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The Last English Style

Gothic: Art for England 1400–1547

Catalog of the exhibition edited by Richard Marks and Paul Williamson
an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, October 9, 2003–January 18, 2004. V&A Publications/Abrams, 496 pp., $75.00

In my childhood one of the first great questions of style that I encountered was the classification of medieval architecture. This was not a matter of marginal curiosity to a child growing up, as I did, in cathedral closes. The learning of church styles was the great key to visual experience. Paintings of any merit I hardly knew till I was in my teens, but architecture of the very highest merit (in Lincoln, Durham, and Lichfield) was there to be seen from the bedroom window. I lived and studied and sang, in choir and congregation, among this architecture.

The education in style was based on a simple and memorable classification. For us in England (and England in this context means England, never Britain), church architecture began with what we invariably called Norman—the style which elsewhere in Europe was known as Romanesque, a word never used by us. What happened before Norman belonged to a kind of prehistory that came under the label Anglo-Saxon (or sometimes, in sculptural or decorative style, Celtic), but Anglo-Saxon architecture was rare and unfamiliar.

After Norman, typified by the rounded arches of Durham Cathedral’s nave, there were the pointed arches of Gothic. Gothic was divided into three periods: Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular, reflecting an increasing elaboration in the detail. Perpendicular, with its relatively flattened arches and its characteristic fan vaulting (as seen in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor, or King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, or the Divinity Schools in Oxford) was to me the most exciting—because the least familiar—of the styles. And after Perpendicular came… nothing.

That is to say, after Perpendicular came the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries, the great iconoclasm that destroyed all religious images it could reach. Because the cathedrals were being subtracted from, rather than added to, the lessons came to an end. What happened in later centuries belonged to a different kind of story, a different part of the syllabus, altogether.

It was a part of the experience of growing up in and around cathedrals that one knew in intimate detail that these were buildings that had lost a major part of their functions. We slept at school in dormitories, but the monks’ dormitories had no monks sleeping in them. No one was eating in the refectories. No one was cooking in the vast old kitchens. No one was singing the offices through the night. The great stone basin at the center of Durham cloisters had once been part of the lavatorium, but nobody washed in it now.

The monasteries had lost their functions and their art. We knew (although it was a surprise to learn it) that much of this architecture had been painted, and we knew that there had been statues everywhere. But the vast majority of the sculptures we now saw were Victorian (and therefore, among most adults I knew, to be despised), and I have already said that paintings of any age or merit were almost nowhere to be found.

I remember being told, in answer to the question which troubled me every time I turned east to sing the creed in Durham, and saw the great empty Neville Screen, that it was believed that the missing statues in this most elegant of Gothic structures had been made of alabaster. Alabaster is a variety of gypsum. When you put it on a bonfire, it turns to plaster of Paris. In the previous century, a large lime deposit had been dug up somewhere near Durham, which was believed to have been the remains of some such bonfire of alabaster objects during the Reformation. As for statues in more durable stone, it is hard to imagine the effort of systematically destroying them; but stone inevitably gets reused over the centuries, and much pre-Reformation sculpture was probably recycled as building materials.

Norman, Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular—these classifications had to have been invented. The catalog of the current London show Gothic, which brings together examples of all the visual arts, sculpture, metalwork, tapestry, embroidery, and so forth, from 1400 to 1547, tells us precisely who invented them and when. They were codified by Thomas Rickman in the early nineteenth century, and first published in 1815, in Liverpool, in James Smith’s The Panorama of Science and Art. This two-volume work turns out to have been an encyclopedia for the industrial revolution. One learns in it about electricity, about the steam engine, about chemistry and astronomy, and about architecture, which is viewed as a science. One learns that there are two principal modes, the first being “the English or Gothic” and the second “the Antique, or Grecian and Roman.”

A little later, Rickman, a Liverpool antiquarian who left medicine and business to become an architect, rejigged his presentation somewhat, in a book that came to be known as Rickman’s Gothic Architecture,1 but in its original form the taxonomy reflects English architectural history as a scholar could have known it from the evidence of his eyes. There was little in England that had survived above ground level from the Roman period—only the gate at Lincoln retained its original use. So the supposition was that Roman architecture in Britain had been a crude and primitive affair. When he embarked on his classification, Rickman knew nothing much about Anglo-Saxon building. His English architecture begins around the time of the Norman Conquest, and ends, exactly as our education in this subject used to end, with the Reformation.

