Hans Holbein, drawing of Sir Thomas Wyatt, c 1535-7
My English Renaissance came while doing my A-levels in the mid-1960s. Never before, or since, have I been so inspired, so transported by the process of discovering new worlds. The first person fortunate enough to go to grammar school (and later university) on either side of my family (one part urban, industrial working class; the other Derbyshire farm labourers, quarrymen and lead miners), I was taking English Literature and History, and for two years I was immersed in that period of enquiry, exploration and artistic flowering under the Tudors that culminated with Shakespeare: the English Renaissance.
I’m recalling those teenage years, having been watching A Very British Renaissance, the BBC 2 series presented by art historian Dr James Fox in which he presented a pretty decent overview of the English renaissance, dealing not just with art and architecture, science and music (in which the English achievement was arguably well outshone by developments south of the Alps), but with literature, too. It was good to have a series that ranged across all of these fields, though there were some oddities, not least the way Fox repeatedly declaimed ‘I believe’ or ‘I think’ before arguing a point, as if he were putting forth some radically fresh perspective when the point wasn’t new at all.
He began, for example, with the assertion that:
The Renaissance is supposed to have passed us by. But the British did have a renaissance, and it was bold; it was beautiful; and it was brilliant.
This was odd, coming from someone so obviously learned, since historians were using the term ‘English Renaissance‘ when I was at school (and that was a long time ago). And given that many choosing to watch his series might also have heard of John Donne, or Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe or Ben Jonson – let alone William Shakespeare. Many will have wandered into an art gallery and been stunned by Holbein’s art. Or have been enthralled by the music of Thomas Tallis or John Dowland.
Still, it was a worthwhile series in which Fox explored how Renaissance ideas came to these shores with the arrival of a handful of influential European artists bringing ideas from the continent in the early 16th century – from Pietro Torrigiano, fleeing Florence after breaking Michelangelo’s nose and then being commissioned by Henry VIII to create the monument to Henry VII in Westminster Abbey, to Hans Holbein who sketched and painted portraits of men and women at the court of Henry VIII. From these first seeds sprang a Renaissance as rich and as significant as that of Italy and Northern Europe – collectively, painters, sculptors, poets, playwrights, composers, craftsmen and scientists developed revolutionary new ways of seeing the world.
Portrait of John Donne by an unknown English artist
What was it about this period that drew me so powerfully as a teenager? I suppose it was the thrill of seeing elements of the modern world emerging combined with the pastoralism of some of the texts we were reading. At that time still, where I lived the suburbs were only just beginning to edge their way into open countryside. I had grown up in a semi-rural setting, and so when we studied The Winter’s Tale, and Perdita makes her ‘speech of flowers’ that begins ‘I would I had some flowers o’ the spring that might become your time of day’ and continues:
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno’s eyes
Or Cytherea’s breath; pale prime-roses,
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phœbus in his strength, a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one. O! these I lack
To make you garlands of, and my sweet friend,
To strew him o’er and o’er!
Shakespeare’s words spoke of natural things that were already very familiar (and it was also the year of the summer of love and ‘wear some flowers in your hair’).
I don’t think there’s ever been a time in my life when poetry spoke so powerfully. I was listening to Dylan and reading Wifred Owen and the other war poets out of school (they weren’t on the curriculum – yet; it was another war in Vietnam that had led me to them). And of all the poets, it was John Donne that I loved the most. I relished the intellectual puzzles presented by the conceits of metaphysical poetry, and was swept away by the forthright language and erotic imagery of Donne’s verses. Looking at the portrait of him on the cover of my textbook, he seemed as cool and utterly modern as Dylan on the cover of albums like Highway 61 and Bringing it All Back Home that I was listening to at the time.
The ‘Summer House’ at Pyrford where Donne lived 1600-1604
One of Donne’s poems we studied back then was ‘The Good Morrow’. In the last programme of his series, James Fox read this love poem written at a time of the discovery of new lands that is suggestive of Donne poring over maps of the new world (‘O my America, my new-found-land…’):
I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I
Did, till we loved? Were we not weaned till then?
But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?
Or snorted we in the Seven Sleepers’ den?
’Twas so; but this, all pleasures fancies be.
