A History of Art in England (9): Words and Pictures

Along with the ecclesiastical texts and historical chronicles, the late 14th century witnessed the growth of fictional literature: from French chivalric romances to Arthurian legend. Originally written to be read aloud, with Edward IV’s promotion of William Caxton and the printing press, these stories would make their way from copied manuscripts to bound books by the late 15th century.

An amazing resource to find out more is the In Our Time discussion series on BBC Sounds: for example on “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

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The earliest appearance of the Green Knight is in the late 14th century alliterative poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which survives in only one manuscript along with other poems by the same author, the so-called Pearl Poet. A story of love, adventure and bloodshed, this is a painting from the original 15th-century manuscript: the Green Knight is seated on the horse, holding up his severed head in his right hand.

Whilst this account of the legendary Sir Gawain was written at around the same time as perhaps the most famous Middle English author, Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400) was composing the series of stories that make up The Canterbury Tales – written in the vernacular about contemporary society and the characters he meets on pilgrimage to the relics of St Thomas a Becket.
In the early-15th-century Ellesmere Manuscript there’s an illustration of the author, Chaucer himself, as a pilgrim:

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Given our focus – via John Rothenstein – on painting and pictures, it’s worth turning especially to The Knight’s Tale partly because, again in the Ellesmere manuscript, there is an illustration of the Knight:

“He wore a tunic made of coarse thick stuff Marked by his chainmail, all begrimed with rust, Having just returned from an expedition…”

[The Canterbury Tales (Prologue) translated by David Wright [Oxford World’s Classics]

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Moreover, in the text of The Knight’s Tale itself – a tragedy of two brother knights fighting for the love of a princess – Chaucer describes the setting of the tournament that will decide their fate: a temporary amphitheatre commissioned by King Theseus who brings in craftsmen skilled in mathematics, artisans, portrait-painters, and carvers of images from across the land. There’s an altar to Venus (goddess of love) on the eastern side, an altar to Mars (god of war) on the western side and, on the northern side an alter to Diana (goddess of chastity). On the morning of the tournament, one knight visits Venus, one Mars and the princess Diana’s.

And Chaucer describes in detail “The splendid carvings, sculptures and pictures, The forms, the shapes, the faces and figures, That were contained in these three oratories.”

In the temple to Venus (again quoting from David Wright’s translation): “all of Love’s phenomena… Were painted in their order on the wall… indeed, the whole hill of Cytherea, Where Venus has her principal residence, Was figured on the walls in fresco paint, With all its garden and its gaiety…. The image of Venus was marvellous. She Was naked, floating in a boundless sea… With green waves bright as glass…”

By contrast “Mars’ effigy, with dire and maniacal Regard, stood armed upon a chariot… the god of war… with a wolf stood at his feet… eyes glowering as if about to eat a man. Subtle the pencil that portrayed this story In reverence of Mars, and of his glory.”

Meanwhile, in the “holy temple of chaste Diana… A painted fresco covered every wall: scenes of the hunt… and whoever painted it Grudged not a penny on colours, but Knew how to paint the life, and knew his job.”

Classical myths and stories were increasingly told in England but as far as I can find out, this is the first description – albeit fictional – of wall-paintings that present these legendary characters.

Chaucer himself had travelled widely and had a library of European literature, so may well have seen examples of wall-painting in France or Italy.

Intriguingly, at around the time of writing the Tales, Chaucer himself was commissioned by Richard II to build the structures for a tournament in London in 1390 – would these have had wall-paintings of the classics?

The legends of Troy and Thebes were favoured reading among the European nobility from the twelfth century onwards. Troy held a significant place in the royal imagination because it showcased the exploits of Trojan heroes, many of whom were believed to be the ancestors of the ruling families of Europe – the British Library tells us.

It wasn’t until the early 15th-century that translations of these histories into English were made by John Lydgate – then, as we saw in Rambling No.8, it’s Henry VIII who  deployed visual images of heroes such as Hercules and Alexander among his Field of the Cloth of Gold decorative schemes in the early 16th century.

It is Henry VIII also who commissioned a pictorial record of a jousting tournament held at Westminster in 1511 to celebrate the birth of a son – the rules for which were laid out in a document at the British Library.

The History of England website describes:

At the start of the tournament was a procession through the streets of London and Westminster so everyone could show themselves off in their finery; no doubt the Londoners gaped and cheered as they went past in all their glory. 

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The king is in the centre of course, surrounded by a host of footmen, officials and dignitaries, a mace bearer, a crowd of nobles, the officers of arms and six trumpeters.

And according to the British Library:

The tournament that followed was a great spectacle of expensive pageantry. The challengers first arrived inside a movable forest topped by a castle made of golden paper and the Great Wardrobe was ordered to produce all manner of splendid trappings, such as the new banners to hang from the royal trumpeters’ instruments.

What is fascinating with regard to the images of the royal trumpeters is that they portray John Blanke – it’s one of the earliest representations of a black person living in 16th century England, here a musician at the heart of the royal court.

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I can’t find any reference to the artists involved in the making of the Westminster Roll, but what is fascinating about these images is that they record contemporary events – albeit within royal and court circles.

As we enter the Tudor period then, it seems that under Henry VIII especially there is an expansion of picturing and visual culture in England – from religious illuminations and wall-paintings to ancient classical legend and here to representations of the present-day.

