Sunday, September 6, 2009

Making Art in Tudor Britain

This is a great lecture on Making Art in Tudor Britain at Gresham College:

Making Art in Tudor Britain

You can listen to the lecture or read the transcript or/and lecture notes!


The title of this lecture was Making Art in Tudor Britain, but who thought they were making Art in sixteenth-century England and did the concept even exist? Most painters considered themselves artisans rather than artists and the idea of the single creative genius is not relevant to sixteenth-century Britain. Painting was certainly not the only or most dominant form of what we think of as art today. Painters were paid the same or even less than carpenters or saddlers (and much less than goldsmiths).

The majority of the surviving painted material from the Tudor period is in the form of painted panel portraits. Yet, we know from surviving documentary sources that Tudor artists were heavily engaged in other types of painting including the production of banners and set designs for ephemeral court events and decorative designs for interiors on plaster, wood and canvas, the vast majority of which no longer survives. Therefore portraiture represents most of the remaining material evidence for the production of painted imagery in this period.

The National Portrait Gallery has the largest public collection of Tudor paintings, with around 240 works currently catalogued as sixteenth-century (a fraction of what was produced but a significant proportion of what remains - up to 60 percent of production may have been lost). The vast majority of Tudor paintings are unsigned and a very large number are un-attributable, as it is extremely difficult to identify the names and specific oeuvres of artists. Even outstandingly accomplished sixteenth-century paintings are often difficult to link securely with painters.

Documentary sources concerning individual artists in this period are extremely limited, and even more so for those working outside the court environment. Consequently, many paintings become known as 'English school' or 'Anglo Netherlandish'. More optimistically some can be identified as 'Studio of' one of the very few known artists such as the émigré artists Hans Holbein, Hans Eworth and William Scrots, or the English painters George Gower or Nicholas Hilliard. The reality is that most surviving paintings are not by these well-known artists but a multitude of other un-identifiable painters. Occasionally it is possible to link un-attributed pictures as being made by the same artist or studio. Also some individual pictures sometimes have names attached to them through documentary sources such as inventories. (For example the National Portrait Gallery portrait of Mary I by Master John, NPG 428, and the portrait of William Shakespeare by John Taylor, NPG1).

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