The Arts and Crafts of Gothic England - with a Bit of Help from Foreign Friends; A New Exhibition at the V&A Illustrates the Exhausted Inferiority of English Art at a Time When the Florentine Renaissance Was in Full Flower

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Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

GOTHIC - even to the very word I have a deeprooted antipathy. No other juvenile aesthetic prejudice has remained inviolate, but to Gothic architecture - the enthusiasm of my earliest history masters - and all that fits with it in terms of objects, sculpture, tombs, rood screens and decorative embellishments, I have remained at best indifferent, at worst shudderingly hostile. I can don my art historian's hat and, shielded by the carapace of academic discipline, discuss Gothic early and late, Gothic high and transitional, Gothic decorated and perpendicular (it rivals Cubism in the number of its subdivisions); I can wax enthusiastic over Gothic's bastard manifestations in far-flung Portugal, Poland and Romania, and even argue that the International Gothic of the later 14th and earlier 15th centuries was, if not an aspect or adjunct of the Renaissance, in something of a symbiotic relationship with it; but when all is said and done, I know in my boots that I have always hated Gothic and that hated is not too strong a word.

This hatred was probably founded, not in experience of the true mediaeval Gothic, but as a child at Mass in the dim, grim, Gothic Revival churches of English Catholicism newly liberated in the 19th century. I now loathe nothing more intensely than the horrors of Puginism and the passion with which Pugin and his followers swamped a century of English architecture in the crude and bogus mediaevalisms that appeal so powerfully to Andrew Lloyd Webber and his dutiful acolytes.

I have, perhaps alas, never been converted to enthusiasm by the real thing, whether the real thing be the cathedral in Canterbury, Chartres or Burgos, the lesser churches of Long Melford and La Chaise-Dieu, or so small and simple a chapel as that at Keldby on the Baltic Island of M[degrees]n. With so enormous a gap between my enthusiasms for the Romanesque and the Renaissance, I am quite the wrong critic to review the current exhibition at the V&A - Gothic, Art for England, 1400-1547 - for the critic's duty is not to be critical but obedient to the propaganda machine. Even at this late stage in my life I still hoped, by its beauties, to be seduced from my scepticism, to be educated by its scholarship and utterly beguiled by both. I hoped that in an exhibition restricted to so short and late a phase of a style the whole time-span of which runs from the early 12th century to halfway through the 16th (though there are flickers still even in the 17th), I might be belatedly and suddenly converted by, for example, astonishing parallels with the Italian Renaissance.

But no. Seduction, education and beguilement were not in evidence.

Yet the years 1400-1547, chosen in this context because they represent the span of the post-Plantagenet Houses of Lancaster and York and the first two Tudor monarchs, were the years of the Florentine Renaissance in architecture, painting, sculpture and humanism, the years of Donatello's ferocious Habakkuk and startlingly naked David, the years of Leonardo's Mona Lisa and Last Supper, the years of Raphael's School of Athens, the years of Michelangelo's Sistine Ceiling and Last Judgement, the years when Titian's painting in oils on canvas swept aside tempera on panel and plaster fresco on the wall, the years of Brunelleschi and Bramante and such architecture as had not been seen since the decline of ancient Rome. But by all this, England was untouched.

In England we were content with what we already had and pleased enough to repeat it, admittedly with variations, but repetitions nevertheless - not for us the great intellectual and aesthetic leaps of the Italians. We were not interested in form and volume, not interested in space, not interested in perspective, linear or aerial. In Gothic art none of these was rationally organised, either empirically or scientifically, and if any manner of realism developed it was subsumed into ornament and decoration or reduced to wry and amusing mischief. And there was in every art and craft so strong a predilection for the detailed and the miniature that myopia must have been endemic. If 1547 marked the demise of Gothic in England, it did not go out with a tremendous and triumphant bang; there was, in that year, no sense of an old high culture at its peak confronted by a Renaissance Gotterdmmerung, no sense of something marvellous sweeping it aside. There is, in this exhibition, only the sense of a phenomenon now etiolated and exhausted, insular, provincial and peripheral, dragging to an inevitable end, its Tudor splendour and extravagance parochial and obsolete, its Elizabethan manifestations no more than the waste products that oozed posthumously from the orifices of the Gothic corpse.

