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Victoria & Albert Museum

The UK arts minister on creativity without cash, and the Victoria and Albert Museum’s splendid exhibition of late medieval art

Excellence? Access? Go to “Gothic”

“Excellence with access” is the latest slogan of arts minister Estelle Morris, former Education Secretary. We heard it on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, where she was in conversation with Sarah Montague to publicise her speech to the Cheltenham Festival of Literature. Tate Britain’s exhibition “Turner in Venice” was a model of what Ms Morris meant. The curator’s didactic panels came in for special praise. To the beef that arts institutions need more money to sustain the good work, Ms Morris replied, “They always want more money.” They get more than they used to. “They must live in a real world.” It’s a question of balancing society’s needs. “You make progress as best as you can,” she concluded, somewhat inconclusively. Ms Morris is dedicated to “creativity”, a word to be coupled henceforth with “arts”. Creativity is more important than ever before, she believes. It will enrich public life. “I will tell the story of creativity” across government departments, she said, without explaining this buzzword. Nor did she say whether she would enrich the cash-strapped Tate, or simply encourage another “art trolley” to nurture Britain’s creative future.

Mindful of “excellence with access”, Ms Morris might visit “Gothic: art made for England, 1400-1547” in the Victoria and Albert Museum (until 18 January), which tells a good story of national creativity, high and low, in a political, social and economic context (The Art Newspaper, No.140, October 2003, p.33) With her educational leaning, does she note what the media are doing for the arts? Did she switch on for Channel 5’s The glory of Gothic? This television documentary was made for a general audience with the collaboration of the exhibition curators and other experts: Richard Marks, Professor of Art History at York University, who co-curated the exhibition; Christopher Wilson, architectural historian, Reader in Art History at University College, London; Paul Williamson, Keeper of Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum; Susan Foister, curator at the National Gallery; and Paul Binski, Reader in Medieval History at Cambridge University. With an audience of half a million this excellent taster possibly “accessed” more people than will visit the exhibition. It would certainly have made them feel “comfortable with art”, as the text of Ms Morris’s Cheltenham speech puts it.

The programme followed Professor Marks’s exhibition theme, which argued for the historical continuity of Gothic beyond the traditionally accepted end of the Middle Ages in 1485 to Henry VIII’s death in 1547. Dr Binski dutifully mentioned the benefits of the Reformation and the dissolution of the monasteries: the founding of the grammar schools and the redistribution of wealth. “But the level of systematic destruction of medieval heritage is vast. There’s no denying it. In a sense it was a cultural disaster,” he said. The narrator left us with the reminder that the exhibition shows “just a fraction of the art produced in England in the 15th and early 16th centuries”.

Professor Marks’s aim in assembling these precious fragments was to correct the “blood-drenched, strife-torn” picture of England presented in Shakespeare’s history plays. “I think that’s absolutely belied by all the things around us.” The great merit of this programme is that it moved between the things around us in Britain and the things assembled for the exhibition: sculpture, paintings, manuscripts, jewels, and stained glass. “Only the architecture is missing,” the narrator reported. For most people Gothic means architecture, the one art form that has survived substantially enough for its history to be written. The programme amply compensated for this omission. Under the guidance of Dr Wilson we saw some of the true glories of the English perpendicular style, King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, St George’s Chapel Windsor, and Henry VII’s Chapel in Westminster Abbey. Erected under royal patronage, they reflected the individual king’s interests, he said. The “glamourous” Edward IV, “good at all the martial arts” ensured that St George’s was “a temple of chivalry”. In Westminster Abbey we have a “re-run of St George’s Chapel” with “an absolutely unambiguous desire to outdo Windsor” and to find “a triumphant solution” to “the most ambitious and technically most sophisticated kind of vault”, the fan vault. The architectural and other images in this programme, filmed on location to obtain a sense of space, scale and material, were spectacular.

Among the few remaining spectacular works of art is the tomb sculpture for Sir Richard Beauchamp’s private memorial chapel in St Mary’s church, Warwick, a unique example of the riches, with which ecclesiastical buildings were sometimes furnished. Superbly crafted in bronze gilt, it was described by Professor Marks as being made of “the kind of material, which you normally associate with royal effigies.” “It’s done by…London craftsmen of the highest order, who’d worked for the Crown…You can see how political allegiance feeds into artistic creation.”

Professor Marks also identified the sense of burgeoning national identity as evident in one of the surprise discoveries of the exhibition, a marvellously crafted miniature figure of St George belonging to the Armourers’ Company in London. “It’s a demonstration of the armourer’s craft…the most remarkable object,” Professor Marks said. Unaccountably, St George is shown slaying the dragon blind, with his visor down, but it is illustrated with his visor up in the accompanying catalogue, which is not only essential to a full understanding of “Gothic”, but will be an indispensable reference work about, as well as a long-lasting tribute to, late mediaeval achievement.

Today, BBC Radio 4, 16 October. Co-presenter Sarah Montague. Editors Barney Price and Dominic Groves.

The glory of Gothic. An Illuminations production for Five, 14 October. Narrator Danny Webb. A longer 47-minute video and dvd is available from the production house.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Excellence? Access? Go to “Gothic” '