens an exhibition devoted to the work of the Spanish titan of 20th-century art, Picasso. The show is likely to be the hottest ticket in the art world this spring, bringing in substantial revenue for the museum's coffers.

And yet, according to the terms of an agreement thrashed out in 1996, the exhibition encroaches on the territory of the Tate. At that meeting, the heads of both institutions agreed upon a dividing line between the collections. The National Gallery bound itself to not show any art made after 1900, leaving Tate free to cover international art made from the start of the 20th century to the present day.

However, the agreement lapsed in 2007, leaving the NG free to mount shows of modern and contemporary art, hence its decision to bring the touring blockbuster exhibition, Picasso: Challenging the Past, to this country. Tate's director, Sir Nicholas Serota, might be forgiven for feeling piqued by his rival's decision to put on a big Picasso show – after all, in 2002, Tate Modern hosted an important exhibition devoted to those two giants of modern art, Matisse and Picasso.

Last year, however, the new director of the National Gallery, Nicholas Penny, was unrepentant. "The idea is not to have an agreement," he reportedly said in September. "We are not happy with 1900 as a final, absolute point of the end of the National Gallery." You can understand his concern, of course: these days, modern art is big business. And, from a scholarly viewpoint, limiting what you can show to an arbitrary date is highly reductive. Art historians could argue for aeons about the exact year in which Modernism started – and for many of them, 1900 wouldn't be their first choice.

So where does that leave things today? Yesterday, it was announced that a new agreement lasting until 2019 has been reached, reportedly to the satisfaction of both parties. "Following recent discussions, the National Gallery and Tate have agreed that the principles governing the historical boundaries of their two collections, which were put in place in 1996, should continue to apply for another 10 years from 2009," a statement read.

The key point, though, is that the new agreement will have a greater degree of flexibility than the old one: the NG accepts that Tate will continue to acquire 19th-century paintings by artists associated with the 20th century (such as Bonnard and Matisse), and vice versa. "It's a harmonious working out of how we're going to do things from now on," says Thomas Almeroth-Williams of the National Gallery.

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