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Detail from the Westminster Roll (College of Arms) showing Henry VIII tilting in front of Katherine of Aragon.


PS. You may have seen Janina Ramirez’s fascinating tv documentary on i-player:
Medieval art historian Dr Janina Ramirez tells the incredible story of a book hidden for centuries in the shadows of history, the first book ever written in English by a woman, Julian of Norwich, in 1373.


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (9)

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A History of Art in England (8): from Doom to Cloth of Gold

John Rothenstein notes that when we get to the 15th century, there were far fewer schemes of decoration…

“The country had by no means recovered from the ruin wrought by the Plague, in addition to perpetual foreign war; and it now had to undergo five decades of bitter dynastic struggle. The Wars of the Roses completed what the Black Death had begun.”

That is: the patronage and commissioning of art had collapsed.

Church wall-painting continued, yet not in terms of great decoration or even high quality work. Instead, there were individual “popular moralities” painted on the walls (which range from the unnerving to the gruesome!).

In “Medieval Wall Paintings” (p.24), Roger Rosewell writes:

The most visible impact of changing imagery was how reminders of Death, Judgement and the Afterlife were portrayed. 

Instead of a glorious Christ in Majesty, we see The Doom, and the inevitability of death and judgment.

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15th-century Doom painting at the east end of the nave in St Mary’s parish church, North Leigh, West Oxfordshire

Although there are many different versions, the composition stays broadly the same. On the left side of a Doom painting (that is, on Christ’s right hand) is Heaven, whilst on the right (Christ’s left) is Hell. At the top of the image Jesus Christ sits in glory with his right hand encouraging the saved upward, and his left hand pointing down to Hell for the damned.

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Alternatively, we might see St Michael Weighing Souls as at All Saints Church, Catherington, Hampshire.

Such seems to have been the grim lot for people up and down the land in parish churches. For royalty and aristocracy of course, the brilliance of decorative colour and all that it represented continued; it could be brought ‘home’ into palaces and chapels via tapestries and jewels, illuminated manuscripts and painted miniatures.

And, as kingship is interwoven with religion and God, so we might see the balance begin to shift as art, paintings, colour and brilliance became signs of status and wealth; became political.

Roy Strong notes that art was increasingly used as the presentation of royal magnificence:

“palaces, gardens, gold and silver plate, tapestries and jewels, indeed every kind of art, not to mention entertainments and festivals, literature, both prose and poetry, as well as music, both secular and ecclesiastical”

he writes in The Spirit of Britain (p.111).

And a huge influence on the English Court was the kingdom of Burgundy (Netherlands, Belgium and part of France) where a “dazzling splendour” set dukes apart from everyday people. Edward IV (ruled 1461-1483) was indeed bedazzled; he would set the style for the Tudors to come.

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An image of Edward IV enthroned from Jean de Wavrin’s chronicle of English history at the British Library reveals both the sumptuousness of Edward’s clothes and also his tapestried surroundings.

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Edward’s reign began in bloodshed and civil war,
but Edward was more than that; he was also a patron of the arts who was interested in history and literature, commissioning beautifully illuminated manuscripts from the best artists in Bruges, while also supporting William Caxton in his efforts at developing the printed book in England.

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Presentation miniature from Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, the first printed book in the English language, translated by en:Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers and printed by William Caxton.

The miniature shows Rivers presenting the book to Edward IV, accompanied by his wife Elizabeth Woodville and son Edward, Prince of Wales. Lambeth Palace Library, MS 265.

What is particularly fascinating, it seems to me, about this image – along with that of Jean de Wavrin’s above – is that whilst it replicates the example of Aethelstan presenting Bede’s book to St Cuthbert (Rambling No. 6), making real the power and authority of books themselves, the book being presented to Edward here is a book of philosophy (rather than one of a religious Life or an historical Chronicle written by a monk).

This is a picture that, in all its colour, geometric pattern and textural detail, records the beginnings of a ‘new age’ of scholasticism as translations of humanist texts originating from the Greeks and Romans – sciences, mathematics, astronomies and botanies – are crossing into Europe (and England) from the Middle East.

Not only is it important that Caxton would bring printing to England, but that this first book is a translation, not into Latin or French, but English. Two great cultural changes of course. But how about this picture? Visual art, painting, is used here for an image that doesn’t present saints, Biblical stories or moralities, but a contemporary cultural event (albeit in the context of power and kingship).

That was 1477. By 1485, Henry VII – the first Tudor – had taken the throne by force and needing to impress his establishment as king nationally and internationally, also applied the power of art through colour and symbol:

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The illuminated initial ‘T’ encapsulates the royal coat of arms, with the crown placed atop. This regal symbol is supported by two heraldic images which Henry VII established early on during his reign: the red Cadwaladr dragon, a symbol of his descent from the believed-to-be last king of Briton, named Cadwaladr; and the white Beaufort greyhound, which linked him to the house of Beaufort and his Lancastrian ancestors from whom he was descended through his mother, Margaret Beaufort. Further Tudor royal iconography adorned the border. We yet again see the Beaufort portcullis ornamenting the frame around the text, as well as the red Lancastrian rose that prominently stands out from the smaller surrounding flowers. These images signify the Tudors’ genealogical claims to the English throne and Henry VII’s royal identity. 

[see “Illustrating Authority” c/o Canterbury Cathedral]

But there’s another aspect to Henry VII’s ‘art of power’ too – portraiture.