If ever any beauty I did see,
Which I desired, and got, ’twas but a dream of thee.
And now good-morrow to our waking souls,
Which watch not one another out of fear;
For love, all love of other sights controls,
And makes one little room an everywhere.
Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone,
Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown,
Let us possess one world, each hath one, and is one.
My face in thine eye, thine in mine appears,
And true plain hearts do in the faces rest;
Where can we find two better hemispheres,
Without sharp north, without declining west?
Whatever dies, was not mixed equally;
If our two loves be one, or, thou and I
Love so alike, that none do slacken, none can die.
He was filmed punting down the Wey Navigation in Surrey and arriving at a small brick tower known as the Summer House. This tiny structure, fourteen feet square, may well be the ‘one little room’ in which the poem is set.
There were other poems by Donne that set a teenage heart pounding in 1966, not least these lines from ‘To His Mistress Going to Bed’:
Licence my roving hands, and let them go,
Before, behind, between, above, below.
O my America! my new-found-land,
My kingdom, safeliest when with one man mann’d,
My Mine of precious stones, My Empirie,
How blest am I in this discovering thee!
To enter in these bonds, is to be free;
Then where my hand is set, my seal shall be.
Full nakedness! All joys are due to thee,
As souls unbodied, bodies uncloth’d must be,
To taste whole joys.
But my favourite of all Donne’s poems was (perhaps because of that ‘Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide/Late schoolboys’), and remains, ‘The Sun Rising‘ – ‘one of the most joyous love poems ever written’, according to Carol Rumens writing in the Guardian:
Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys and sour ‘prentices,
Go tell court huntsmen that the King will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices;
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.
Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shoulds’t thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long;
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me,
Whether both th’Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou left’st them, or lie here with me?
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear, ‘All here in one bed lay.’
She’s all states, and all princes, I;
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compared to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, Sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here, to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.
Hans Holbein, drawing of Henry Howard, aged 15
Our A-level History syllabus formed a perfect dovetail with the literature of the Tudor and early Stuart years – Shakespeare, Donne, Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair, Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, and even England’s first novel, Jack of Newbury – as we explored (courtesy of Ben Elton’s uncle) the constitutional changes wrought by Henry VIII’s chief minister Thomas Cromwell. Changes that began the long, slow process that modified medieval, monarchical rule and marked the beginnings of modern, law-based government.
Back then I was familiar with one or two of Holbein’s Tudor portraits, notably those of Henry VIII and Cromwell, but it was only later that I got to know more of the superb drawings and paintings he made of men and women at the court of Henry VIII. James Fox paid close attention to them in the second programme in his series.
One of the drawings made by Holbein that Fox lingered over was that of Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, made when he was about 15 years old and exactly halfway through his life. He’s a character who will be familiar to readers of Hilary Mantel – after the king had had Anne Boleyn executed on charges of adultery and treason, and made paranoid by suggestions of Surrey’s involvement with Boleyn, Henry had him executed.
Another suspected Boleyn lover who escaped execution was Sir Thomas Wyatt. Fox claimed him as the most impressive English poet of the early 16th century. Wyatt was an important courtier and diplomat throughout the 1530s, but the court of Henry VIII was a dangerous place and his poetry often reflects the power struggles, paranoia and uncertainties of the time. Fox discussed his poem ‘They Flee From Me’, which may refer to any one of Wyatt’s affairs with high-born women of the court of Henry VIII, possibly with Anne Boleyn.
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.
Holbein’s exceptional portraits – more than just photographic representations, they seem to capture the sitter’s soul – reflect a moment, Fox argued, ‘when people stopped thinking of themselves as ‘types’ – courtiers, knights – and started thinking of themselves as individuals’.
Preparatory drawings for portraits by Hans Holbein
In these three programmes, James Fox ranged over many aspects of the English Renaissance with which I would not have been familiar as a schoolboy. In the second episode, while exploring the Elizabethans’ love of secrecy, codes and complexity, he examined a painting that has become familiar in recent years since Rita hung a framed print of it in her study. It’s a widescreen-format painting made around 1596 by unknown artist that literally tells the story of Sir Henry Unton, a diplomat during Elizabeth’s reign. After his death in 1596 while serving as ambassador to France, his widow commissioned an unknown artist to paint this unusual portrait of Unton and his life. In addition to showing the sitter as he appeared shortly before his death, the painting also uses a narrative, comic-strip style to show important events in his life, beginning with his birth and ending with his funeral procession.
