Art and Patronage in Late Medieval England: To Accompany the Major Exhibition Opening at the Victoria & Albert Museum, Janet Backhouse Explores the Varied Roles of Patronage in the Art of the Later Middle Ages

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A major exhibition of late medieval art opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London this October. Entitled 'Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547', it presents a comprehensive range of treasures, from acknowledged masterpieces of painting, sculpture and goldsmiths' work to the relatively humble but nonetheless fascinating accessories of everyday life. Concentrating on the fifteenth century and the reigns of the first two Tudor kings, it embraces the introduction of printing, the discovery of the New World and the initial stages of the Reformation, now widely regarded as stepping stones to the modern world. The iconoclasm of Protestant reformers in the century after the death of Henry VIII was, of course, to be responsible for the widespread destruction of much medieval art in England, a major proportion of which was bound up with the church, so what we have today is largely dependent upon the arbitrary lottery of survival.

Large-scale pictorial works, both murals and panel paintings, proved particularly vulnerable. Our main source tot the study of painted imagery of this period is now the illuminated manuscript. An illuminated book may, however, contain a multiplicity of miniatures effectively protected over the centuries by the structure of the book that contains them. A vast wealth of imagery is still to be explored, even within the world's major national libraries, though modern methods of reproduction and transmission are beginning to make this material more widely available. Illuminated manuscripts can often be put into their historical and social contexts with a surprising degree of detail, less through the identities of their artists, which are largely unrecorded, but through those of the patrons who paid out the not inconsiderable slims that must have been involved in their production. A patron might see a prestigious illuminated book as a channel to redemption in the next world or a confirmation of status in the present.

To appreciate the range of the art, and the multiplicity of contexts and purposes for which it was created, it can be instructive to look at a series of manuscripts, each connected with a specific patron. All the patrons discussed here were laymen, all the and are now in this country. Books are, however, a portable commodity and the late medieval book trade was an international one. The sources of these manuscripts reflect English political and military interests in France, and diplomatic and commercial links with the Burgundian centres in the Netherlands, as well as the craftsmanship of native workshops.

The earliest among them is the Lovel Lectionary, containing the Latin gospel readings for use at Mass on principal feast days. It was made about 1408 to the order of John Lord Lovel of Titchmarsh, one of several members of the inner circle of the court of Richard II who survived the political uphcaval of Henry IV's accession ill 1399 to become a trusted supporter of the new Lancastrian regime. This book contains a striking double portrait of the patron and his artist, the latter holding the completed volume, and most unusually the artist's name is recorded. An English Dominican friar named John Siferwas, he is also identified in the monumental missal commissioned for the Dorset abbey of Sherhorne at the beginning of the fifteenth century. The inscription on the left of the miniature tells us that the Lectionary was ordered by Lovel for presentation to Salisbury Cathedral as a memorial to himself and his wife Maud, heiress of the senior branch of the Holland family. Family heraldry is extensively used in the decoration of other pages of the book to provide plentiful evidence of origin when it was in public use. Lovel was originally from Northamptonshire, and chose to be buried there; but for many years he based himself on his estates in Wiltshire, fifteen miles west of Salisbury. There he built Old Wardour Castle which, in spite of its fashionable elegance of design, was to prove its strength in 1643, when Lady Blanche Arundell held it for nine days against a Parliamentary force. …