There’s an extraordinary painting in the Royal Collection “The Family of Henry VII with St George and the Dragon” c. 1503-9

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In a landscape with two fantastic buildings St George attacks the dragon before Princess Cleodolinde; in the foreground are two tents with angels holding open the flaps to reveal Henry VII and Elizabeth of York kneeling with their children. 

It was commissioned by Henry probably as an altarpiece, but it is symbolic of the new Tudor dynasty rather than offering anything like realistic portraits.

However, there are fascinating researches c/o the National Portrait Gallery website, and one is particularly relevant to our rambling within the sphere of painting in England, as Frederick Hepburn, Independent Scholar discusses:

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a miniature scene painted in a manuscript (BL Arundel MS 66, fol. 201). The scene shows the book being presented to Henry VII, whose face is recognizably a portrait likeness. The manuscript, made almost certainly in London, is dated 30 June 1490, and this shows that at around that time an artist who was capable of producing portrait likenesses was working within the orbit of the English court.

which is very intriguing indeed!

It was Henry VIII of course who would take the power of the visual to ever greater heights, in particular through portraiture and his self-image, as we’ll see.

Let us end here though with a painting that shows an extraordinary pageant of early 16th-century Tudor colour and finery:

The Field of the Cloth of Gold, from the Royal Collection Trust:

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The meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, took place between 7 to 24 June 1520 in a valley subsequently called the Val d’Or, near Guisnes to the south of Calais. The event derived its name from the sumptuousness of the materials used for the tents, pavilions and other furnishings. It was a spectacle of the greatest magnificence and the several artists responsible for this painting [made later, circa 1545] have made a fairly accurate visual summary of the various festivities that took place during the meeting of the two kings.

There were banquets and tournaments, archery displays and musical entertainments. And, in the temporary palace made for the kings’ meetings, there were:

images resembling men of warre redie to cast great stones: also the same gate or Tower was set with compassed images of ancient Princes, as Hercules, Alexander and other, by entrayled worke, richly limned with gold and Albyn [Albion?] colours (from Grafton’s Chronicle).

The art and colour of power!


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (8)

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A History of Art in England (7): The Palace of Westminster

Whilst Henry III may have concentrated on the enormous Abbey project, John Rothenstein notes in An Introduction to English Painting, the King’s artistic influence elsewhere too:
“At the Palace of Westminster, under the King’s direction, a series of magnificent paintings were carried out on the walls of the Queen’s Chamber, the Antioch Chamber and in the Great Chamber of the King, sometimes called the Painted Chamber.”

The Painted Chamber, along with much of the rest of the building, was destroyed by fire. It had been more than 80ft long, 26ft wide and 31ft high and, as www.parliament.uk notes:

The room was as grand and as colourful as the King and his craftsmen could make it. It was long and narrow, and housed a canopied state bed at one end.

It also served as a reception room, and was chiefly remarkable for the magnificent paintings that covered its walls. The King’s craftsmen began work on the paintings in 1226 and continued for nearly sixty years.

King Henry lay in the splendid state bed which stood against the wall, its posts painted green with gold stars, and he apparently complained about the draughts. Above his bed was a large painting of Edward the Confessor, to whom he was particularly devoted.

In 1799, the artist William Capon discovered, underneath a layer of limewash and tapestries depicting the Trojan war, that (as Patrick Cormack describes):

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The side walls were divided into tiers and painted with scenes of bloodshed, martyrdom, warfare and destruction… [there was] a huge painting of the Coronation of Edward the Confessor. Angels were everywhere and there was a series of 7ft. high virtues triumphing over vice [and] dramatic Old Testament scenes.”

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There are a number of watercolour copies made in the early 19th century by the antiquarian Charles Stothard of wall paintings in the Painted Chamber, Westminster Palace. This paintings depicts the triumph of Bounty over Avarice and Meekness over Anger [1835; Digitised page, Vetusta Monumenta, Vol VI, University of Missouri]

Then in the 1920s, Professor Ernest Tristram ‘reconstructed’ further images including:

Tristram, Ernest William, 1882-1952; Reconstruction of Medieval Mural Painting, Coronation of Edward the Confessor
Reconstruction of Medieval Mural Painting, Coronation of Edward the Confessor
Ernest William Tristram (1882–1952) Parliamentary Art Collection, see: artuk.org

Tristram, Ernest William, 1882-1952; Reconstruction of Medieval Mural Painting, Story of Antiochus

Reconstruction of Medieval Mural Painting, Story of Antiochus
Ernest William Tristram (1882–1952) Parliamentary Art Collection, see: artuk.org which is particularly splendid in terms of story-telling and animation.

It seems the Old Bible stories might also form a commentary on the contemporary politics of the day – namely the crusades and Europe’s belief in its rights over the Holy Land [for a long read see Reeve]. Art here then was becoming ‘political’ – the presentation of power at the heart of the palace, to be seen, recognised and acknowledged as a reflection of the King himself.


In this weekend’s Saturday Guardian, there’s a fascinating article by Esther Audley on research by Eleri Lynn (Historic Royal Palaces) noting that Henry VIII and Elizabeth I both enjoyed solitude and contemplation and “drew comfort from confined, private spaces”. Whilst the Painted Chamber was hardly small or essentially private, I do wonder whether Lynn’s recognition that “the more private the room, the more expensive the adornments” rings true even back in Henry III’s day?

