The Cult of the Renaissance in modern Britain
I share with that simpatico scholar, John Law, a hobby of collecting signs of late modern British interest in the Renaissance. Littered in our nation’s churches, often autonomous or, if signed, by amateur female artists, are paintings, tapestries and other pieces which attempt to recreate the style of Renaissance art. Some can be quite accomplished, others much less so. As I singularly failed to send out Christmas cards this year, what follows is by way of a belated substitute, intended for John’s enjoyment.
A couple of months ago I visited the church of St Michael’s, Steeple Claydon, Buckinghamshire. It is one of those churches where nineteenth-century restoration has obscured much of its medieval character: for instance, it is clear that there was once a side chapel in what is now the south transept, since visible in the chancel is one end of a squint, through which the chapel celebrant would have been able to spy the high altar as mass was being performed. It is now blocked in and there is no sign of it from the transept. But what there is, on the west wall, is a small canvas, depicting the Madonna and Child.
This, as you can see, does not fall into the accomplished category; perhaps it is best that, in this instance, there is no evidence for its creator. There is no information in the church to enlighten us of its origins; to guess from its appearance, it is surely from the first half of the twentieth century. What interests me is that its arrangement of the main figures, with a standing red-head child Christ held by His blue-caped mother, suggests a familiarity with the treatments of that theme by Giovanni Bellini (as, for instance, in The Madonna of the Trees in the Accademia), a style which found an earlier northern imitator in Albrecht Durer. However, the gathering of the angels in the background around the two figures suggest that a major or additional influence might have been Andrea Mantegna’s painting of this subject, now in the Brera. If you, though, can think of any other source, I would be most grateful for advice.
What seems most likely, though, is that this painting, like some others I have seen, suggests an interest in Renaissance art which focuses not on the Florentine tradition but instead turns for inspiration to north-east Italy and to the Veneto. Let me cite just one other example: there is an imitation of Perugino’s Certosa Altarpiece (National Gallery, London) close to the Atlantic coastline in the church of St. Materiana, Tintagel; its artist is one of those women to whom I alluded above: her name is recorded as Miss Laura Dickinson. But, so that I do not create the impression that the art of Florence was entirely forgotten by these British imitators, I should add that the same church of Tintagel includes another painting by another woman artist (noted as ‘Miss Florence Cooper’) — it is a lunette depicting the Virgin breast-feeding, based on the image by Botticelli.
Finally, let me add another image, intended to remind us that it is not just in paint that modern imitations occur. The thirteenth-century church of North Moreton in south Oxfordshire includes a remarkable high altar, added in 1867. It is formed with two outsize marble slabs, one on each side of a central panel which is itself a mosaic, depicting the Crucifixion. Precisely which Renaissance depictions the creator of this altarpiece had in mind, I am not sure — Masaccio might provide the inspiration for the general layout (perhaps with a nod to Fra Angelico?), though the body of Christ might suggest the influence (once more) of Perugino. But I leave you with this image and, John, wish you all the best for a 2010 full of hunting for more remnants of Britain’s former love for the Renaissance.