Historical fiction – more than pure entertainment

We all appreciate the solving of a mystery and this week’s historical and pagent-like reinterment of King Richard III at Leicester Cathedral finally puts to rest all the legends and stories regarding his death and the disposal of his remains. However, his association with ‘The Princes in the Tower’, their disappearance and possible murder is still an ongoing affair. Most famously William Shakespeare’s play ‘Richard the Third’ presents the Plantagenet king as a deformed, treacherous, manipulative monarch who has the princes murdered.

“Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead.” Richard III, act 4 scene 2

Of course, the play, a history play even at the time of writing, is a work of fiction with a good helping of Tudor propaganda added to no doubt entertain and flatter Shakespeare’s patron, Elizabeth I. But there are other stories and versions of Richard III that attempt to redress the balance. And, it is interesting that it is in historical fiction we find a different complex, but less villainous account of Richard. As with Hilary Mantel’s recent rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell in ‘Wolf Hall’ and ‘Bring up the Bodies’, so the 1951 book ‘The Daughter of Time’, by Josephine Tey attempts to give us a more favourable view of Richard III.

richard III reconstructed
Face of a King.
Facial depiction of King Richard III, created by Professor Caroline Wilkinson and the forensic art team of the University of Dundee, Scotland.
Exhibited at the British Museum by kind permission of the Richard III Society as part of a national tour organised by Leicester Arts and Museum Services.

I have read virulent criticism of both Mantel’s portrayal of Cromwell and Tey’s version of Richard III, but historians and other interested parties seem to forget that history if often a blanket of conjecture enveloping a grain of fact. If the writers of historical fiction work their magic on the surviving meagre facts to entertain us hopefully it encourages us to investigate history further. And, at the very least, well-researched historical fiction should prompt us to consider the extent of historical ‘imagination’ that has been applied to the forging of our received, textbook histories.

Historical fiction, King Henry VIII and St James’s Palace

A-Tudor-PalaceLast night the final episode of Wolf Hall left us in no doubt how terrifying it must have been to live at the court of King Henry VIII. The whole series, like the books (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies), has been an intriguing observation of power and the manipulation of power. But, unlike other 21st-century historical fictional accounts of the Tudors full of 21st-century people dressed in costumes essentially behaving in a very modern manner, the characters of Wolf Hall evoke another time. Perhaps it is nearer to a true Tudor sensibility. It somehow has a feel as though this re-presentation (hyphen deliberate) floats out from the documents, art and culture surviving from the period.

Last weekend I visited the ‘Real Tudors’ exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London and had the opportunity to scan across six different portraits of Henry VIII as I slowly turned on my heels. Putting the different styles and skills of the various artists aside, we are looking to find the essence of the monarch caught somewhere in the brushstrokes. As I stood and looked and looked, I realised how hard it is to see Henry the human being. The difficulty with these portraits is they are of a royal personage painted at a time when to be royal was to be almost a god. The other issue with these images is that some are copies of an original portrait or even copies of copies long lost in the last 500 years. In the end I considered we will only ever have an extremely mediated view of Henry and as with our contemporary queen, their public face is all about this strange, archaic notion of royalty and nothing to do with an ordinary human sitting for a portrait. I would show you these Henry portraits but, . . .

All the copyright rules and regulations to reproduce an image nearly 500 years old!! And, guess what, one of their aims is to 'extend and broaden the range of audiences for the National Portrait Gallery'. See http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/files/pdf/corporate/busplan20132016.pdf
All the copyright rules and regulations to reproduce an image nearly 500 years old!! And, guess what, one of their aims is to ‘extend and broaden the range of audiences for the National Portrait Gallery’. See http://www.npg.org.uk/assets/files/pdf/corporate/busplan20132016.pdf

Wearing my Art Historian’s hat I find I have again to moan about access to public images held by a national art gallery. The National Portrait Gallery does not permit any photographs at all. In fact there are little signs here and there through the galleries reminding us not to take pictures. These images are part of a nation’s heritage and, of course, they are available to see and buy on their website, but that is not the same as taking my own shots.