After all, the Chamber was his bedroom!


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A conjectural restoration of Westminster Palace…  with St Stephen’s Chapel at its centre.

Rothenstein tells us that
“…in addition to the ambitious decorations in the Painted Chamber, an elaborate series of paintings was carried out between 1350 and about 1363 in St. Stephen’s Chapel.”
which the Parliament website describes as:
Richly (and expensively) decorated, the roof of the Upper Chapel was painted sky-blue and spattered with thousands of gold stars, and below its windows were many painted biblical characters and stories.

Reconstruction of Medieval Mural Paintings: Adoration of the Shepherds and Presentation in the Temple
Ernest William Tristram (1882–1952)
Parliamentary Art Collection, c/o http://www.artuk.org]

As Rothenstein notes, these decorations were rediscovered in 1800 only to be destroyed by the 1834 fire. However, much work has been done by the University of York and we can now visit a three-dimensional virtual St Stephens – which is fascinating: how Rothenstein would have loved this!

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The Medieval Chapel, 1360s

This “exquisite and lyrical flowering” of art at Westminster was influenced by the Gothic and interconnected with painting and decoration across Europe.

Roy Strong [in The Spirit of Britain p.66], writes:

“A great church was the most magnificent building medieval people ever entered. Cathedrals were conceived as symbols not only of the whole Church of Christendom, but of the Heavenly Church too”

Hence the extraorinary will to create light and colour throughout Westminster Abbey and St Stephen’s Chapel – opulent and visionary places somewhere between Heaven and Earth.

In complete contrast to such a huge, physical ‘installations’, Rothenstein also mentions a small and portable artwork from the end of the 14th century:

British (English) School|French School; Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child by his Patron Saint John the Baptist and Saints Edward and Edmund ('The Wilton Diptych')

The Wilton Diptych, now in the National Gallery which was painted for Richard II’s private use; artist unknown.
The diptych was painted for King Richard II of England, who is depicted kneeling before the Virgin and Child in what is known as a donor portrait. He is presented to them by (right to left) his patron saint, John the Baptist, and by the English saints King Edward the Confessor and King Edmund the Martyr.

Royal Westminster had the money to bring huge resources to bear on these works, with hundreds of artists, craftspeople, carpenters, stonemasons and glaziers working with the uppermost skills to be found across Europe. For further reading, there is a brilliant and intriguing account of the Cosmati Pavement in Westminster Abbey.

Complete floor after cleaning and conservation

Happy rambling!

Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (7)

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A History of Art in England (6): Westminster Abbey

Sir John Rothenstein recorded in An Introduction to English Painting (1965) that
“During the second half of the 13th century London became the principal centre of English painting… [and, in contrast to our previous Ramblings, that] the school of London was the product not of monastic but of royal inspiration”.

[It is worth noting though that there had been precedent to this ‘royal inspiration’: Aethelstan is regarded as the first ‘King of England’ (927-939) – his household apparently becoming a centre for English learning as he centralised government and had numerous ruling charters written. He also commissioned Bede’s “Life of St Cuthbert” and there is even a portrait – the first depiction of an English king – of Aethelstan ‘presenting’ the manuscript to the Saint].


Frontispiece of Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert (30), showing King Æthelstan (924–39) presenting a copy of the book to the saint himself. Originally from MS 183, f.1v at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.

However, it is Henry III (1216-1272) that Rothenstein considers was “of all the kings of England the greatest patron of the arts”.

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Coronation of Henry III [13th century; anon; British lIbrary]

“[Henry’s] passion was for the Gothic. When he visited Paris in 1254 he spent much of his time in churches. ‘He would have liked’ says a contemporary poem ‘to have carried off the Sainte Chapelle in a cart’.

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Begun some time after 1238 and consecrated on 26 April 1248, the Sainte-Chapelle is considered among the highest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic architecture. It was commissioned by King Louis IX of France to house his collection of Passion relics, including Christ’s Crown of Thorns—one of the most important relics in medieval Christendom.
What we now call Gothic, was the called “French Work”.
It was principally the widespread introduction of a single feature, the pointed arch, which was to bring about the change that separates Gothic from Romanesque. The technological change permitted a stylistic change which broke the tradition of massive masonry and solid walls penetrated by small openings, replacing it with a style where light appears to triumph over substance. With its use came the development of many other architectural devices, previously put to the test in scattered buildings and then called into service to meet the structural, aesthetic and ideological needs of the new style. These include the flying buttresses, pinnacles and traceried windows which typify Gothic ecclesiastical architecture.

[on BBC i-player: Civilisations]

And it’s with these Gothic ideas in his head that Henry III returned to London and directed his energies to the rebuilding and decoration of Westminster Abbey.

It is said that Westminster Abbey stands on the site of a Roman Temple to Apollo, shattered by an earthquake in the 2nd century.
Then in the 7th century, Sebert, son on the Saxon King of Essex Sledd, built a Christian church there. On the night before the church was dedicated, St Peter himself appeared to a fisherman and was ferried across the river from Lambeth… the venerable figure crossed the threshold of the new church and all at once it was illuminated by a light brighter than a thousand candles.

