A selection of summer-inspired objects from our collection
We’re celebrating some of the sun-inspired objects and summer scenes in our collection as we enjoy the lighter, warmer days.
Dip into the stories behind these works.
We've been worshipping the sun for centuries. Sun gods and goddesses and the sun itself have inspired and adorned many objects and works of art from East to West since the 14th-century BC. Here you can explore some of the representations in our collections.
One of the earliest documented prehistoric objects, c. 2400–2100 BC
This decorated 5.5cm gold-foil disc was found in 1669 at Ballyshannon, Ireland, by men looking for a place described in an old Irish song where 'a man of a gigantick stature' was buried with gold ornaments. The disc is made of a thin sheet of beaten gold, and has raised decoration (repoussé) of a cross-shape surrounded by circles and geometric patterns.
Objects such as this are known as 'sun-discs' and are one of the earliest forms of sheet gold-work found in Britain and Ireland, dating to around 2500-2100 BC in the Early Bronze Age. Sun-discs may have been worn on clothing. They are often found singly or in pairs in burials.
On display in the European Prehistory gallery.
c. 1345–1335 BC, excavated by William Flinders Petrie
The Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (about 1345–1335 BC), shortly after becoming king of Egypt, broke with the religious and political tradition to focus worship on the sun as a creative force called the Aten.
Changing his name to Akhenaten, ‘He who is beneficial to the Aten’, the king built a new capital city called Akhetaten, ‘The horizon of the Aten’ (now known as Tell el-Amarna), where he lived with his queen, Nefertiti, and their six daughters, who all followed in the devotion of the sun.
The informal theme of palace life at Akhetaten is beautifully conveyed in the so-called ‘Princesses fresco’. This fragment of wall painting is the lower part of a scene depicting Akhenaten and Nefertiti relaxing with their daughters, two of which are sitting casually on floor cushions in the foreground (shown above).
The painting was applied to mud plaster on a brick wall. It was excavated by William Flinders Petrie in the 1890s.
You can see the fresco in the Ancient Egypt gallery.
Built by King Taharqa, c. 680 BC
This imposing and stoic statue was built by King Taharqa, conqueror of Egypt. The Ram represents the powerful god of sun and air Amun-Re, with Taharqa standing below. King Taharqa was the third in the line of Kushite rulers whose power extended from their native Nubia (northern Sudan) to the whole of Egypt, which they ruled as the pharaohs of the 25th Dynasty. Throughout his reign of Egypt Taharqa used the symbolic imagery of Amun-Re to evoke power and strength.
Many depictions of King Taharqa show him with the ram’s head and sun disc, symbolic of Amun-Re, worn as earrings or an amulet around his neck.
The statue usually sits in the Egyptian and Sudan galleries outside the Shrine of King Taharqa in the Ashmolean, the same position it was originally found in. But please note it's presently off display until August 2022.
By Chen Fen, 1881
Chen Fen, the artist of this fan painting, was a specialist in bird-and-flower painting from Panyu, Guangdong province. He was a prominent pupil of the leading Guangdong painter Ju Lian (1828–1904), whose gongbi ‘fine-brush’ painting style is evident here.
Hand-held fans have long been used to keep people cool in Asia. Used particularly in the hot summer months, the paintings on many fans depict summery scenes: plants, insects and water creatures. Rigid fans were used in China from the 2nd century BC, but folding fans made of folded paper braced by thin bamboo sticks are thought to have been developed in Japan and Korea around the 8th century.
Fans were carried by men as well as women, and were used to represent status and social identity. Different types of fans were made for different purposes, whether for court use, for dancing, or for the tea ceremony. With so much significance attached to the fan in Asia, great attention was paid to its decoration.
By Samuel Palmer, 1825
Samuel Palmer's idyllic, pastoral summer scene is inspired by Psalm 65, and the composition is characteristic of Palmer's belief in the munificence of God's bounty. It's one of six sepia drawings made in 1825 – the earliest and most individual expressions of Palmer's unique genius. These visionary works were forgotten until the 1920s, when Palmer's early landscape drawings became the crucial influence for English Neo-Romantics.
The dream-like atmosphere of this haunting drawing is emphasised by the absence of perspective and such details as the disproportionate size of the ears of grain in the foreground.
A talented artist, Samuel Palmer (1805–1881) was exhibiting his work at the Royal Academy when only 14. As a young man he met and became inspired by William Blake’s powerful imagery, derived from the Bible, Milton and Dante. Palmer began to work in the 'visionary' style that was to characterise his art for the next ten years.
This drawing can be seen in the Western Art Print Room, by appointment.
Get closer to Palmer's masterpiece with Dr Caroline Palmer in this mindfulness video
By Pierre-Auguste Renoir, c. 1909–1919
Towards the end of his life, Renoir (1841–1919) painted a large number of still lifes of flowers. These included a series of roses in round bowls. They were painted quickly in oil on canvas, and show the artist making bold experiments with colour and tone, within the confines of a modest composition.
Renoir was one of the leading painters of the Impressionist group. He evolved a technique of broken brushstrokes and used bold combinations of pure complementary colours to capture the light and movement of his landscapes and figure subjects. Following a visit to Italy in 1881 his style changed, becoming more linear and classical.
Aside from being one of the nation's favourite flowers, with blooms that dominate the summer months, the rose has inspired many artists and makers throughout history. If one symbol represents love, power, royalty, beauty, sensuality and mysticism, it's the rose.
On display in the Pissarro gallery.
By Walter Sickert, 1915
In the summer of 1915, the post-Impressionist artist Walter Sickert stayed with his friend Walter Taylor in Brighton. He told Ethel Sands that every night for five weeks he went to draw the troupe of Pierrots on stage.
Immediately after his return to London, he painted this picture of the rather forlorn actors playing to a sparse audience on the sea front. The image evokes the mix of colourful drama, yet atmospheric melancholy of the British seaside in summer.
Brighton Pierrots was immediately sold to Morton Sands, and Sickert painted a second version of the composition for William and Lesley Jowitt (Tate Britain).
On display in the Sickert and his Contemporaries gallery.