The Romans in Britain: Art
Created | Updated Jul 16, 2013
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The Celts had their own artistic style. To some extent this was swallowed up by the Roman form after their invasion, but Roman artistic influence had been creeping in for a long time. Some Celtic ideas were incorporated into what is called Romano-British art, especially when it was created by British or Gallic craftsmen.
There were several styles of Celtic art from different periods, but they were broadly similar. Generally speaking, they avoided direct representation, especially of the human form. Celtic art was usually abstract: rarely using straight lines and preferring curved, twirling, intertwining shapes - sometimes of astonishing complexity. The Celts could also produce fine sculpture.
The Celtic style could also be seen in detailed metalwork and jewellery. Sometimes the jewellers used enamel as a decoration, to add colour. Torcs1 are probably the best-known example. Rich Celts, including the famous Boudicca, wore these heavy bands around their necks as a symbol of status.
In contrast to Celtic art, Roman artists were more representational: producing art showing real things, rather than abstract patterns like the Celts. They often showed the human figure and were more realistic than the Celts when they did so. They produced wall paintings using dyes such as woad or charcoal, which were painted on once the wall had been plastered. Occasionally they also used gold leaf to increase the spectacle, and sometimes they painted scenes from mythology.
Roman art can also be seen in sculpture, such as tombstones. The makers of jewellery were highly skilled. Such items were very detailed and also practical - sometimes carved designs were set in rings to be used as a seal. In addition, there was metalwork, such as decorative dishes.
Art of the period that combined both Celtic and Roman features is known as Romano-British. The finest examples are in sculpture. This was commonplace and used for various purposes including tombstones, statues of deities and rulers, and also for decorative features. Romano-British sculpture generally has a two-dimensional posing figure looking at the viewer. It has great detail to display texture and form when showing hair and cloth, the facility to contrast light and dark effectively and the ability to show faces accurately.
It was not unknown for a classically trained master to teach the art to a Celtic pupil, mixing the two styles further. Many British craftsmen would copy designs and detailing from a 'copy-book' giving examples from Classical art. In fact, these copy-books were common throughout the Empire.
One of the most famous and widespread arts that was practised in Roman Britain was mosaic-making. Mosaics could be bought 'off the shelf', as it were, by visiting mosaic shops that were located in most large towns. These standard designs would probably be preferred by slightly less wealthy customers (though still well-off - mosaics were expensive), with the most affluent going for individual designs. Mosaics were usually put in the most important room of the house or villa, as they were a feature of the building and were an important talking point and sign of status.
An artist would discuss with the customer what sort of design they wanted and sketch some rough ideas. They would consider style, colour and design and the final ideas would be given to the craftsmen - although it was likely that more changes would need to be made. The craftsman's assistant usually had the tedious job of producing the individual tiles known as tesserae. When the mosaic came to be laid, a hole was dug in the floor, filled with compacted rubble and covered with a layer of cement. The tesserae would be laid over this. Some pieces, such as geometric patterns, could be prefabricated. The apprentices would lay these and then be put to work on simpler sections such as borders, while the master worked on the more complex areas.
Other Entries in the h2g2 Roman's in Britain Series
A Brief History | Minerals | Pottery | Trade and Travel | Agriculture | Art | Trade and Travel | Towns and Villas | The Army | Forts and Fortresses