A Very British Renaissance Gets Into Its Stride

The Elizabethan Code“, the second programme in the BBC2 series A Very British Renaissance, was screened last night, and it was wonderful. The melodramatic links had been scaled back, the programme unfolded at a more leisurely pace than the first one, materials and techniques were discussed (a particular interest of mine, so that was very exciting), and Dr James Fox delivered the whole thing with his usual warmth and energy, but with less of the jarring hyperbole I grumbled about last week. Maybe I’m making too much of the hyperbole thing: it could just be my inbred English reticence about over-puffing the achievements of my fellow countrymen.

Alan Derbyshire, Head of Conservation at the V&A, shows JF how Hilliard achieved some of his effects

Alan Derbyshire, Head of Conservation at the V&A, shows JF how Hilliard achieved some of his effects

This week, JF examined Nicholas Hilliard’s stunning miniatures; walked us through a variety of bold and quirky Elizabethan portraits, rich with symbolism; touched on the contemporary fetish for complexly wrought, coded poetry; explained how Thomas Tresham’s resistance to the rise of Protestantism was made explicit in his architectural designs; showed us how the world was mapped by Emery Molyneux’s fabulous globes; and enthused over John White’s exquisite drawings of the animals, plants and people of the Americas.  He raved about Thomas Harriot’s phonetic alphabet, and the drawings of the moon he made through a telescope at 9pm on 16 July 1609 (predating Galileo’s by 4 months).  John Dee popped up, as did Shakespeare, at the very end. The whole thing was a real tour de force: perfectly pitched and skilfully executed.

JF’s admirers were treated to the edifying sight of his elegant forearms, and a fleeting glimpse of his bare, adorably slim and hairy shins (the latter last seen in British Masters), without things getting too voyeuristic. The number of people who would happily take him to bed is steadily rising, judging from some of the feedback on Twitter (search for “drjamesfox”, as well as his actual Twitter handle, if you want to read about tearful women, exploding ovaries, or proposals of marriage from smitten guys), which must be a pain in the backside for the secretaries at the Cambridge University Art History Department. In the interest of balance, here is his Caius profile pic: it’s good to see that it’s not just my department that favours profile pics that make their faculty look cheerfully unhinged.

I haven’t been so enchanted by a TV presenter since I was 11, when I had a massive crush on James Burke, the writer and presenter of Connections. I think it’s significant that both men came from an academic, rather than a journalistic background: there’s a different mindset at work.  I’m really sad that this series finishes next week!

ETA: the V&A has put a piece about the filming of the Hilliard segment on its website.

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