DX2GYQrWkAAEtdkTeaching at Edge Hill gave me my first opportunity to take students on a field trip – we went to the Walker Art Gallery, where Elizabeth Newell, a blue badge guide from Liverpool Tour Guide Services, took us round several of the galleries.  Obviously, we concentrated on the sixteenth and seventeenth century galleries, because that’s the period we’ve been studying recently, but before Christmas the students were studying medieval history and it seemed sensible to look at what came after while we there too.

DX2HcbdXUAARqIzThe collection is based on the paintings collected by William Roscoe, one of England’s leading abolitionists.  He amassed a large collection of treasures but they were dispersed during financial difficulties which forced him into bankruptcy in the 1820s.  Thirty-seven of his paintings were saved by his friends and acquired by the gallery in 1819.  So we started our tour by looking at Martin Archer Shee’s portrait of the man himself.

Our next move was into the medieval gallery.  Elizabeth explained that medieval artists mixed pigment with egg albumen to make their paint, and painted on boards.  As the process was so slow and laborious, the paintings were very expensive and, therefore, the Catholic church was one of the few institutions that could afford to commission or buy them.  This explains why there are many, many Biblical themes: the paintings were used to tell Bible stories to the illiterate.

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The medieval gallery is also home to some beautiful illuminated manuscripts and ivory carvings, as well as the most important painting in the Walker Art Gallery’s collection: a small piece painted by Simone Martini in 1342 called Christ Discovered in the Temple.  Although the gold relief-work is eye-catching and impressive, the vivid blues used for the Virgin Mary’s cloak were particularly expensive.  There was also a very interesting triptych from Cologne.  This trio of paintings tells the story of Christ’s Passion, from Pilate washing his hands of the blood of Christ, through the crucifixion itself, to the women grieving over Christ’s dead body.  Elizabeth explained that most of the time, the two wings would have been closed, so instead, for most of the year, the congregation would have seen the images of the painting’s patrons instead!

 

The medieval and Renaissance galleries also gave us a chance to talk about Reformation iconoclasm – the destruction of paintings, sculptures and stained glass, particularly during Edward VI’s reign.  Some Reformation thinkers, such as Calvin and Zwingli, objected to images in church because of the first and second commandments: “Thou shalt have no other Gods before me” and “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image”.  They were afraid that people were focussing their attention on the image, not the God that it represented – that in fact images encouraged idolatory.  By praying at images and leaving offerings before them, they were worshipping the image not God.  Although the word ‘iconoclasm’ often creates mental images of lynch mobs, in fact, Edwardian iconoclasm was state-sponsored and usually quite orderly.  Elizabeth then pointed out that one of the knock-on effects of the Reformation was to encourage a growth in portrait painting, as it undermined the role of the sort of Biblical images at which we had been looking.

Our next stops were probably the two highlights of the visit, given what we’ve been studying over the last few weeks.

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The massive portrait of Henry VIII, from the workshop of Hans Holbein, was copied from the Whitehall mural.  Elizabeth noted that in its original setting, it must have been a terrifying sight.  It was also fascinating to hear about how expensive the carpet on which Henry stands would have been in the Tudor period.  Only a week before the visit, my students had been giving presentations on portraits of Elizabeth I and several of them commented on the opulence of the fabrics she wore.  None of us had paid a great deal of attention to the background fabrics, though. To us, a carpet is a carpet.  But the carpet on which Henry stands would have been made in a similar way to tapestry – time-consuming and expensive.

DX2QHB5WsAAVcJrThe students were particularly interested in the pelican portrait of Elizabeth I, which is attributed to Nicholas Hilliard.  In the portrait, Elizabeth wears a brooch of a pelican as a metaphor for her relationship with her people – the mother pelican was thought to feed its young with its own blood, sacrificing itself in the process.

Another fascinating portrait in the same room was of the Elizabethan courtier, Sir George Delves, and his late wife, whose face is partly obscured by a branch of myrtle, the symbol of everlasting love.

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I used the newly-refurbished Virgin and Child in Glory, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, to tell the students about the difference between English and continental art during the early modern period, and how Charles I went to Spain in 1623 to woo the Infanta and instead came back with crate-loads of continental artworks!  His trip ignited a life-long passion for art and started a collection which would later be broken up and sold off by the Interregnum regime.  Okay, so the Murillo is from 1673, somewhat later, but it’s such a glorious piece, it was worth spending some time in front of it!  We also stopped to look at the first Rembrandt to be brought into England – it was given to Charles I in the 1630s.

One of the final pieces we studied was William Hogarth’s David Garrick as Richard III, in which Garrick sits in a ‘lazy’ or ‘serpentine’ curve – the one which would become known as the ‘Hogarth curve’ or ‘line of beauty‘.

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We had a really interesting and informative visit, which brought to life some of the things that we’ve been studying over the last couple of months. Our thanks go to Elizabeth for the tour.

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This afternoon I had my mock viva, which was an interesting experience. It was reassuring, in that I survived and there was only one question that I felt I completely flunked. That said, there were several others that brought home to me the need to be certain of my own position, which of course is only possible if you’re completely in command of your material and of what others have said about it.

So I’ve come home armed with two bag-loads of books and a lot on my mind – which is not to say that it’s all bad. The first job when I got in was to have a brew (this thesis was definitely fuelled by tea and chocolate, in a way that perhaps Huw and Tony Williams would have appreciated), the second to have a chat with my Fiend to take my mind off things and the third, to write my ‘to do’ list. You can see it above. I have another Fiend (yes, I manage to have more than one Fiend despite the fact that I spend a lot of time in the company of dead people and their preoccupation with death) who is the Queen of Lists. She would approve, I’m sure. That was once the wall on which my huge list of 16th century ballads used to hang. Now it holds all the things I need to do in the next ten days. I think I’ve got my work cut out. I have to admit that they aren’t all viva-related – there’s a section on research proposals, on articles and on the lecture I’m preparing for A level students on Henry VIII’s break with Rome, as well as for the Bolton Historical Association work that I need to get on with and for family matters. Happily, the conference proposal for Reading is nearly ready and the one for Voices and Books has gone (thanks, Una!).  But I’ve certainly got plenty to keep me occupied. Which is good.