THIS is an exhibition in which the visitor must do what he does in the junk market of Portobello Road - drop his standards; of its exhibits he must use such words as quaint and queer, capricious, whimsical and droll; he must allow himself to be charmed by what he does not like, delighted by the incompetent and intrigued by the outlandish and bizarre. He must lend too much importance to such scraps of scholarship as may be stimulated by exhibits - the colour of sculpture, for example, admirably illustrated by the bright new paint on the lifesize figure of St Peter that was once the corner-post of a house in Exeter and, in the context of the exchange of gifts among the rich and powerful, the 15th century Chinese bowl in celadon porcelain, said to have been extremely rare in Europe, though surely much less so once the Seljuk sultans turned Constantinople into Istanbul in 1453.

The remoteness of this bowl's origin raises the question of the exhibition's title, Art not of or in, but for England, for so many of its inclusions were not English in origin, or if made in England were not the work of English craftsmen, or were made elsewhere in Europe for an English patron, or, as seems probable with an uncomely figure of St Ursula with 10 of her 11,000 virgin companions, had no connection whatever with England but were chance imports. The intricate chandelier borrowed from Bristol cathedral - a delicate German or Netherlandish thing to be envied by Jan van Eyck and his Arnolfinis (there's a name for a jazz band) - if it has been in Bristol since c.1480 (uncertain), was probably a trophy readymade, not necessarily for a church, brought from some Hanseatic port by a Bristol merchant.

WHAT, then, are we contemplating in this exhibition? The native arts and crafts of England?

Major examples of an international trade in luxuries?

The absorption of influences from France, the Netherlands, Spain and any other country with which we had trade and maritime connections? The arts of peripatetic artists not good enough to be of the first rank in their own countries? The answer is all these - and visitors who come in search of masterpieces will be disappointed. There are, within the context of late-Gothic art, several things easily dubbed masterpieces, but with the Gothic context removed even Hans Memling's exquisite little altarpiece, lent by the National Gallery, a gathering of saints and Sir John Donne's family in adoration of the Virgin and her child, seems gauche and stilted. Renaissance perspective and a common landscape unify the pictorial space of the centre panel and its flanking wings, classical columns hint at Italian experience, a wonderful rug beneath the Virgin's feet suggests contact with the Near East, and a peeping attendant ( possibly Memling himself) and a peacock in the garden are suggestions of realism and shrewd borrowing that passes for chance observation. In all this we take pleasure and yet, apparently now securely dated 1478 on the basis of a copy after a copy, this is a masterpiece that invites comparison to the National Gallery's Martyrdom of St Sebastian by the Pollaiuolo brothers and Leonardo's Adoration of the Magi, the one painted three years before, the other three years after.

Make these comparisons and Memling's altar, beautiful though it is within its own parameters, at once seems archaic, stiff and primitive.

The catalogue of the exhibition makes a far better job of informing us how the Middle Ages waned in England. It deals with politics, monarchy, the great families, music, architecture, trade, chivalry and patronage, theory, theology and culture, filling the great gaps in the display. The display itself is feeble, tasteless, thin and dim. The most highly lit and dominating things are the vast wall-charts of dates and begettings and, worse, the enlarged and blurred photographs of Gothic buildings, blinding in their glossy contrast with other exhibits that may be exposed only in twilight or no light at all. Sculpture cannot be examined in the round. Paintings are hung at heights and distances that make them impossible to see.

Manuscripts of widely different dates are confusingly displayed in close company. Stained glass, brass and other metalwork and the commonplace objects of daily life are put together with aesthetically more serious things to demonstrate the banal themes that patronisingcurators now feel are the only way to make rare exhibits accessible to the hoi-polloi.

NO art historical order is perceptible in this display; we have no sense of even a tentative transition from Gothic to Renaissance; we learn nothing of development within the genres of painting or sculpture, manuscripts or metalwork. This meagre exhibition, appallingly designed, with too few exhibits far too thinly spread, opens with the Dacre Beasts, four six-foot-high heraldic animals carved from the same tree in c.1520, gay fairground creatures to amuse the visitor on entry and reassure him that this is an exhibition that will make few intellectual demands. 1520? Was that not the year in which Michelangelo conceived his great sculptures of Dawn and Dusk, Day and Night?

That surely puts late Gothic and this exhibition in their place.

. Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547, the V&A, Cromwell Road, SW7.

Admission daily 10am-5.20pm. Tickets [pounds sterling]8. Until 18 January.