What does the term ‘civilisation’ mean to you?
This was the question posed to us when we accepted the challenge of participating in BBC Civilisations in Spring 2018. There was really only one answer that came to mind …
civilisation is leather.
BBC Civilisations is a nine-part series, hosted by Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga to celebrate Kenneth Clark’s iconic 1969 series. It will explore how the arts hold the key to understanding ourselves. All are ingredients deemed essential for ‘civilisation’. The original series was groundbreaking, as relevant today as it was almost half a century ago.
From the 2nd – 11th of March 2018, the BBC are taking Civilisations worldwide and into UK museums, galleries and libraries. The festival will be a showcase of art and culture, telling the story of civilisations from around the world.
It was only natural that the National Leather Collection should be involved in this exciting celebration of arts and humanities. Our museum has a collection of 10,000 objects, spanning two millennia, which tell the world story of leather from prehistory to present day. The items vary from artefacts of religious and cultural significance, to art and fashion pieces. All tell tales of different civilisations and demonstrate different concepts of civility.
There is an undeniable correlation between the development of civilisation and leather.
Leather tanning is one of the oldest, human activities. Skins obtained through hunting were used for clothing and shelter. Animal fats were added to prevent the skins from rotting, and to maintain flexibility in the first rudimentary experiments. An early process of tanning is documented in the 8th Century BC, in Homer’s Iliad: ‘As when some master tanner/ gives his crews the hide of a large bull for stretching,/ the beast’s skin soaked in grease and the men grab hold,/ bracing round in a broad circle, tugging, stretching hard’ (17:450-453). According to Virgil, Dido founded Carthage using naught but her wit and a bull’s hide.
Throughout history wherever humans have inhabited, we find leather.
Greek and Roman soldiers used leather as protective armour. The most sacred of religious texts and ancient histories survived on vellum. Leather buckets and hoses put out fires, saving lives and houses. Leather belts literally turned the gears of the industrial revolution and mechanised our country. Around seventy million pairs of leather boots marched with our soldiers to victory in the First World War. Even today, leather still adorns our feet, covers our backs, holds our belongings.
In the words of our founder, John Waterer, ‘leather is everywhere’. It is utilitarian, and it is luxurious. Our collection boasts chairs and chests belonging to kings and queens, beautifully ornamental panels of gilt Spanish leather, illuminated manuscripts written on vellum. Then there’s the everyday; rough, rawhide Aran Island shoes, flints for de-fleshing, drinking vessels and belts.
It is testament to the strength and durability of the material that so many leather artefacts have survived the toughest tests of time, and are able to continue telling their stories for generations to come. Leather has outlasted the rise and fall of civilisations; it has evolved alongside and continues to inspire, to be relevant. Leather has endured.
There is no better expression of civilisation than leather.
The National Leather Collection will be hosting an exhibition inspired by the BBC Civilisations Festival from the the 5th – 9th March. “Civilisation & Leather” will tell the story of mankind’s relationship with leather, from prehistory to present day. Come on a journey with us and discover the history of leather, from Theban underpants to contemporary art. For more information on Civilisations & Leather.