Left: Edric the Fisherman who rowed St Peter to Thorney Island; Right: St Peter arrives to consecrate the church [from 13th c. La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Roi]

It was Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) who, making London the capital, with Westminster at its heart, built the Abbey on the site of Sebert’s Church.
Edward died just a week after its completion – and would be buried there; but the Abbey so astonished everyone who saw it that it’s even depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry (excellent link this, “page by page” as it were of the Tapestry) .

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This is the scene of Edward’s funeral and the depiction of ‘his’ Westminster Abbey.

Throughout this period there arose numerous stories – miraculous events – surrounding the life of Edward the Confessor and his tomb in the Abbey where it is said, for example, that a blind bell-ringer and a hunchback were both cured.

In 1102 the tomb was opened – a sweet fragrance filled the church, the body hadn’t decomposed – and by 1161 Edward had been made a Saint.

Henry III was besotted by the cult of St Edward, and it is in Edward’s name that he rebuilt Westminster Abbey, starting in 1241:

“a magnificent shrine to be made out of the purest refined gold and precious stones, to be constructed in London by the most skilled goldsmiths, for the deposition of the relics of the blessed Edward’ [quoted in Kingdom, Power and Glory by John Field, p.27].

There’s an image in Matthew Paris‘s Chronicle of Henry ‘supervising’ the building work:

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Matthew Paris was a monk at St Albans. Rothenstein describes him as “by turns churchman, historian, painter, sculptor and goldsmith”. And note his style as a Pictor the line drawings (with elsewhere a colour wash) is seen as “very English” by “the sinuous flowing quality of the line [and] the sense of human emotion they reveal.”

Over 400 workmen were on site and, although it wouldn’t be properly completed for 200 years, the Abbey was consecrated on St Edward’s Day, October 13th 1269; Edward’s tomb was positioned behind the high altar – “not buried, placed high as on a candlestick to enlighten the church” (Field, p.30).

; Edward the Confessor's Shrine, Westminster Abbey

Edward the Confessor’s Shrine, Westminster Abbey (or ‘Church Interior – Tomb of Edward the Confessor, Westminster’) by Ernest George (1839–1922) [c/o artuk.org] Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

And there was also an ornate altarpiece made for the occasion – lost and rediscovered eventually as the top of a cupboard! – “It is the Abbey’s greatest single treasure. It continues to proclaim the glory of both Henry III’s creation and the magnificence of a native artistic tradition of which it is the sole survivor, radiant in its ruins” (Field, p.32).

Details c/o Westminster Abbey: “Christ Holding a Globe of the World” and “St Peter Holding the Key of Heaven”

A further painting from about this time is also mentioned by Rothenstein: a representation of St Faith which, he writes, exemplifies “the severe attenuated character of early Gothic form, and the intense exalted belief which inspired it”.

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There is no knowing who painted it, but on another wall-painting in the chapel is a monk, suggested to be Master Walter of Durham, the king’s beloved painter – pictor regis – who was employed in the Abbey and (as we’ll see in Part 7) Westminster Palace.

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We might also note that Henry III was present when the remains of Thomas Becket, St Thomas of Canterbury – the Archbishop assassinated by Henry II’s followers – were moved to a shrine at Canterbury Cathedral in 1220. This ‘translation’ was a huge, symbolic event in the Medieval English Church and inaugurated a Feast Day.
Interestingly, at St James the Less Church in Hadleigh, there is a wall painting of St Thomas made, according to British Listed Buildings :

“Circa 1200 painting of St. Thomas A Beckett to easternmost window arch…

Hadleigh wall painting

  Other paintings were found during C19 restorations but are not now visible”.
Doesn’t that note of “other paintings” sound intriguing? The lovely people at St James the Less have been doing their own researches and are going to let me know more (watch this space!)
Only slightly further away – and you may have seen this on twitter @Essex_VCH – there was an anchorite nun living at Dovercourt, Harwich in the Middle Ages, as portrayed in the manor roll c.1280:

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(Feels very familiar somehow!)


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (6)

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A History of Art in England (5): Wall paintings (ii)

It’s in parish churches of the 13th-14th centuries that, according to Sir John Rothenstein, “a wholly popular and spontaneous art” flourished and where “we have to look for the pictorial genius of the age. We have to look, that is to say, to the village churches, for in these flourished exuberantly a wholly popular and spontaneous art.”

However, as Roger Rosewell notes:

“Of around ten thousand medieval churches, fewer than ten per cent retain significant remains of their original painting schemes…

[Yet even these] are evocative reminders of how these rich and vivid displays transformed the interior of every church with intoxicating colours and stirring art… [creating] a world of wonderment and the miraculous, a world that once entranced and embraced generations of Christian worshippers…”


As his example, Rothenstein notes the 14th-century wall paintings of All Saints, Croughton as “in a fortunate state of preservation” (although unfortunately I can find very few images).

There are two cycles, the “Life and Death of the Virgin” and the “Infancy and Passion of Christ” – “discovered” in the 1920s by Prof. Ernest Tristram – which would have covered the entire interior of the church.

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Here we have the Flight into Egypt to the right which, as Rothenstein says, has something very “tender and intimate” about it.

There are thirty-six scenes in all. “Tristram estimates that a painter and his assistant took no more than two or three months to decorate an entire village church.”

This raises the question: Who were these church painters?


