Books: How Art Calls Forth the Spirit of Britain; the Spirit of Britain. by Roy Strong (Hutchinson, Pounds 40). Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

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Histories of England come and go, but Roy Strong's history of the arts in England (published next week) is of a much rarer quality and is certainly here to stay.

As a millennium project the timing of this book is impeccable and the statement "Lest We Forget" (placed over fourth century Roman mosaic from Hinton St Mary, Dorset) reminds us that without careful husbandry the achievements of past centuries could either be lost forever or at least, overlooked in the rush for the latest Internet drivel as the world races into the year 2000.

The rich illustrations which, in Sir Roy's words, "draw the reader on," make a stunning addition to a comprehensive text which cannot escape a charge of idiosyncrasy, since Sir Roy confesses unashamedly not only to being elitist, but a monarchist and a practising Christian to boot.

But the knight teases us and his democratic beginnings are given a pleasing reference. His first wonder at the magic of Shakespeare was quickened by seeing John Gielgud and Diana Wynyard in The Winter's Tale, and his first great ballet and opera productions were The Sleeping Princess, and Purcell's The Fairy Queen glimpsed from afar at Covent Garden where the boy who became Roy Strong was soaking up wonders in the ampitheatre since his parents would not have afforded front stalls.

Sir Roy notes that the first reference to Britain comes in Virgil's First Eclogue and the inheritance of classical Greek and Rome was to haunt the imagination of Western Europe up until this century. (If you're looking for a single example you only have to recall Michael Ayrton's drawings and sculptures based on the legendary Minotaur theme shown in Birmingham Art Gallery during the mid-1970s).

If Virgil set Britain into the first great work of art thereby placing the island into a civilising tradition with a classical foundation, then the second civilising tradition was Christianity from which flowed (amongst so many other things) the remarkable frescoes and altar pieces of the 14th century.

Christianity was central to British art until the 20th century, although certain Victorians (such as Matthew Arnold in his great poem Dover Beach) saw the sea of faith receding from the beaches of life.

And so what follows throughout this book is a richly-detailed journey which begins with the Pax Romana and concludes with Anthony Gormley's huge rusting monstrosity: "The Angel of the North," which has occupied the Gateshead skyline since 1997 and reflects the new involvement by the private sector in the arts of Britain, where art planning strategies either embrace the tenets of consumerism or go under.

How different from the Tudor period and Cardinal Wolsey's devotion to the arts of Britain. At one time Wolsey owned 600 tapestries, his collection outshining the King's. Yet his adoption from the Burgundian and French courts of instrumental music added to both the liturgy and the glories of English music.

Wolsey established Cardinal College at Oxford where the composer John Taverner flowered. Sadly, the College derived its annual income from the suppression of 22 less favoured monasteries. The defacing of church images and the destruction of medieval liturgical books followed in the 1550 holocaust. Not everything was a gentle progression through history towards sweetness and light.

Yet that destructive Tudor orgy left a legacy, since Sir Roy claims that central to any understanding of Elizabethan music is the consciousness that within its echoes and lovely harmonies lies a yearning for the pre-Reformation world. An excellent point to think over and one amongst many.

Sir Roy is very good on the pre-Shakespearean world and the change from the Renaissance concept of The Great Chain of Being, which stretched from God to the lowest animal. But Shakespeare brought a new language into the drama, fusing both ordinary language with the concepts of the philosopher and the scholar. …