The Renaissance, English self-deception and homegrown imports
When it came to constructing ‘our own’ ‘Very British Renaissance’, the Scots, it seems, had little to contribute. In the first episode of the BBC programme of that title, presented by the art historian Dr James Fox, Stirling Castle made a guest appearance. It stood alone: the second episode of the three-part series dispensed with any attempt to define ‘British’ as anything other than ‘English’, with Wales and, indeed, most of England itself beyond the south-east also forgotten. And, indeed, if those from north of the border played any role in this Renaissance, it was, implicitly, as the bad guys: it all went wrong, the final episode suggested, when James I (as he was described) allowed a Stuart court culture to develop that looked to the ‘foreign Renaissance’ rather than to ‘our homegrown’ one.
You will see that I have stayed the course, selflessly I may say, caring not for blood pressure nor for restful leisure time. After I fulminated about the first episode ‘A Very British Renaissance’, I felt it behove me to continue watching so that you did not have to (and I know several of you are grateful to me for that). And I must admit that the later episodes surprised me in two ways. The first was that I found myself growing to like the tall figure on the small screen. I will admit that ‘to my mind’ – a favourite phrase of Dr Fox – the presenter, in his first instalment, was simply too fey as he chatted up a putto. In the second, which concentrated on Elizabethan England, he was more knowing and his enthusiasm was undeniably infectious. That excitement continued into the last episode but with it came an element not seen before, a certain forthrightness, a willingness to dismiss as much as to delight. The one constant across these later episodes was that he did not cleanse himself of those attitudes which had so successfully raised my hackles earlier: his blithe elision of England with Britain; his unblinking assumption that, of course, these islands had a separate civilization from mainland Europe, and his recourse to a depiction of ‘our’ ‘British’ character which, he implied, the Renaissance reaffirmed and reinforced. In fact, the second surprise was the way in which the third episode saw him dirty his hands further with this greater-England, little-Britain Whiggish cant.
Having given his first discussion over to the supposed domestication of the Italian Renaissance on these shores in the earlier sixteenth century, the second episode had concentrated on how peculiarly ‘British’ was the art of Nicholas Hilliard or were the achievements of Thomas Harriot as the English Leonardo. The final offering took, from its start, a rather different angle, setting up a dichotomy between the court’s ‘foreign’ Renaissance, all classicism, masques and ‘sycophantic drivel’, and the wholesome, homegrown British Renaissance of the ‘real world’ – which turned out to be the Suffolk countryside and Christ Church, Oxford. Now, I am a Houseman, Oxford’s Henrician foundation my alma mater, and the stately expanse of Tom Quad through which Fox walked saw me mature, while the elegance of the Upper Library is where I will be at work with the manuscripts this afternoon, sitting at the desk where the presenter fingered The Anatomy of Melancholy. But even I would not want to claim for this cathedral-college status as the epitome of reality – and not because, before it became known as (and I have truly heard a tour-guide call it thus) ‘Harry Potter’s college’, it was the looking-glass world of Alice. Rather, we should be severely sceptical of any neat distinction between ‘fantasy’ and the ‘real’, as if each did not mediate the other to such an extent that the technicolor and the monochrome bleed together in our lives. The desire for dichotomy – the ordering of the world by binary oppositions – is itself suspect but has been the driving motor of ‘A Very British Renaissance’. Its shift of gear in the third episode begged more questions than it could possibly answer: were there, then, two Renaissances occurring simultaneously in England? Was the ‘Italian Renaissance’ still alive, then, in the early seventeenth century or was the court outdated as well as decadent? When did the division between ‘court’ and – though this was not Fox’s term – ‘country’ develop?
However inconsistent it may be with what went before, it could be said, in its defence, that at least a political thread united this presentation with the previous ones: it would not take a master cryptographer to decode the implications of a tale of an out-of-touch élite squandering money on ‘Europe’ while the true British heroes knew the value of their own land. We could also hope that it should also not take an intelligent viewer many moments to see this is as fictitious as most Europhobic yarns. Fox suggested that while the Stuarts preferred the fripperies of a van Dyck portrait, those elsewhere were developing the English genius, with Nathaniel Bacon both a gardener and an artist of his products, and William Harvey the man who made medicine modern by his discovery of the circulation of the blood. No mention of the genre of the still life of the Dutch Golden Age that clearly inspired Bacon; no hint that Harvey had read the medical pioneers Vesalius or Matteo Realdo Colombo. Perhaps there is something quintessentially ‘British’ in the homegrown’s reliance on the import – and on the self-deception that it is English tout court.
Does this matter? I do recognise that, however well Mr Farage and his band of Europhobes do on 22nd May 2014 when about a quarter of the electorate bother to turn out, it will probably not be with a mental image of ‘A Very British Renaissance’ in their minds that the voters’ hand swings to the UKIP box. I also appreciate that I could be accused of asking too much – a consistent argument, an honesty with the evidence: but this is a television programme! And that, I think, is where my concern lies. My mind veers towards another series airing at the moment, the deliciously satirical take on the modern BBC, ‘W1A’. In the latest episode, there is a scene where the Head of Values is on his phone counselling against moving ‘Songs of Praise’ to the radio to make TV space for ‘Britain’s Tastiest Village’. He suggests it is not in the spirit of Lord Reith – a pause as he listens – and repeats ‘Reith’, the name clearly unfamiliar to his BBC colleague. ‘W1A’ has drawn plaudits for the Corporation’s ability to find comedic value in its corporate workings; perhaps ‘A Very British Renaissance’ was commissioned in a similar spirit, one of parody of the public broadcasting tradition. It takes on a serious subject, it travels to umpteen settings, it has a ‘Dr’, no less, to present it. Yet, if the curious watched the programme in the hope of learning about the Renaissance what could they take from it, apart from possibly unintended and unwanted advice on their voting intentions? There is no clear definition of ‘Renaissance’, a rather incomplete sense of chronology, a cast-list of characters that combines household names with the little known in a manner which could be interesting but is more likely to confuse – not to mention the absence of any discussion of the ‘how’: how precisely, for example, were the English able to access foreign fashions and how that changed over the period. An audience is more likely to leave this befuddled than enlightened.
I am, though, being ungenerous. What a viewer could not help but take away from Dr Fox’s engaged and personable presentation is that there is a relationship between the British Isles and what we call the Renaissance which is worth investigating. That is surely a public service in itself. Maybe it will even convince the Head of Values — or whichever head poncho — that a programme introducing to a wide public the richness and complexity of that history would be worth commissioning.