Historiographies for Painting in Tudor Britain

Maurice Howard, Professor of Art History, University of Sussex

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

The talk was in two parts: the first surveyed the critical points of reference (books, catalogues, exhibitions) and their importance over the last half century or so and the second took up four themes resulting from that scholarship that seemed to me especially relevant for the work ahead on the scientific examination of paintings from this period.

The field was first plotted in modern times by Erna Auerbach in her book Tudor Artists, which charted the documentary evidence. Ellis Waterhouse, in the first edition of his book Painting in Britain 1530-1830 (1953) set out a history of works by period and artist, whilst James Lees-Milne set out a cultural history suggesting styles and foreign influences. The great catalogues that are still the basis for our work emerged in the 1960s and 1970s: Roy Strong's catalogue of the NPG pictures and his The English Icon, along with Oliver Millar's catalogue of the Tudor and Stuart paintings in the Royal Collection. Strong's 1983 exhibition on miniatures at the V&A was also a milestone. The 'new art history' of the 1980s did not focus especially on this field immediately, but though certainly not part of that challenge, Lucy Gent's Picture and Poetry of 1981 re-directed our eyes to the riches of literary evidence, the images that are present in text (theoretical treatises, drama, poetry) but never realised. It also provided a useful handlist of treatises and books on the practice of art recorded in the libraries of patrons in the period 1560-1620. Albion's Classicism (conference 1993, published 1995), edited by Gent, made us address the issue of classicism and various articles therein commissioned after the conference focused on painting, the image and speculated about illusion. Karen Hearn's Dynasties exhibition at the Tate in 1995 made us see dynasties not only of patrons but of artists, both through family ties but lines of influence and specialisation. The recent Holbein scholarship by Susan Foister (monograph in 2004, exhibition in 2006) has changed the way we look at that artist not only raising once again issues of quality and the significance of that across time, but Holbein as an artist of many talents at Court, with a knowledge of skills across many fields of the decorative and applied arts.

Four Themes

Propaganda the idea of the painting as image-making has been challenged in recent years by Sydney Anglo in Images of Tudor Kingship (rather questioning his own view some thirty years earlier in Spectacle, Pageantry and Early Tudor Policy) and Greg Walker. When technical examination reveals changes of plan in a painting who has decided this, patron or artist? What is the collaboration between them?

The physical re-location of the image Moving from centre to periphery, what does the examination of the edges of the painting reveal? Many images were once attached to each other (or come from the same piece of wood, as with the Edward IV and Richard III in the 'Making History' exhibition at the RA, Autumn 2007) or were fixed to panelling. The tradition of painting in sets has been explored but more can be found out and these may once have been more proliferate (re. the almost life-size images of Saxon kings, posited as perhaps coming from Eltham Palace, also at the RA, Autumn 2007). How does technical work help us imagine the original physical location of the image?

The presence of foreign craftsmen The technical ability of immigrant artists may have been instrumental in pushing forward new techniques. The evidence from military engineers from abroad suggests they were used variously and sometimes erratically under Henry VIII but with a more specialist focus under Elizabeth I. Are technical accomplishments admired, copied, challenged? What compromises with techniques and materials were made by native-born artists faced with foreign competition?

Material Culture Recent studies in this field, especially dealing with Italian evidence, suggests significant things about our need to think about the nature of 'ownership' given (among urban elites anyway) extensive borrowing, pawning of objects, a thriving second-hand market, etc. Is there more to discover from labels and marks on backs that indicate custodianship and location of paintings? In the great exploration of the evidence of inventories across Europe, it is clear that paintings as we know them were of little value in monetary terms compared with applied art. But also, there is now the sense that they had little value, or reduced value than we thought, in visual terms. The dominance of textiles in the domestic environment is now an accepted fact thanks to the work of scholars led by Tom Campbell. Narratives of both religious and secular stories survived in post-Reformation houses in many media. What can technical examination of paintings do to further our knowledge of the place of paintings in the hierarchy of the arts through the import of expensive materials, woods, etc. and how far were these materials meant to be visible and therefore monetarily or aesthetically quantifiable?