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
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. …