The most famous feature of St John the Baptist’s Church [Clayton, West Sussex] is the array of well-preserved and ancient wall paintings in the nave and on the chancel arch. They are part of a series painted by monks from Lewes Priory [the first Cluniac house in England, which founded Prittlewell Priory in the 12th century].

The Lewes monk-paynters seem however to be an exception. Turning again to Rosewell’s book, he notes that paynters were very rarely monks or even the ‘pictors’ of illuminated texts, but rather:
lay professionals who learned their trade as apprentices in workshops based in major religious and commercial centres and who remained in such localities painting churches and manor houses for much of their lives” (Rosewell, p.111).

Again, it’s fascinating to note the richness of colour and fluidity of line in many of these wall paintings.

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The Virgin and Child, St Peter ad Vincula, South Newington, Oxfordshire (14th century)

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The Weighing of Souls, All Saints Catherington, Hampshire (14th century)

Such provincial church painting flourished then. However, as Rothenstein notes, the Black Death broke out in 1349 (killing up to half of the English population) and continuous foreign warfare destabilised the economy.

It’s this context of social upheaval that Rothenstein suggests brought a different type of artist seems to the fore:

“The consequent poverty and disturbance of the equilibrium between Capital and Labour brought about a fierce revolutionary movement which found original and violent artistic expression… defiant peasants were filling country churches with paintings the like of which had not been seen before.”


He relates this turn to the publication of William Langland’s “Vision of Piers Plowman” (1352), in which Christ is presented “in the guise of Piers Plowman, a humble man, sharing the labour, the hardships and the sorrows of the poor, and showing thereby that man achieves salvation through his work.”

The most dramatic ‘translations’ of the Plowman are to be seen at Breage in Cornwall: here we see St Christopher to the right, and to the left “Christ as a labourer, displaying His wounds [surrounded by] tools of labour.”

Breage Church

However, thoughts have changed since Rothenstein’s day and Rosewell, rejecting such a Romantic and Revolutionary interpretation of the Plowman Christ (p.88) tells instead that such images are about transgression, and now called “The Sunday Christ”. That Jesus is surrounded by tools and showing His wounds is a warning to not work on Sundays and to keep the Sabbath holy – otherwise you would be adding to His wounds, suffered for mankind. In some paintings there are shears cutting in to Christ’s leg.

Either way, as Rothenstein notes, these paintings are “especially remarkable” in that they display somewhat more realistic images over inherited stylisation and symbolism.

I wonder if this also meant more freedom for the artists?

Christ showing his wounds refers of course to Easter; the Crucifixion and the Resurrection.

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Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene or “Noli me tangere” (“Touch me not”) from St. Giles, Suffolk.

Passion Plays were significant aspects of the medieval church calendar and there’s a great chance to watch one in our days of isolation as the Chester Mystery Plays are currently online.


Next time:

“During the second half of the thirteenth century London became the principal centre of English painting… the product not of monastic but of royal inspiration.”


Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (5)

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A History of Art in England (4): Wall Paintings (i)

“From literary sources we gather that [wall] painting was common. In 574, Wilfred, the great Archbishop of York, caused the walls, capitals of the columns and the sacrarium arch of his church to be decorated with histories, images and figures carved in relief in stone and with great variety of pictures and colours” writes Rothenstein.

“[Indeed], the Venerable Bede tells us that in 678 Benedict Biscop brought back from Rome paintings of the Virgin and Child, of scenes from the Gospels and the Apocalypse, to adorn his Church of St Peter… [However] except for a few examples… we have no materials for a history of English painting… dated farther back than the twelfth century.”

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Of the 12th –century wall paintings, St Gabriel’s Chapel, Canterbury is a fabulous example – saved thankfully from the Reformation having been boarded up until the late 19th century. It includes this panel painting of John the Evangelist, which can be related to contemporary illuminated manuscripts, and there’s a larger section of wall-painting:

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which gives a much more generous sense of how colourful chapels and churches would have been, from the crowded scenes of apostles and angels to the decoration and ornamentation of the arches.

Again, I can’t help but imagine this all glowing in the candlelight.

Rothenstein goes on to distinguish these examples at Canterbury “in which the Norman influence is apparent” and the wall-paintings undertaken at Winchester where “Saxon characteristics predominate”.

He explains: the Norman line is firm and decisive (static and monumental), the Saxon nervous and sinuous (dynamic and airy); Norman colour is splendid, Saxon colour sober.

And as a contrast to the Canterbury example, he tells of St. Mary’s at Kempley in Gloucestershire which is now looked after by English Heritage. If you scroll down the St Mary’s page to the “Read more about the history…” and the information sheets, there are images such as the Chancel below) which whilst it is of “sober” ochre colours, certainly has the sense of Saxon dynamism Rothenstein describes.

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It’s a glorious thought, as Simon Jenkins writes in his review of “Medieval Wall Paintings” by Roger Rosewell (Boydell Press, 2008), that:

Wall painting was once the national gallery of England. The imprinting of natural colours into moist plaster defied the passage of time. Kempley’s colours seem to glow even more vividly when the walls become moist. Churches were entirely coated in these messages, telling stories, recording pilgrimages, terrifying the wicked, saluting St Christopher, the saint of travellers, or just graffiti celebrating life on Earth.