In Rickman’s account, the Perpendicular style does not give way (as one might expect in other countries in Europe) to something known as Renaissance. Rickman was anyway writing decades before the popularization of the idea of the Italian Renaissance. When he looked at the secular architecture that first introduced classical motifs to England, what he saw was something so debased as to amount to a kind of “barbarism.” It is very instructive to see how he passes over the period with a shudder:

The square panelled and mullioned windows, with the wooden panelled roofs and halls, of the great houses of the time of Queen Elizabeth, seem rather a debased English than anything else; but during the reign of her successor [James I], the Italian architecture…began to be introduced, first only in columns of doors and other small parts, and afterwards in larger portions, though still the general style was this debased English. Of this introduction, the most memorable is the celebrated tower of the Schools at Oxford, where, into a building adorned with pinnacles and having mullioned windows, the architect has crowded all the five orders over each other. Some of the works of Inigo Jones are little removed beyond this barbarism.

These then, architecturally speaking, are our dark ages. Perpendicular is, in Rickman’s striking phrase, “the last style.” It appears to have been in use, he tells us,

though much debased, even perhaps as far as to 1630 or 1640, but only in additions. Probably the latest whole building is not later than Henry the VIII. The name clearly designated this style, for the mullions of the windows, the ornamental panelling, &c., run in perpendicular lines…and the richer build- ings are so often crowded with ornament, as to destroy the beauty of the design.2

This last phrase tells us that Rickman was not one of those who believed Perpendicular to represent the apogee of English architecture. He would not have been shocked by John Evelyn, who more than a century earlier wrote scathingly of Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey (one of the masterpieces of Perpendicular) as having “sharp Angles, Jetties, Narrow Lights, lame Statues, Lace and other Cut-work and Crinkle-Crankle.” The opposite view, expressed in the late nineteenth century by the architect John Dando Sedding, is that

The Perpendicular period is the crown and culmination of a long series of effort. It is the harvest-time of all our mediaeval endeavour. For in English Gothic, as in nature, there are three phases of development—first the blade, then the ear [of corn], and afterwards the full corn in the ear.

The Perpendicular, deriving from the French rayonnant style, had its origins in the fourteenth century, and flowered for roughly the period covered by the V&A exhibition (1400 to the death of Henry VIII in 1547; it is represented in the exhibition, perforce, largely through photographs), but it is fair to say that the taste for the Perpendicular never really died. Perhaps it went underground for a little while, but it is interesting that the earliest examples of Gothic Revival architecture are exercises in the Perpendicular, even if (when executed in stucco rather than stone) the fan vaults of eighteenth-century domestic Gothick are decorative applications rather than truly articulated structures. Arbury Hall, where George Eliot’s father worked and which the novelist draws on in Scenes from Clerical Life, is like this. Eliot says of the dining room: “The room seemed less like a place to dine in than a piece of space enclosed for the sake of a beautiful outline.”

Throughout provincial England, Gothic remained the most common style of church architecture, and the masons responsible for the upkeep of these buildings must have kept an understanding of the practicalities of Gothic structures. When the young aspiring artist Benjamin Robert Haydon came up to London from Devon in 1804, he dismounted from his coach in the Strand near what he called the “new church,” which, through a misunderstanding of some directions given, he took to be Somerset House, the home of the Royal Academy, which presented exhibitions by English artists. “Ah!” he thought, “there’s the Exhibition, where I’ll be soon.” His mistake, confusing James Gibbs’s 1714 church of St. Mary-le-Strand with the home of the Royal Academy, he explained in the following way:

Our churches in Devonshire are all Gothic, and the flimsy style of this building, with its gaudy exterior, made me naturally ask what it was. I soon found my lodgings, and when I had washed, dressed and breakfasted, I started off for the Exhibition, creeping along the Strand and feeling much shorter from the height of the houses. I found out the new church. Seeing a man in a cocked hat and a laced cloak, I darted up the steps and offered him money to see the Exhibition! The beadle laughed and pityingly told me where to go.3

Not only had Haydon never seen a classical church before, he failed even to recognize its form as being that of a church. (An American artist, arriving in London in this same period, would by contrast have had no problem in understanding which buildings the London churches were.)

Gothic was never killed off. Not only do Perpendicular structures survive in general use as churches and cathedrals (but not monasteries) to this day. There are also famous buildings from this period which retain their origi-nal designated purpose: St. George’s Chapel in Windsor remains the seat of a chivalric order (the Knights of the Garter), King’s College Chapel in Cambridge remains a college chapel, and many colleges in both Oxford and Cambridge have halls (refectories), chapels, libraries, and cloisters that have never lost their functions.

