Golly Goth! A Major Gothic Exhibition at London's V&A Museum Pays Homage to One of the Most Exciting Periods of English History, Which Had an Enduring Influence on Our Culture
Byline: MARK IRVING
Shakespeare devoted no less than nine complete plays to the rough ride of English history that spanned the reigns of Richard II to Henry VIII, known as the medieval period and defined by the Gothic style. When you look at what was happening in this period of more than 150 years, you understand why he was so fascinated by it.
With kings deposed and murdered, princesses forcibly hitched for political gain, traitors horribly put to death, the family tussles between the descendants of King Edward III make The Sopranos look like Songs of Praise.
Reading Shakespeare's depiction of the period is delicious chicken feed in comparison to the Victoria & Albert Museum's major autumn exhibition: Gothic.
The show is the first of its kind to claim that the late-medieval period, from 1400 to 1547, was as culturally magnificent as the 13th and 14th centuries (the era of Richard the Lionheart, the Crusades, the Black Death and Chaucer). It brings together a host of fabulous Gothic treasures from collections across Europe, including crowns, jewels, chalices, rare books and manuscripts, paintings, swords and shields. As well as reminding us how rich this period of English history was, it also illustrates how profoundly the Gothic period shaped our perception of what it means to be English today.
England was in an almost constant state of war in the 150 years after 1400, the period covered by the exhibition. Two years after the Hundred Years War ended in 1453, the Wars of the Roses, one of England's bloodiest periods of civil strife, began. The list of royal characters dominating this period is no less colourful than the best of modern gangland fiction: the hunchbacked Richard III; the beautiful but emotionally torn Catherine de Valois, the French wife of Henry V; the pious but sheltered Henry VI; and the rumbustious Henry VIII and his wives.
And then there's the crazy - or visionary - Joan of Arc in soldier drag, suicidal poet nuns in Norfolk (we'll come to those later), the rampant destruction of much of England's best art and architecture by state-supported Reformation thugs, and Dick Whittington and his cat.
The first surprise of the exhibition is the revelation that English art and architecture in this period wasn't only English. It was also French, Flemish, and even a little bit Italian. London, Paris and Antwerp were linked so closely by ties of trade and migration that in many of the landmark cultural achievements of the period, you find the kind of pan-European collaboration now only seen on fighter plane projects. For the fabulous Chapel of Henry VII at Westminster, Netherlandish glass painters were used for the windows, a Florentine sculptor for the altar and royal tombs, and an English architect for the building.
In this axis of the medieval, anything was possible. It meant that regional English cities such as York, Chester, Bristol and Exeter, replete with foreign craftsmen and artists, could boast a cosmopolitan flavour with justification, albeit shadowed with the usual resentments about job-stealing from the local craftsmen. It's also easy to forget that England owned most of the western and north-eastern reaches of France at the time. Henry V was meant, after all, to inherit the French throne with his marriage to the French princess Catherine in 1420. However, it was the hesitation of his son, Henry VI, that contributed to England losing almost all her French territories over the following 50 years. Take a look at the helmet, shield and sword Henry V was buried with only two years after his marriage, and you will feel the hairs rise on the back of your neck. This is the very cutting edge of history.
Nationalist mythmakers later tried to weave a picture of an English artistic identity that was appealingly independent of the rest of European culture. However, for all the battle-worn rhetoric that such items invite, it's difficult to spotlight a pure 'English' style in the wider work that survives from this period. …