For a longer, more ‘academic’ exploration of ornament, clothing, colour and light in the 9th-century church of St Mary, in Deerhurst, see Maggie Kneen’s “An Exploration of Colour” (page 18 of “Glevensis” The Gloucestershire Archaeology Annual Review, No.48, 2015) in which she tells of the Anglo-Saxon love of colour and contrast evoking an interior scene of wall-painting, manuscript, clerical garments, stained glass, tapestry and embroidery all rich in colour and texture.

It’s hard to imagine – but imagine we have to – what it would have been like to be a field worker, a baker or fisherman; life would have been extremely tough and drab for medieval men and women, and the local church, with its colourful walls and illuminated books must have been awe-inspiring for the communities gathering to worship. And, as Roger Rosewell notes, there would also have been “the great festivals such as Easter… processions and rituals, itinerant preachers and travelling actors, re-enactments and feast days” – the whole experience of church life formed people’s ways of seeing and being from birth.

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The Crucifixion, All Saints, Turvey, Bedfordshire

[This] alcove painting was re-discovered during 19th Century renovations. The fresco dates from the 13th Century and shows the Crucifixion, with Our Lady and St. John. An article in The Times, published in 1933, which is framed in the alcove, describes the fresco as “the finest painting of its subject and time in the country”.


Such wall-paintings are often understood as ‘books for the illiterate’, ‘poor men’s Bibles’. Rosewell however dismisses this and says that “once they are no longer ‘seen’ only as books” they can be seen differently: as works of art, sufficient in their own right as part of the interplay of liturgy and prayer, images to explore, whether in private devotion or daily conversation, in the mind’s eye (p.185).

Moreover, the paintings “would have provided a visual orthodoxy; a set of recognisable images which formed an international Christian visual language which supported doctrinal beliefs and provided a shared imagination for every community” (p.187, my emphasis). And that ‘shared imagination’ brings communities together not only across geography and place, but time and history – of generations past, present and future.

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St John the Baptist Church, Clayton, Sussex (c.1100)





Portrait of Sir John Rothenstein C.B.E. 1938 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945

A History of Art in England (4)

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A History of Art in England (3): Illuminated Manuscripts (ii)

In An Introduction to English Painting, John Rothenstein tells us that from the year 669, when it was ruled that Roman rather than the Irish Celtic authority ruled the Church, the ecclesiastical (and therefore artistic) centre of England moved from Northumbria south to Canterbury.

Whilst it was Winchester that from the 10th to 12th century “held the primacy in English illumination” and where “we find the nearest approach to a national art.”

His prime example from Winchester is the Benedictional of St Aethelwold in which “the survival of Byzantine influence, especially in the drapery conventions and the architectural details, is apparent; but [there is now] the nervous vitality of the line and the sense of drama and of movement.”

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Again, it’s an adventure in itself to explore the British Library’s digital edition.

The Benedictional has a “telling the story” element to it, the characters are in action, in relationships with each other.

Meanwhile in the Eadui Psalter, made in Canterbury in the late 11th century, we have a self-portrait.

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The monk Eadui Basan seen here kneeling at the feet of St Benedict, is probably the scriptor and pictor, offering up this, his own illuminated book, see British Library.

Janet Backhouse tells us that this is one of the best surviving examples of the deliberate marriage of line drawing (which had become common in Anglo-Saxon manuscripts) and fully-coloured painting. She suggests this stresses the varied importance of the figures: the ‘fully-formed’ Saint himself in contrast to the loyal, humble monks and nuns*. It’s interesting then to consider that the scriptor-pictor Eadui is himself ‘fully-formed’ in colour – perhaps reflecting the importance of the artist.

Mind, Benedict is using him as a foot-stool!

(Very interesting to see the nuns here; a number of monasteries were ‘double monasteries’ with communities of both men and women, and sometimes run by abbesses, such as the remarkable St Hild of Whitby).

So there are differences and developments in these English illuminated pictures through the centuries as trans-European ideas settle into local monastic communities.

And, what is particularly exciting, is that Backhouse agrees with Rothenstein’s suggestion that:
“Such manuscripts as these provide some indication of the probable character of contemporary wall painting.”

A History of Art in England (2): Illuminated Manuscripts (i)

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It was in the monastery of Lindisfarne, on Holy Island, that through the 7th and 8th centuries the “first important English school of painting” flourished, says John Rothenstein: a “short-lived Nothumbrian art [in which] Byzantine and Irish-Celtic elements were fused with the native Saxon” – a style, or period, called “Insular Art” (ie. Island Art).

Richardson I, Thomas Miles, 1784-1848; Lindisfarne Priory, Northumberland

Lindisfarne Priory, Northumberland (c.1837)
Thomas Miles Richardson I (1784–1848)
Laing Art Gallery see artuk.org

And it is at the monastery that the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illuminated manuscript held now in the British Library collection was made.

Such manuscripts were usually made by a teams of scriptors and pictors – scribes and colourists – monks who would work in the monastery’s “studio” or scriptorium.

As the British Library notes: “Writing and painting sacred texts were seen by monks as acts of meditation, during which the scribe might glimpse the divine. It was a high calling but very hard work.” The Lindisfarne Gospels was, however, almost certainly made by a single artist called Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne 698-721, and would have taken five to ten years to complete.

The British Library website enables us to look page by page at the Gospels, for example the three pages of St Luke – the Byzantine icon-like image of the saint (here with his symbol of the calf); the Oriental ‘carpet’ page, and the ‘incipit’ page which, with its decorated lettering interlaced with Celtic spiral work, commences the text.

