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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