You may have noticed that I didn’t post a blog last week.  This was mainly down to the tremendous amount of stress I was under – several problems, nothing to do with my PhD and way beyond the scope of this blog, came together to make last week the week from hell.  What few attempts I made to do some work mainly consisted of staring at the screen, writing a couple of sentences, staring at the screen some more and then deleting the couple of sentences.  One step forward, one step back.  On Wednesday evening I went to the Willows Folk Club in Kirkham, where I had a lovely chat with an old friend, Sue Bousfield.  Sue has worked with the EFDSS on their Full English project, so it was nice to talk about my work with someone who is familiar both with the material and the style of English folk songs.  Hard to know whether it was the music (and herewith I attach Steve Tilston singing the traditional song ‘Courting is a Pleasure’, simply because I can’t find a video of him singing ‘Martin Said to his Man’, which is known to late Elizabethan or early Jacobean – I forget which) or the conversation with Sue about the extent of source material from the mid-Tudor period, but on the Thursday, for the first time in weeks, I managed to write 1000 words.  And what’s more, I didn’t feel the need to delete them.  Writer’s block demolished?  It seems so.  Still, I have an enormously long list of things to do and although I am slowly ticking things off it, it gets longer and longer all the time.  The latest addition is to explore the Full English Digital Archive.

On Saturday I went Hebden Bridge for the afternoon , to the Trade Roots Festival.  I spent Sunday afternoon working on my ballad epitaph article, then on Monday I went into Manchester to read a book by Steve Hindle and have lunch with a friend.  By Monday evening, I felt much better.  My plan this week was to get the first draft of the full length version of my ballad article complete by yesterday afternoon, and thankfully, I managed.  That meant that today I was able to turn my attention to the seminar paper that I will be giving in a couple of weeks, on the Thomas Cromwell ballad flyting.  By just after lunch I was happy with the skeleton I’d constructed.  I will practise it over the next couple of weeks, but I have no intention of fleshing it out any more than it already is.

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. New York, Frick C...

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. New York, Frick Collection. Oak panel, 76 x 61 cm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have spent a lot of time this week re-writing the chapter I blitzed in January on the Thomas Cromwell ballad flyting. I was never very happy with it, mainly because all I did was throw all my thoughts about each ballad down on paper before trying to chop it into themes, which was rather unsuccessful. I handed it over to my supervisors at the beginning of February under duress, without even having time to read through it after the scissors and sellotape exercise. So I decided it was about time I tried to make it into a proper first draft.

I found it a rather difficult task, because it is so incredibly dense. As a case study, it presents a detailed examination of the ballads in the flyting and their authors, looking at how the ballads reacted to the sudden downfall of Henry VIII’s chief minister and reflected the attitudes of members of the court to his execution.  The big problem was remembering which ballad was which, so I gave them all a code number and that helped a bit.  Eventually I got so fed up with it my friend Rosy offered to read it (all 13,000 words!)  so, gratefully, I sent it off to her.  The following day it came back to me with a pile of really useful comments and advice.  I think I’ve used most of it, including moving some of the work from the end of the chapter to the beginning.  I’m not sure if it might now be a bit top heavy, but it’s certainly much improved.  It’s now gone off to my supervisor to be checked over.

Yesterday, rather unexpectedly, I sat down and started writing again.  I was overcome with an urge to sest my thoughts down on paper (well, computer screen) as I read the first publication in a ballad flyting from 1540.  I wrote down what I thought about it, how I interpreted it and the background to is as I read it, and very fulfilling it was too.  In a couple of hours in an afternoon, I wrote almost 1000 words. Whether or not any of them make it to the final cut, or even into the chapter I present for my next panel in January, remains to be seen, but it felt good.  Really good.  And I’m itching to get back to it again.  I feel like I could easily pour out 8000 words on this flyting alone.  Of course, I need an angle, and a sense of where it fits in with everything else, but I’m finding it fascinating and fulfilling at the same time.  I’m happy.

Most of this week I have spent analysing the extant sixteenth century ballads.  I have a big spreadsheet with the names of the ballads in one column and all sorts of topics and features listed across the top.   I have comments in some of the boxes, and others are just ticked off.  It’s a slow and painstaking process, but it’s fun.  Every now and again a little gem turns up, some of which I’ve posted here, and sometimes there are things that I spot that I think are really exciting.  It’s great.  Then today, I came down with the lurgy.  I have a headache, catarh and I’m either freezing cold or sweating.  So I retreated to the sofa with several blankets and a copy of the Oxford History of Print Culture.    I’m not at all sure about some of the arguments put forward in it.  For example, I’m not at all sure that I agree with Angela McShane’s belief that ballads didn’t spread the news.  I don’t think you can divorce news from commentary in the period, and I find it difficult to understand how her argument for the seventeenth century transposes back to the sixteenth when there were no newspapers.

Yesterday I went in to the university, where I had a long discussion about the Cromwell ballad flyting with my supervisor, over a very nice pot of tea. Definitely the way forward for supervision meetings.  After that I went to the library and picked up a few books, then had some lunch with some of my fellow postgrads.  Unfortunately, one of them is leaving.  He’s had enough.  As he said, what’s the point in carrying on when you look at your source material and think ‘Who cares?’