Sunday, February 12, 2017

Fine Quality in Early English Art? Definitely!

The early (and often even later) artwork of the British Isles often gets a bad rap. It seems the general notion is that due to its separation from mainland Europe, it tended to develop styles and habits unique to itself, and these were usually more “crude” and “primitive” than what was developing on the Continent. This post is not the place to discuss the long and complex inter-connection between the islands and the mainland, and their interdependence and stylistic influences, which were in play back into prehistoric times, but I want to knock a hole into the wholesale notion of the idea of backwards and primitive works being the norm of medieval England.



Though broken and pitted, this is still a very beautiful glass bowl
from the recently (2003) discovered 7th century Prittlewell grave.
As I have said before, (and doubtless will say again) every region and time-period in history has had it more and less skilled artisans; this, coupled with the fact that not every client wanted to pay for the most outstanding work for every project he or she commissioned, led to the fact that one will always find finer, and less skilfully executed work, from any period and place in history. It is worth remembering that Charlemagne imported many English artists and craftsmen into his court.

The British Isles are a long ways from Rome and Greece, the two most prominent cultures and sources of stylistic influence of the Early-Modern period of European history. If one accepts the notion of “Helenistic” art and architecture as the cannon by which to judge all other works of art by, Insular products will not appear the same, and thus can be deemed as more “primitive”. One must consider the fact, however, that as with all styles and fashions, even those people in the Mediterranean Basin, grew tired or bored with their own styles, and developed new ones, which held under the microscope of “idealistic realism” fall short of the mark, and thus can also often be termed “primitive”. Even in the cosmopolitan center of Constantinople the art of the classical world was supplanted by less idealistically "perfect" designs  in a seemingly deliberate move to create a "modern" form of art, differentiating itself from that of the classical 'pre-christian' world.

My research and the topics of this blog primarily focus on the first two thirds of the medieval period. The Insular (British Isles) artwork from the first half of this period is what I wish to focus on in this post. I have no intention of defining or defending “primitive”, and “non-primitive” art at this moment, rather, I want to point out several works executed in an assorted variety of materials, and over a period of five hundred years of history, to show that even in the more remote corners of European society, fine works of art were being produced by talented and skilled artisans.

This notion of the inferior quality in British craftsmanship is long and complex, and perhaps on a psychological level, partly stems from some deep seated subconscious inferiority complex of the English people themselves. The notion that French furniture and fashion was superior to that of the English was at least twice foisted on the people of the British Isles by the French, in the 11th century, and again in the 17th and 18th. However, since there was such an inter-connectedness of these peoples, this distinction was primarily psychological and political. Somehow, though, the English people seemed to buy into it, and even wear it as some sort of perverse badge of honour.


Both of these pieces were created by English artist, in the same year
Originally the lower one would have been painted and gilded. Most
likely, the top one was painted as well.

During the 17th century, much simple and rustic oak furniture was produced in the provinces of England, and this furniture has become ubiquitous with the notion of English furniture. It completely ignores all of the fine pieces that were also being produced at the same time period for the court and the nobility. Ingo Jones and Grinling Gibbons certainly did not produce “crude” products. Somehow, this notion of simple, self-reliant, rugged English furniture got romanticized by the Victorians and the idea was applied to the Insular work of the middle Ages as well, in part, perhaps as a way of attempting to distinguishing themselves from the French.

In the book, Early English Furniture and Woodwork, written in the early 20th century, by the English furniture historian Herbert Cescinsky, is written a comment, regarding a particular piece of 13th century furniture, that it could “not possibly have been made by British craftsmen”, because a moulding plane had been employed in its construction. Here was an Englishman both accepting, and promoting the idea of his country’s own inferiority, insofar as craftsmanship and technical capacity was concerned. I guess he never went to Westminster or saw the Coronation chair which was made in 1296!

Edward's Coronation Throne of 1296, carved, moulded, painted and gilt.