St James's Palace Pall Mall
St James’s Palace, Pall Mall, London.
Built as St James’s House by King Henry VIII. The original Chapel Royal, gatehouse tower, turrets and two Tudor rooms in the State apartments of this red brick building still survive.

At least we are still permitted (and we are very, very grateful) to photograph royal palaces from the street. During the period between 1531 and 1536 Henry VIII had St James’s House built (now known as St James’s Palace). The Wolf Hall drama is also partially set during these years and today we can stand in front of the original Tudor gatehouse and imagine Thomas Cromwell riding through these gates perhaps to speak with Anne Boleyn the day after she was crowned queen.

The Tudor gatehouse of St James's Palace.
The Tudor gatehouse of St James’s Palace.

The Vikings – but I’m an Anglo-Saxon

Purse-lid-detailLiving in East Anglia we are well aware that over a 1000 years ago Scandinavian longboats could be sighted rowing up the marshy waterways to invade our islands.

Sutton Hoo
Introducing my daughter to our Anglo-Saxon heritage at Sutton Hoo,
Nr Woodbridge, Suffolk.
Ship mound in the background.

I grew up in a village called Danbury, and went to the local school in the nearby town of Maldon (Maeldune) on the River Blackwater. “Maeldune” is the Saxon spelling of Maldon and means “a cross on the hill”. At school we learnt about the local area’s Saxon heritage supported by archaeological finds and the ‘Battle of Maldon‘ as recounted in the ‘Anglo Saxon Chronicles’ and the Anglo Saxon poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’. The battle took place in AD991 between the Saxons living around the River Blackwater and the Vikings who raided in their famous longboats.

River Deben Sutton Hoo
View down to the River Deben from the Sutton Hoo ship burial site. Yes, that’s correct the Anglo-Saxons dragged the king’s longboat from the river and up the hill before burying it in a mound.

Last week I went to the British Museums’s Exhibition about the Vikings. Known as a ‘blockbuster’ exhibition with all the accompanying publicity we knew it would be busy even with the ‘timed’ entry (vigorously policed by the staff) – and it was. The first two rooms were dark and overcrowded with tiny pieces mounted in minimal, sparse arrangements. I know one of the agendas pursued by the curators was to dampen down the ‘Vikings as raiders’ legacy and present a more rounded version of Viking culture, but once you’ve seen a couple of oversized brooches they really aren’t that exciting. And, there wasn’t a single example of jewellery to compare with the Anglo-Saxon pieces found at the early 7th-century ship burial at Sutton Hoo. (Incidentally available to see for free in a new gallery display in the main part of the BM.)

Sutton Hoo shoulder clasps
Polychrome jewellery hinged shoulder-clasp from Mound 1, Sutton Hoo.
Gold decorated with garnets, millefiore glass and gold wire filigree. 48 mm

Nevertheless, I quickly glanced my way through these rooms until I opened the door into the main new exhibition hall. And, there it was, the boat, Roskilde 6 (archaeologists’ site nomenclature). Firstly, none of the press photos do it justice. The ship’s size (37 metres long) is the longest longboat discovered so far and the metal re-construction is beautiful encouraging you to mentally extend the few original surviving wooden planks of the Roskilde 6.

Press photograph © Rebecca Reid, The London Evening Standard.
Press photograph © Rebecca Reid, The London Evening Standard.

But most stunning and evocative was the way you could stand at one end and see the whole boat stretching away across the North Sea as the wave filled view gradually changed from dark and menacing into a gentle evening sunset. I was quite transfixed by the arrangement and the clever use of video. It wasn’t like a fairground trick, but a gentle prompt to your historical imagination. All of a sudden I was considerably impressed by the Vikings’ skill and energy for exploration.

Sutton Hoo purse lid
Sutton Hoo – the purse lid. The gold frame is set with cloisonné garnets and millefiori glass and encloses a modern lid containing the original gold, garnet and millefiori plaques. Length 19.0 cm

Sorry – I did ask – but it was strictly no photography, but here’s the magnificent purse lid from the early 7th century, Anglo-Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk. (Smaller longboat than the Viking one, only 27 metres, but you can see it’s all part of the Northern European cultural continuum.)