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An excellent book I discovered @SouthendLibrary is Janet Backhouse’s “The Illuminated Page” [British Library, 1997] in which, noting how Christianity is a book-based religion, and that the Christian missionaries all carried, shared and gifted books back and forth across Europe – the Bible, the Gospels, books of prayers and hymns and so on – she writes that the books inspired decoration as sign of devotion on the one hand and, on the other, as visual inspiration to the people they hoped to convert.

Brangwyn, Frank, 1867-1956; St Aidan, Bishop of North Cumbria, AD 635 Training Boys at Lindisfarne

St Aidan, Bishop of North Cumbria, AD 635 Training Boys at Lindisfarne (c.1920)
Frank Brangwyn (1867–1956)
Christ’s Hospital, see artuk.org

Backhouse is quoted on Wikipedia in relation to the Lindisfarne Gospels’ colouring:

 “There is a huge range of individual pigments used in the manuscript. The colours are derived from animal, vegetable and mineral sources. While some colours were obtained from local sources, others were imported from the Mediterranean, and rare pigments such as lapis lazuli would have come from the Himalayas. Gold is used in only a couple of small details. The medium used to bind the colours was primarily egg white, with fish glue perhaps used in a few places”.

Backhouse emphasizes that “all Eadfrith’s colours are applied with great skill and accuracy, but… we have no means of knowing exactly what implements he used”.

I’m reminded here of Victoria Finlay’s “Colour: Travels through the Paintbox” [Sceptre 2002] in which she travels the world in search of colour pigments, their origins and how they were traded and transported across continents. On p.12, she references “the first ‘how to’ book of paint-making” the Mappae Clavicula “which included a veritable hotchpotch of recipes for pigments and inks for illuminated manuscripts…”
The Mappae Clavicula – translated variously as ‘keys to painting’ – seems to be a collage of texts or recipes for colour making, some of which reach back to ancient Alexandria, translated and transported around Europe. The earliest copy was apparently in the Benedictine Monastery at Reichenau, Germany in the 9th century.

What is certain is that, as well as people travelling and migrating, painting techniques and manuals as well as raw materials were shared and traded across Europe and beyond. There is a fascinating essay from the British Library: Anglo-Saxon England and Europe, which notes these exchanges – of people, manuscripts and also letters:

Books imported from the Mediterranean would have constituted the original core for many of the earliest libraries in Anglo-Saxon England. These manuscripts provided models for the text, decoration and script of those books subsequently produced in Anglo-Saxon England.

One of the greatest examples is the Wearmouth-Jarrow Bible, a manuscript known as the Codex Amiatinus especially as it includes an image of a scriptor at work (the Prophet Ezra):

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The British Library asks us to imagine what it would have been like to undertake such eye-straining, back-breaking art work in Lindisfarne “in a hut on an island in the North Sea”.

Equally I wonder what it would have been like to see these illuminated manuscripts, glowing with red, greens, ochres and gold in the candle-light.

For the monks and religious leaders this would have been close-up and a regular aspect of the religious life. But imagine seeing through the eyes of the would-be converts or those in the pews.

Books would have been so rare outside the monasteries and churches so to witness the flashes of bright colours, a rainbow of brilliance, as a page was turned, must have been extraordinary, visionary, of another world entirely.


A History of Art in England (2)

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A History of Art in England (1): Introduction – Travels with John Rothenstein

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John Rothenstein wrote “An Introduction to English Painting” over fifty years ago. It’s a narrative account taking us from the illuminated manuscripts of the Lindisfarne Gospels through to the art and artists of the 1950s. A lot has changed since then, socially and culturally; our ways of seeing are necessarily different.

Nevertheless, I thought that in this “time of lockdown”, it might be interesting to follow Rothenstein’s path – a gentle research project, meandering off now and then – using his book as a map and rummaging in the Internet for related images, articles and so on.


The Common Viewer

aims to create, from whatever odds and ends, some kind of whole – a portrait of the artist, the sketch of an age, some stories of art – albeit rickety and ramshackle

(a ‘mis/translation’ of The Common Reader, Virginia Woolf, 1929)


John Rothenstein was Director of Leeds City Art Gallery and then the Tate.
He was the son of actress Alice Knewstub and artist William Rothenstein who portrayed the two-year-old John with his mother in “Mother and Child” (1903; Tate)

Mother and Child 1903 by Sir William Rothenstein 1872-1945


(As a young man Rothenstein Sr. spent time in Paris with Toulouse-Lautrec and Charles Conder:
https://thecommonviewer.wordpress.com/2019/01/12/toulouse-lautrec-the-englishmen-at-the-moulin-rouge/ )

There are several portraits of the adult John Rothenstein at the National Portrait Gallery https://www.npg.org.uk/ , including a fabulous 1927 painting by Jacques-Emile Blanche:

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John was married to illustrator and fellow-writer Elizabeth (nee Smith) whose work includes an insightful biography of Stanley Spencer, sadly out of print.

Already we digress, but that is very much the point of this ramble: to wander off via books, pictures and especially, given our state of isolation, websites of interest.

And it is very much a conversation,

do please add in anything else you find along the way!

I will be including a PayPal option on each of the posts that follow. Please, if you are able to ‘donate’ – even occasionally – I would be sincerely grateful.

Thank you in advance – and I hope you enjoy the ramble!