Most people interested in medieval English history tend to get hung up with either the early Anglo-Saxon period, (4th through 8th centuries) romanticizing over the hoards of jewelry and martial implements unearthed over the past couple of centuries, or the Post Norman Conquest period (1066 for those of you who have forgotten your history) and all the armour and weaponry of the High Middle Ages. This almost completely leaves 300 years of history in the dark, largely dismissed as crude, primitive, and backwards.


Gold and garnet fitting for a belt from the Sutton Hoo grave find. 6th-7th c.


Given the quality of early Insular grave good, from places such as Sutton Ho, there should be little wonder that people romanticize over the this period of history. The quality of workmanship and craftsmanship of a vast number of artifacts is undeniable. What I would like to point out here, however, is that those skills never vanished from the People of the Isles. From a period not long after that of the Sutton Ho hoard comes another artifact worth mentioning; a small (127mm long) reliquary casket, now in the Anton Ulrich Museum of Braunschweig, which is known as the Gandershiem Casket, and is originally from England. 


Detail of the Gandersheim Casket showing the finely carved detail.
8th century. (the portion shown in this photo is bout 60 mm in width)
Sure, it is not Greco_Roman classicism but there is no denying the
quality and beauty of the craftsmanship even before considering the 1300
years of wear and abuse it has undergone.

From about the same time comes an ivory panel of another casket, this time found in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum München, but also originating in England, and demonstrating a superb level of craftsmanship. One can only wish that the entire box had survived, instead of just one side. This panel has design elements like those on the famous Easby Cross, and other English stone crosses, and shows the probable quality of those carvings before 1300 years of erosion took their toll.(although this panel also shows considerable wear to the high details.)


Back (?) panel of an ivory casket now in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum
München. 8th century

St Cuthbert was a monk and later a bishop in the country of East Anglia, during most of the 7th century. He died in 687 and when he was buried, (or possibly shortly after) his personal copy of the gospel of St John was buried with him. Happily, that little book survives to this day, and is now housed within the collection of the British Library. It is another testament to the ongoing quality of the English craftsman, as no finer execution than this could have been done even in the 18th century.


A small but very well made 7th century book, with applied
gold leaf decoration, now in the British Library, was buried 
with St Cuthbert in or around 687.

For those who like metal work, I have a couple more examples. On display in the Ashmolean Museum, in the UK, can be found the so-called Alfred Jewel. This used to be the end of some sort of pointer or reading aid, and was made as a gift and sent by King Alfred, probably to the head of Athelney Monastery in the late 9th century. When one sees a picture of this, he might be tempted to think that is it crude, because the figure is not very life-like. I wish to point out, though, that the entire object is scarcely larger than a man’s thumb, and that the figure inside was created by soldering little gold wires to a flat plate, filling the resulting cavities with powdered minerals, fusing those minerals into glass, and then flattening and polishing the surface, and finally cutting and grinding a piece of clear rock crystal into a beveled tear-drop shape and overlaying the enameled figure with it. After this work was finished, a body was fashioned from gold, and the letters spelling out, in old English, “Alfred had me made” were cut out of the sides.  A Dragon’s head was fashioned for the end of the object, the beast’s mouth serves as a means of attaching it to the stem that served as the actual pointer. This dragon’s head is also fashioned from gold, and is finely wrought, and covered with gold wires and tiny gold beads less than the size of a poppy seed. In all, this is a superb work of craftsmanship, even though it may be made in a less than “classical” style. It is also worth noting that this jewel was produced during a time of great unrest, due to multiple and continuous viking raids and plunders of Alfred's kingdom. 

A reader once took issue with my suggesting that jewelers "faceted" stones in the early medieval period, yet that is precisely what was done her, no rock crystal has such shape and form in its natural state.


