Byron takes the headlines in this exhibition marking the 200th anniversary of the Greek Revolution of 1821, a story of the long distant echoes of Greek inspiration in Edinburgh, the “Athens of the North”, to which there is far more than the tale of a poet who took on the mantle of a revolution. Containing rare books, letters, prints and paintings, the exhibition, accomanying the appointment of the 12th Leventis Chair, Professor Roderick Beaton, contains works from many prominent 19th century figures – including many Scots - who had an interest in Greece or were fighting for it, from Giovanni Lusieri to Henrietta Liston,Laskarina Bouboulina to Dionysos Solomos.

Greece was, in the 18th century, a land of unknowns to Western Europeans, a dangerous step beyond the fringes of the Grand Tour until its archaeological wonders and evocative ruins were popularised by the work of James “Athenian” Stuart (the son of a Scottish mariner) and Nicholas Revett (a minor nobleman from Suffolk), who catalogued the antiquities of Athens and sparked a “Greek” architectural revolution that populated the hills and landscaped parks of Britain with faux-Classical temples and follies, its stately homes encased in increasingly outrageous pillared porticos, with the publication of their lavish reference work, “The Antiquities of Athens”, on display at the University Library in a lavish folio edition. Running from bandits at Delos, knocking down the odd house that got in the way to fully chart the Greek architectural past, Stuart and Revett fuelled classical educationalists and architects, not least with Stuart's ethnographically romantic and characterful depictions of the diversity of the Greek and Ottoman population he encountered.

It was the people, too, that inspired Byron in the early 19th century. If the Grand Tour crowds strung out through Athens came for the ruins and looked down on the people themselves, Byron was interested in the living Greeks and their language. The poet had got to know Greece under Ottoman rule, when he first came to the country on his own Grand Tour in 1809. Although he left Greece when the Revolution started, he returned in 1823 to join the Greek cause, spending considerable sums in supporting what turned out to be a revolution full of factions. But Byron was not just interested in the Greeks, “He was also very complimentary about Ottoman Turks,” says Curator and Fellow, Dr Alasdair Grant. “He's equivocal in that sense, very much an individualist and a contrarian, although he does come down on the side of Greek independence.”

Travelling to Kefalonia, then on to Missolonghi, Byron eventually died of a fever some 100 days later. “So in a way, he never gets started,” says Grant. “He is elevated as a hero, instantly, because he brings fame of the Greek revolution to a wider Engligh-speaking audience.” Byron's final journal containing his last poem “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year” - a fateful one, for he had been told earlier in his life that it would be a birthday of ill omen – in which he expresses his devotion to the Greek cause, is on display in the exhibition in autography version. “Although the revolution was overwhelmingly fought by Greeks,” says Grant, “Byron comes to embody the Philhelene (lover of Greece) who takes up the cause...”. There are others in the exhibition too, Scots historians who charted the Revolution and other prominent “Philhelenes”.

Some of these contemporaries are covered in the array of documents and books, drawings and prints that are on display in this exhibition, with loans from both Scottish and Greek national institutions, as well as the holdings of the University Library itself. But it is not just ancient or even early modern history. “We wanted to commission an artist to engage in a new and innovative way with the themes we're addressing in this exhibition,” says Grant. Karen Cunningham, chosen from a submissions process, has created a two-part work entitled Parataxis, is created in textile and moving image, “referencing women and their experiences in late Englightenment Edinburgh and in Greece of the time.” The Edinburgh side references the “Edinburgh Seven” - women who were matriculated and studied medicine but were barred from graduating by the male-dominated University – their group name referencing the ancient Greek play “Seven against Thebes”, and on the Greek side, Laskarina Eoulina, “a naval captain in her own right and an active participant on the military side of the revolution,” says Grant. “Cunningham's work looks at the parallels – the moving image work is the textile that Karen has created being gradually unpicked and undone,” he says, a reference to the story in ancient Greek epic, the Odyssey, in which Penelope, long suffering wife of Odysseus, unpicks the shroud she is weaving every night in order to put off the day when she will have to choose from one of the many suitors contesting her hand. “The work concentrates very closely on the threads being unpulled by a hidden hand, a reference to the integral contribution of women...hidden by the historical narrative.”

Edina/Athena: The Greek Revolution and the Athens of the North, 1821–2021 at Edinburgh University Library, until 29 January 2022.

Critic's Choice

Last chance over the next week to catch this immersive installation from Edinburgh Art Collective “And If Not Now”, who comprise composer Philip Pinsky and photographer and film-maker Karen Lomond, in the National Museum of Scotland, timed to run during COP26. Pinsky and Lomond first met some time ago as Youth Members of CND, but began collaborating after an accidental re-meeting on a train to Glasgow some years later. Their onus is on politics and change, but they have worked on a variety of projects from music videos for Pinsky's band, Finitribe, to short film.

“And If Not Now, When?” is an installation, filmed just up the road from the Museum itself, based on the idea of the inherent unfairness of the urban environment, an idea which was underlined during lockdown last year. “Something about lockdown, the freedom to move without danger, to breathe more easily,to see and hear new things, pointed towards a different way of living. This was the inspiration...” says Pinsky. During the lockdown, the noise and bustle and inherent danger of the city street was taken away, which left Pinsky and Lomond – and many of us – wondering what the possibilities were for permanent change. At a time when city traffic now seems more then ever, with people avoiding public transport due to the Covid pandemic, and with many temporary bike lanes in busy areas now removed again, this is a pertinent installation, allowing visitors to directly affect the urban environment by their movement through the installation. This is about the city as a better, more pleasant place in which to live.

And If Not Now, When? National Museum of Scotland, Chambers Street, Edinburgh, 0300 1236789 14 Nov, Daily 10am - 5pm

Don't Miss

Alex Boyd's absorbing and evocative exhibition at Stills runs to the end of next week, a reckoning of the military use that makes up a fair portion of our rural landscape. Tir an Airm (The Land of the Military) is a stark and at times intimate portrait of a largely unseen world beyond those somewhat terrifying red flags, a journey to the parts where walkers fear to tread.

Alex Boyd: Tir an Airm (The Land of the Military), Stills Centre for Photography, 23 Cockburn Street, Edinburgh, 0131 622 6200www.stills.orgUntil 13 Nov Tue—Sat, 12pm—5pm

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