Visual Connections – A game of two rhinos

rhino
Rhinoceros, Dubbo, NSW
©Garrulous Gwendoline
Last week, fellow blogger Garrulous Gwendoline, posted a delightful piece about her visit to Dubbo, New South Wales, Australia. She illustrated her account with some charming animal photos. Along with some appealing pictures of that special Aussie bundle of fur, the koala, there was a striking photo of a rhinoceros. As soon as I saw the photograph I was immediately reminded of the popular woodcut made by Dürer 500 years ago.

rhinoceros woodcut
Dürer woodcut rhinoceros from notes!

Art Historians are fascinated by Dürer for many different reasons and one of them is this woodcut. He constructed his image of a rhino not from his own direct visual encounter, but from secondhand reports sent to him in Germany. The first living rhinoceros to be seen in Europe for over 1000 years was a gift sent from India and had arrived in Lisbon in 1515 amid much interest and curiosity. I think we can say it was an opportunity not to be missed and Dürer set to work and produced his high quality prints. A woodcut and drawing of Dürer’s rhino is held by the British Museum.

Apart from offering to his public his contemporary theory of art and reinvigorating the medium of print, Dürer also left us a short series of self portraits as a visual record of his ideas and confident imagination. This is one of my favourite self portraits as he presents us with a dramatic, intense, almost 21st-century celebrity style version of self. There is much art historical discussion about his choice to portray himself in such a Christ-like manner, but I think the general consensus is that he is idealising and promoting the role of the artist as opposed to himself. Well, he certainly makes himself look attractive and appealing in a very human way. One day I hope to travel to Germany to see the original hanging in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, but for now here it is.

Dürer self portrait 1500
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
Self-portrait with fur-trimmed robe (1500)
Limewood 67.1 x 48.9 cm

“Thus I, Albrecht Dürer from Nuremberg, portrayed myself with characteristic colours in my 28th year.” Translation of the Latin inscription.

Starting from Scratch – Part Two

Now, today, I have returned to my mood boards and the world of Japanese woodblock prints.

Since I was a teenager I’ve been interested in Ukiyo-e prints. I remember accompanying my mother when she went to visit a German friend who had come to live in Suffolk. Whilst they chatted I looked through her art books and found one about the art of Japanese prints. The text was in German (I couldn’t understand), but the images caught my attention they were so refined and pared back to convey just the essentials. It is a very appealing aesthetic and, of course, in the West has inspired some of the great Impressionists and Post Impressionists. There were some interesting comparisons made in a 2009 exhibition about Monet which can still be viewed online. http://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/exhibitions/monet/MonetsLife.JapaneseArt.aspx

Now that’s all a bit awkward – I’ve never been great at sketching and now I’ve got the ingenious ghosts of Monet, Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh buzzing round my head. Must say bye to the thinking brain and rev up the creative brain.

Finished design for scarf.
Working up some ideas.

Starting from Scratch – Part One

Ukiyo-e UtamaroLast week I was reading round some great blogs and noticed some people have really beautiful top banners. They have beautiful photographs capturing a sense of place or images of their own art or pictures of the inspirational work of others. Of course, some people are amazingly savvy about coding and I take my hat off to them, but for folks like me it’s a case of uploading jpegs. Anyway, it has inspired me to make a change.

Usually my creative process starts with a single inspirational photo and in this case I’ve started with this pink hollyhock which I took and uploaded last week.
Pink Alcea, Hollyhock

Then I put together images with a similar feel, colour and tones, a bit like a mood board. And, as the process continues quite often shape and pattern themes develop.

I tend to do this over several days, leaving it, returning to it, making adjustments, adding and erasing.

Then finally I sleep on it!

