The End of A Very British Renaissance

“Whose Renaissance?”, the third and final episode of A Very British Renaissance was screened on Friday 4 April.  (Apologies for the lateness of this post, but it has been a chaotic week).  I thought it was great, but before we get on to Me and My Important Thoughts, here’s the usual summary of what was discussed, and why.

William Harvey's demonstration of the circulation of blood; I forgot to make a note of the name of this lucky GP.

William Harvey’s demonstration of the circulation of blood; I forgot to make a note of the name of this lucky GP.

After rattling through what he’d covered in episodes 1 and 2, James Fox introduced us to English-built Italian-style architecture via a book by Palladio, owned and annotated by Inigo Jones, and some of Jones’ lovely buildings, before moving on to William Harvey’s discovery of the circulatory system (recreating one of his demonstrations).  He returned briefly to Jones via the “sycophantic drivel” of the poncey court masques – ignoring the dark and violent plays of Middleton and Webster, although Jonson got a name check – then spent a very enjoyable ten minutes or so looking at Nathaniel Bacon, who might have produced the first landscape painting ever made by an Englishman, an odd little thing which was “the beginning of an incredible tradition” (can’t argue with that).

Bacon was also a pioneering gardener, so JF visited a county fair in Oxted, Surrey, to introduce his magnificent “Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit”, which JF contends was the first still life in British art.  It features an array of Bacon’s prize-winning melons and pears, fnarr fnarr, as well as an “almost uncontrollably buxom cookmaid”, who would have given Sid James an attack of the vapours.   We know JF has an impish sense of humour, and here, he was channelling the ghost of Uncle Monty, but he wasn’t blatant about it, which made it all the funnier.

bacon collage

JF’s central argument, that our home-grown Renaissance was concerned not with idealism, but with realism, was given more punch by the next segments on Robert Burton, the author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, and the poet John Donne.

Robert Burton, author of Anatomy of Melancholy, looking quite chipper

Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy, looking quite chipper

I’ve never read The Anatomy of Melancholy, but I want to now.  JF said in episode 2 that he would have liked to steal Hilliard’s miniature of a young man among roses; I would steal the portrait of Burton, whose smile rivals the Mona Lisa’s for enigmatic charm.  The passage he used to illustrate the general tone of the book was hilarious: bizarre, verging on OCD, but full of human empathy; he followed it with a quick interview with Prof Martin Dodsworth, Burton’s biographer, who seemed like a very genial nutter.  Burton provided the perfect segue into John Donne.  JF started with his youthful portrait, diagnosing the vapour of melancholy rising from his breast, then presented the cure – the seduction of women – via a reading of The Flea in a cocktail bar.  He enthused over The Good Morrow‘s portrayal of marital happiness, then (after the death of Donne’s wife) touched on the consolation of religion and the return of melancholy.  Donne’s attitude to his own death was examined in both a poem (The Damp), and the portrait he had made of himself on his deathbed, upon which Nicholas Stone based the amazing statue which adorns Donne’s grave in St Paul’s (the image at the top of this post).

Nicky Philipps painting James Fox for A Very British Renaissance

Nicky Philipps painting James Fox for A Very British Renaissance

The work of people like Donne, Bacon, and Burton was “bold, beautiful and humane”, but didn’t touch the court, grumbled JF, who used the “swagger” paintings of Anthony van Dyck as an exemplar of the gulf between the nobility and the rest of the country.  He explained the Henry Ford-like production line method used by van Dyck’s studio, while having his own portrait sketched in oils by Nicky Philipps.  Over what appeared to be a gin and tonic in her kitchen, they had a chat about van Dyck’s technical accomplishments; they agreed on the fantastic quality of his painting, but there may have been some dissent about whether his ability to paint flesh and silks so lusciously constituted “realism”, given the idealistic treatment of his subjects. The segment ended in a visit to Wilton House to look at an immense portrait by van Dyck of the Earl of Pembroke and his family, with JF providing a darker interpretation of the painting that was at odds with its ostensible graceful flamboyance.

Finally, JF ducked into a darkened cellar to do a bit of puritanical ranting in a scene reminiscent of the Wyndham Lewis Blast section in British Masters, reading from a political pamphlet while words like “whoremaster” were projected onto the wall behind him (steady on!).  Although we all knew the civil war was coming, it did feel a bit perfunctory, as he’d hardly mentioned popular dissent at all up to this point.

The series ended with a selection of the highlights from all three episodes, with JF’s voiceover asking us to remember the artists, architects scientists and writers of the British Renaissance who dragged us out of the middle ages, and set the scene for the revolution to come.

I don’t have any real quibbles with this episode (ooh, get me!).  It wrapped up a little too quickly, and I would have preferred more analysis of how far the civil war and the state-enforced austerity of the interregnum interrupted the country’s intellectual and artistic development, but I guess that’s a different story, and the civil war is a handy place to stop.

John Donne’s poetry is a lot more nuanced than JF implied, but you can’t deny the affection with which he discussed his work.  Donne is still terrifically popular today, and there’s a reason for that: his poetry is clever, beautiful and (most importantly in this context) expresses recognisable emotions in a way that speaks to a modern audience.

Two of my favourite things: a cocktail and James Fox.  He's about to whip out a copy of Donne's poetry, making it a hat trick!

Two of my favourite things: a cocktail and James Fox. He’s about to whip out a copy of Donne’s poetry, making it a hat trick!

Personal comment: I visited Italy in 1998, to work on the Montefiascone project; before returning to the UK, my friends and I travelled up the country for a couple of weeks, flying back from Bologna.  While we were in Perugia, my friends took a day trip to Lake Trasimeno, and I spent the whole day alone, sitting in the empty churchyard of Sant’Angelo, eating bread, cheese and grapes, and reading a fat collection of Donne’s writing, in between dozing in the shadow of those amazing walls, sheltering inside the church when the sun got too hot.  I know how this sounds, and believe me, I was probably as insufferable a twat as you are imagining, but it was one of the happiest days of my life, and total immersion in John Donne’s poetry was an integral part of what made it so memorable for me.

I should stop rambling now, or I’ll never post this.  This was a beautifully-realised introduction to some of the ways in which Renaissance ideas took root and flourished in this country, and it deserves to win a BAFTA.  If the series had been twice as long, we might have been given a more rounded view of what is, after all, 100 years of social, religious, scientific, political, artistic and cultural upheaval, but honestly, even 6 hours wouldn’t have been enough to do the subject justice, and JF does have a proper job at Cambridge to keep on top of.

Instead of cramming in as much historical detail as possible, he wisely presented us with a carefully-assembled tasting menu of an arts documentary, that will hopefully/probably encourage viewers to explore the period further on their own.  (I’ve downloaded The Anatomy of Melancholy from one of the online repositories, and will be reading it as soon as I’ve finished The Rest is Noise).  He has a talent for engaging with his audience in a way that comes over as thoughtful, direct and honest, and although he occasionally pursues his arguments in a way that stretches credulity, you get the impression that if you were to corner him in a pub and present him with a logical counterargument, he would actually listen to you, and take it on board.

I suppose I’m saying that although James Fox is obviously capable of much more than the TV documentary format allows, he seems to be refreshingly free from intellectual vanity, and in the world of art criticism, that makes him a very rare creature indeed, and one that should be nurtured.

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