Sir Henry Unton by an unknown artist
Fox’s case was that this painting is an example of how, at this time, the British preferred to ‘read’ paintings rather than look at them. An Elizabethan would have started at the bottom-right corner where Unton is depicted in red as a baby. Then, moving to the building just to the left, we see him as a student at Oxford University. Along the top right, the adult Unton travels through Europe as a diplomat. Following his life journey round the main portrait, the viewer sees Unton on his deathbed, and then his funeral cortege. This isn’t just Unton’s portrait, said Fox: it’s his biography.
Nathaniel Bacon, Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit, c.1620-5
Another painting from this period which I noticed for the first time during a recent visit to Tate Britain is Nathaniel Bacon’s Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit. Bacon was a wealthy man whose hobbies, gardening and painting, were spectacularly combined here. It’s a painting that can be appreciated in several ways. In one sense, it’s Bacon representing his success in growing fine specimens of fruit and vegetables that would have been unusual to contemporary viewers. In another it’s a metaphor for Britain’s global power: these marrows, squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers and runner beans originated in the New World; and the grapes from the Far East. Finally (or maybe primarily?), the painting is a lascivious celebration of the erotic: the abundance of ripe melons (one of them sliced provocatively) surround the cookmaid, echoing her voluptuous cleavage.
Nathaniel Bacon, Landscape
James Fox made a surprising claim for this painting by Bacon – that it is the earliest surviving landscape painted by a native artist in Britain, though indebted to Flemish and Italian styles.
The Queen’s House, Greenwich, designed by Inigo Jones
Fox drew his survey of the British Renaissance to a close with an architectural gem (one we had passed, but did not enter, during our recent visit to the Maritime Museum in Greenwich). The Queen’s House, on the waterfront at Greenwich, was commissioned by Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, after the king sought to make amends to Anne for having sworn at her in public when she accidentally shot one of his favourite dogs while hunting in 1614.
The building was designed, inside and out, by architect Inigo Jones, and represents the first fully Classical building seen in England. Fox explained how Jones, who had risen to fame as a designer of court entertainments, was appointed Surveyor of the King’s Works in 1617 to carry out the commission. Jones had recently spent three years in Italy studying Roman and Renaissance architecture. This was his first important commission and his first application of the architectural principles he had studied while in Italy. The highlights the building are the beautiful ‘tulip stairs’ (the first centrally unsupported spiral stair in Britain), and the fine marble floor of the ground floor Hall.
William Shakespeare by John Taylor, c 1600-10
John Taylor’s is is the only portrait of Shakespeare that has any claim to have been painted from life. It was probably made sometime during the miraculous final decade of Shakespeare’s creative output that produced (inter alia) Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, Othello, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. The last four of those named (along with the comedy of Henry IV Part One) were the plays on my curriculum, with The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest being the ones that most inspired me with their redemptive poetry, their ‘spirits to enforce, art to enchant’, their evocation of a society learning for the first time of brave new worlds.
And that was the point, of course. Exploration and colonisation were key factors in the growing prosperity of English society during its Renaissance years. The spirit of enquiry and exploration lead to the discovery of new lands – but also to encounters with previously unknown peoples.
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
Reflecting this, James Fox examined the work of John White, an English artist and member of one of the first English efforts to settle the New World. He was among those who sailed with Richard Grenville to North Carolina in 1585, acting as artist and mapmaker to the expedition. During his time at Roanoke Island he made a number of watercolour sketches of the surrounding landscape and the native Algonquin people.
John White, The Manner of Their Fishing, 1585
White had been commissioned to ‘draw to life’ the inhabitants of the New World and their surroundings. The resulting watercolours are significant as they represent the most informative illustrations of a Native American society of the Eastern seaboard. They represent the sole surviving visual record of the native inhabitants of America whose lives and social arrangements were soon to be devastated.
John White, A Festive Dance, 1585