So the period still lives for us. As one of the more appreciative reviewers of the V&A show pointed out, “It all but matches the coverage of Shakespeare’s history plays.”4 Since that cycle constitutes our English national epic, its characters have a particular reverberation for us. We know Henry V better as a character in Shakespeare than in history, and it is a little hard to decide in what spirit to approach the presence of his funeral “achievements”—the helm, shield, and sword associated with his funeral in Westminster Abbey.

It is also true that the last part of the period saw the birth of a literature we can still understand without translation: earlier poetry may be comprehensible in parts, but the poetry of Thomas Wyatt (1503–1542) is readable as a whole. No drama from the period, however, can be presented on today’s stage without some careful help, including extensive updating or translation.5 This, from the opening of the anonymous The Castle of Perseverance, is what dramatic verse of the early fifteenth century looks like on the page:

Worthy wytys in al this werd wyde,
Be wylde wode wonys and every weye-went,
Precious prinse, prekyd in pride,
Thorwe this propyr pleyne place in pes be ye bent!
Buske you, bolde bachelerys, undyr my baner to a-byde
Where bryth basnetys be bateryd and backys ar shent.
6

This kind of thing makes for an intolerable evening in the theater.

But English music is quite another matter. Thomas Tallis (circa 1505– 1585), composer of the celebrated forty-part motet Spem in Alium, began work under Henry VIII. Much of the surviving music of William Cornyshe (circa 1465–1523) is found in the Eton Choirbook: he wrote music for the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the pageant of 1520. Further back, in the 1470s, we find the name of John Dunstable or Dunstaple (circa 1390–1453) celebrated on the Continent, where his music survives in French and Italian libraries. The most famous tune for the carol “While Shepherds Watched” (the words are much later) is credited to Christopher Tye (circa 1505–1573), whom I was taught in childhood to call the father of English church music.

If Tallis and Tye and, most famous of all, John Taverner, belonged to our regular choral repertoire (having been revived during the High Victorian period, although some of Tallis has always been performed), Cornyshe and Dunstable can easily be heard today. This music is not by any means obscure. A problem does arise, however, if you try to match the names of the musical periods with the architectural periods. In musical parlance, according to a standard dictionary, “the Renaissance period is that between ‘medieval’ and ‘baroque,’ i.e. from early 15th to early 17th cents.”7 But this seems to leave us with an English musical renaissance taking place within late Gothic structures.

Mixed up in the response to the “Gothic” show, some of which has been downright hostile (largely because of the patronizing and pedagogic tone of the presentation), has been an unmissable puzzlement over the entire question of style. How can it be that an object we would unreflectingly call Renaissance—for instance, Holbein’s Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (1526–1528)—gets included under the rubric of Gothic? What are we to think when we find terra-cotta busts by the Italian Pietro Torrigiano in front of a tapestry that certainly looks Gothic in the sense that it is adorned with texts in black-letter script? Torrigiano is from Florence (he is the man credited with breaking Michelangelo’s nose), the tapestry illustrates a theme from Petrarch, and both are associated with the court of Henry VIII. Should we not be using the term “Renaissance”?

Or is it better to dispense with the word, and say that England never had a Renaissance? If architecture and sculpture are seen as the key arts, then we might well say: we never had a Renaissance—we took the Reformation option instead. If poetry and music are taken into consideration, then the story changes.8 But few people, when asked out of the blue to define the term “English Renaissance,” will be quite certain what is implied by it. Labels such as these, however, can prove hard to do without. “Gothic” itself, originally a term of abuse, survived simply by hanging around and making itself useful, whereas a value-free term such as “Pointed” proved misleading.

What we had, before we chose the Reformation option, was this rich Perpendicular, this local and this international Gothic, of which so few artifacts remain. The fragmentary stone heads from the Great Screen at Winchester Cathedral in the show give us an idea of what was lost, for they are (the better examples) strongly individualized and lifelike. The catalog suggests that they must have been carved either from life or from life-casts. (But what about the idea that intermediary models were made in unbaked clay?) The knocking-off of the head was to the iconoclast the first step toward destroying the power of the image, and it is curious that in this case the heads proved more durable than the bodies, not one of which has survived.

The burning of images (as in the burning of the alabaster figures at Durham) had its own superstitious motive, and one might expect alabaster to be among the rarest surviving categories of object. Not so. By far the rarest is English wood sculpture—little of any artistic merit remains. In the show a reclining figure of Jesse, from Abergavenny in Wales, gives an idea of what is missing. But painted alabaster reliefs, carved in Nottingham, were made for export as well as local use, and we find such works throughout Europe, in Iceland, in Norway, and on the Baltic as far east as Kaliningrad, in Spain, Italy, and the former Yugoslavia, but most of all in France—and in France most of all in Normandy.