The 9th century Alfred Jewel, now in the Ashmolean Museum
This is believed to be the handle of a pointer, and is believed to have been
 commissioned as a gift by king Alfred the Great (reigned from 871-99)

Another piece of work coming from about the same time, is the famous “Fuller Broach” now to be found in the British Museum. This is a round, slightly convex metal plate with figures and animals created in silver and nielo. (A jeweler’s technique of filling engraved areas of the design with fused carbonised metal to give dead flat black accent areas to the pattern.) Though the figures are not “realistically” portrayed, anyone studying the design can see the sure signs of a deliberate, accurate, and very skilled craftsman, working in the style that he was familiar with. The resulting product is one of timeless beauty and a sure testament to a craftsman of outstanding talent and skill.



Late 9th century Anglo-Saxon "Fuller Broach" in the British Museum,
originally it had hemispherical roundels in the center and at each intersection
of the cruciform shape in the centre


Whenever we see an object in a museum, we must realise that this is a single work of an artist who made his entire living, for whatever length of time he was active, producing similar or even more complex items. One does not suddenly, out of nothing, pick up a tool and create a masterpiece. It takes hundreds or even thousands of hours of practice and training under the eye of another master, who will guide him to learn to produce such objects. Therefore, even though only one thing might have survived until now, created by that person, we can be sure that there were dozens, if not hundreds more items created by the same craftsman during the course of his lifetime. This is an important thing to contemplate when examining my next object; The so-called, Litchfield Angel. This is an artifact comprised of three fragments of carved limestone; all that remain of a small chest or sarcophagus. The general scholarly belief is that this was half of an “annunciation” scene, and that Mary would have been on the other half of the end. What would have been on the front and the other end are left to wild speculation. The back seems to have not been carved. The object was "most likely" destroyed during the viking raids of the 9th century and remained buried until its discovery in 2003, under the nave of the Litchfield Cathedral.


Late 8th or 9th century Litchfield Angel, all that remains of a stone
chest. Originally this was painted in red, yellow, and white and
partly gilded. Traces of the paint still remain on it.

There has been a lot of debate as to what time period this chest came from, due in large part, to the fact that almost no other similar stone objects have been found. This tells us how thoroughly the ravages of time have erased most of the past, and should give us a cautionary note as to interpreting the past by what we have remaining. There would have been thousands of buildings all decorated with artwork, of various medium, but scarcely a single trace of any of it remains.  Though there are no other similar stone carvings which have come to light in the UK, there is an 8th century ivory panel (also in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum München) but again originating from England, executed in a very similar style.  Though the subject is different, they share similarities of the over emphasised lozenge shaped limbs, the wave like undulation of the drapery, and the 4½ head height ratio of the figures.


Late 8th century ivory panel in the Bavarian National Museum

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 250, p. 515 9jh
By comparing the above two English works with this
Frankish illumination, one gains a glimpse of how universal many
 aspects of European artwork was, and has always been 

Both of these carved panels are also very reminiscent of late 8th and 9th century artwork, as found in illuminated manuscripts, such as this page from a 9th century treaties on astrology, from the St Gallen Monastery.



Detail of BL Harley MS 2904 fol 3v l V 10th century
A surprising amount of "realism" has found its way back into the artwork of this
time period, but notice that the dots and circular pattern to the cloth are
still evident on the weeping Mary's shoulder. (As well as on the not-seen-in-this
-illustration,, knees of the figures.)

Speaking of manuscripts, I love studying them, and one such work brings us to the 10th century, the end of the period of discussion for this paper, and my last piece of artwork for it. This is from the British Library and is known as the Psalter of Oswald. It was created in the last quarter of the 10th century. It is not necessarily the finest example of Insular art of this period, but it does show that the pendulum of taste had swung to a more "realistic" style by this time period. Instead of generic, expressionless faces, there are actual individual characters to each figure in this scene. 

I could go on with other examples throughout the remaining centuries of the medieval period, because happily, every age has had it superbly talented craftsmen, but I think these photographs give the general idea. Next time you see a movie with a medieval setting filled with ridiculously crude furnishings and drab clothing on the characters, remember that this is purely the product of someone's fantasy and that the reality of the Middle Ages was full of colour, and life and finely wrought products, created by craftsmen imbued with the same level of talent and skill as people of every century have been.



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