Making Art in Tudor Britain The AHRC / NPG

Nigel Llewellyn, Head of Research, Tate National

Making Art in Tudor Britain

Abstracts from Academic Workshops (2007-8)
Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

I argued that the first day of workshop discussion had clearly demonstrated the high value of the kind of technical art history promoted by the NPG project. This is an approach which is better known in the museum and gallery sector than in the university departments. However, technical work, undertaken by interdisciplinary teams of conservation scientists and curator / historians, does have the potential to transform research practise and the approach should be at the heart of the curriculum.

Why do Tudor paintings respond so well to this particular art-historical methodology? As Maurice Howard's survey showed, the history of the history of Tudor painting mirrors the development of the discipline overall. An early phase tried to build a narrative account of Tudor painting round the contributions of gifted individuals (the Vasarian model). Since then, other approaches have been tried - documentary, iconographic, social and gender/psychological. However, Tudor painting remains a highly problematic field of enquiry: linking named artists to particular pictures is hard: the documents name individuals who are often otherwise unknown; iconographical accounts require pictures to be precisely located in date and in particular cultural contexts, but many Tudor works are undatable and now out-of-context. There are very few signed pictures upon which to build bodies of attributed work and technical manuals recommend recipes and procedures that artists appear largely to have ignored. Mostly problematic of all, there is a poor fit between the evidence represented by the works themselves and the image of the artist as humanist intellectual, an image which lies at the foundations of art-historical discourse, especially about the Renaissance. Witness Blunt's famous short note in volume II of the JWCI about the echo he heard in Shakespearean England of the humanist paragone, or the oft-quoted but eccentric tracts of Haydocke/Lomazzo or Peacham. More typical, in fact, of prevailing attitudes towards Tudor painters is John Case's Aristotelian emphasis on the utility of the art. Case's is an academic version of the understanding of degree we usually find in the heraldic theorists, for example, William Segar, who identified the top social rank as gentlemen, from Princes down to the minor nobility, with - four ranks below them - the artificers, some of whom are proficient in the arts, "either necessary, honest or pleasing". This is where the painters stood, below citizens and below yeomen. Only a few and Segar was himself one of this elite group were "dignified by their place", entertained in court circles, by princes.

Our discussion demonstrated that the art-historical approach proposed by the NPG project, based as it is on a new balance of laboratory, library and archival research, should be moved to the centre of the discipline and supporters of that move will need to be resolute in a number of ways. First, they must be courageous, resisting the siren call and comfort of the traditional art-historical categories and labels. Second, they must give research priority to understanding more about the function of the work of art: what precisely were the circumstances of its original viewing? Third, art historians will have to be retrained to familiarise themselves with data sets and taught to allow for error, probability and serendipity in their interpretation. Finally, at an institutional level, we will have to combat the inevitable cultural resistance that there will be to this new form of art-historical interdisciplinarity. It is very encouraging that both NPG and AHRC have given such a strong lead.