These high reliefs are typical workshop products. One does not look to them for individual distinction. The best examples, some of which are shown at the V&A, are those which have not weathered or suffered from damp, and which have not been cleaned, for cleaning never improves them. The standard-sized reliefs were massed together in wooden frames to make an altarpiece. Most of those now in England have been bought back from abroad (usually from France). The Coronation of the Virgin from the Barber Institute in Birmingham, unusually large and impressive, was bought from an American collection in 1939. The group of Saint George and the Dragon, lent by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, came previously from a convent in Spain, and is unique in being carved in the round.

Alabaster is a soft material which can be cut with a penknife and smoothed with a rasp. When hardened on contact with the air it takes a polish. It is very amenable. But it is not a material for fine detail, and this school of carving will never command the same admiration as, say, the ivory work made in Paris in an earlier age. But pieces like the Saint George from Washington have a significance for us, as do so many of the items in the show, that is far greater than the individual merit of the item might suggest. For every single work stands for a thousand like it that were destroyed.

Of course we were not alone in suffering from our iconoclasts. Nor was the destruction of our sculpture complete, for we have a wealth of funerary monuments, which during the Reformation did not count as images, being portraits of the nobility. In France, such monuments tended to suffer during the Revolution, a development we managed to avoid. And in most countries in Europe, whether or not they underwent a religious or a political iconoclasm, there will have been some period in which the taste of the times caused the destruction of images we could wish had been saved.

Nearly all old churches have, after centuries of accumulation of ornament and altarpiece, been subjected to some kind of radical spring cleaning—a re-Gothicization in France, a de-Baroquification in Italy. Only rarely does one feel that the ensemble is the result of successive additions without significant subtractions, but when one does encounter this the effect (or illusion) is utterly beguiling, as in the great churches of Kraków. When major works of art are still in place, and when (as in the Santo at Padua) the religious significance of the art still takes precedence over the aesthetic, one gets the impression of an institution still active and vital. Then, if you are English, you get a glimpse of what our cathedrals would have been like—an impression which, for the first Protestant tourists in Catholic Europe, might well have inspired horror at the sight.

That Protestant reaction survives in an indifference to, or active dislike of, the kind of objects still to be found in the treasuries of European churches. As Englishmen, we are never such unreconstructed iconoclasts as when we are looking down our noses at some reliquary, some crystal phial, in expectation of a saint’s bone or toenail or some chipping from the True Cross. Astonishingly rare and precious items of beautiful craftsmanship, such as the Reliquary of the Order of St-Esprit (from around 1400), we prefer not to look at too closely, in case our glance falls on some disgusting, shriveled, venerated thing. But the gold- and silversmith’s work on display at the V&A is enough, on its own, to justify a visit to this engrossing show, for it includes a high proportion of the surviving objects of its kind: the Ape Salt, Warden Hill’s Salt, the Winchester Election Cup, the Howard Grace Cup—there’s a heraldic beauty, a poetry, a sense of their uniqueness in the names alone.

  1. 1

    The first edition was called An Attempt to Discriminate the Styles of English Architecture from the Conquest to the Reformation; preceded by a sketch of the Grecian and Roman Orders…(London, 1817).

  2. 2

    James Smith, The Panorama of Science and Art (Liverpool: Nuttall, Fisher and Co., 1815), Vol. 1, p. 135.

  3. 3

    The Autobiography and Memoirs of Benjamin Robert Haydon, edited by Tom Taylor (London: Peter Davies, 1926), Vol. 1, p. 18.

  4. 4

    Alexander Murray, “Baselard and Spoon,” TLS, October 31, 2003.

  5. 5

    The so-called mystery plays are regularly revived, by both amateurs and professionals, but in translation. The earliest plays in the regular theater repertoire date from the 1580s, including works by Marlowe, Kyd, and Shakespeare.

  6. 6

    Four Morality Plays, edited by Peter Happé (Penguin, 1979), p. 89.

  7. 7

    Michael Kennedy, Concise Oxford Dictionary of Music, third edition, 1980.

  8. 8

    See David Norbrook’s preface and introduction to The Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse, 1509–1659 (Penguin, 1992), in which Norbrook dates his literary renaissance from the accession of Henry VIII to the crisis of the English republic.

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