A Quiet Sunday After Lunch

Everywhere else in England this weekend they’ve had sunshine, but here in East Anglia all yesterday and again this morning it’s been mizzle. Mizzle – a great word I first came across when I lived in Devon for three years. My first experience of mizzle was driving down the A38 on the southern edge of Dartmoor when I thought I’d hit fog, but it was mizzle. It is a cross between mist and very fine rain. If you glance out the window it looks like mist, but step outside and you see it is amazingly fine rain and you get wet!

Sunday newspaper magazines
The interesting sections of the Sunday papers.
Well, that’s only in my humble opinion.

This afternoon has been better weather, but not good enough to put the Sunday newspapers down or even transfer to reading in the garden.

Reading on a Sunday
Three generations reading the papers.

Meanwhile in my head I’ve been modelling for a Russian artist.

Girl reading artist in mirror
Me in another life – am I the sitter or the artist?
Oil on canvas. Aleksei Harlamov (Harlamoff) 1875

Side-tracked at the Bus Station

Sometimes as you go about your everyday life a common place vista suddenly reminds you of something entirely different. For me it was the random arrangement of colourful buses parked between the trees at the bus station in the afternoon sunshine.

Blue and yellow buses
The City Bus Station

Of itself not exactly a remarkable photo, rather mundane really, but it is the colour combinations that caught my eye. And I am always on the look out for interesting colour combinations. This time I know I am treading a well worn path.

Iznik pattern blue/green
Pomegranate Design

Blue/green ceramic
Iznik Dish

William de Morgan tiles.
William de Morgan tiles possibly designed by William Morris.

Furthermore, it’s not just museum pieces that have this beautiful palette, you can find modern tiles in very similar colours and designs.

Blue peacock tiles.
Bathroom Tiles.

Ah yes, I nearly forgot . . .

Back view with rucksack
Bye bye.

An Abundance of Foliage

It’s very easy in the middle of summer to be blinded by all the flashiness and spectacle of an abundance of colourful blooms, yet it is also when the garden is in full leaf. Green foliage, green grasses, green buds, sometimes green flowers and even green seed heads as they gently fade to their natural bleached shells.

acanthus
Acanthus mollis leaves and new flower spike.

Some leaves have been inspiring artists and craftsmen for centuries and acanthus leaf motifs can be seen all over the ancient world of the Mediterranean.

Carved capital acanthus
Acanthus leaf detail.

And, of course, William Morris was inspired by acanthus leaves too.

Detail Morris wallpaper
Morris Acanthus Wallpaper

But, there are plenty of other plants with superb foliage to admire and get us designing.

Finally, it is only the second week of July, but all the aquilegias are setting their seed and providing another interesting, sculptural shape for our visual delight.

Aquilegia seed heads.
Aquilegia seed heads.

Girl with a Pink Scarf

This photograph was snapped, opened on the computer and surprise – it just felt so familiar. My daughter looked over my shoulder and said “Looks like ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’ to me”, and I said “Ah yes, it does, doesn’t it”. I had no intention of reconstructing a picture in the style of this famous portrait – it just happened.

Vermeer - Girl with a pearl earring
Girl with a Pearl Earring – Vermeer, c. 1665-67.
The Mauritshuis, the Hague, Holland
PInk scarf
Girl with a pink scarf – June, 2013.
Scarf by Agnes Ashe

It is fascinating how images get lodged in our visual memory and then become markers or signposts without our conscious effort. Thinking about it, I suppose when you view a fair number of photos some are bound to spark wider connections and as I prepare to launch my online shop (agnesashe.co.uk) I have looked at a lot of photographs!

Pale pink roses
Colour inspiration from a cluster of pale pink roses.
Rosa ‘Narrow Water’

With my own work I find shape and colour gradually gets distilled from primary experiences that have been captured first in my photographs.

pink clematis
The opening flower of Clematis Proteus.

This beautiful flower of clematis Proteus, saved from relentless slug attack by being dug up and replanted in a large pot near the house, is one of my favourites. Its intriguing shape has contributed to my work.

Flowers and foliage in the garden, architectural details I’ve spied and sometimes the inspirational works created by others, all goes into the melting pot during the design process.

clematis venus fly trap
Aliums, pomegranates, clematis and Venus fly traps have all contributed to this scarf.