A History of British Art, by Andrew Graham-Dixon

January 2, 2012 at 11:32 pm (Anglophilia, Art, books)

I am currently reading, in discreet chunks, a most fascinating book of art history by Andrew Graham-Dixon, an art critic and historian who first came to my notice with his  BBC documentary The Art of Russia. Graham-Dixon had a new book out on Caravaggio.   While I was awaiting my reserve on that title, Amazon helpfully informed me that this author had also written a book on the history of British art. This proved a somewhat tough “get,” as it is out of print. I obtained a used copy somewhat the worse for wear but acceptable condition (and enhanced here by Ron’s artful camera work):

This is from the introduction:  “An air of abjectness and a consciousness of failure has for centuries hung over the discussion of art not just in England but in Britain as a whole.” The author then adds, “Perhaps this partly explains the curious fact that no-one , to my knowledge has, until now, attempted a general history of the subject in one book.”

Right at the outset, Graham-Dixon insists on confronting head-on the crucial importance of the massive destruction of religious art which was the concomitant of Henry VIII’s separation from Rome:

The radical leaders of the new Protestant church were vigorous and determined opponents of all Roman Catholic rituals and imagery. Under their direction thousands upon thousands of works of religious art were burned and smashed. Throughout Scotland, Wales and England cathedrals and churches were emptied of sculptures, paintings and stained glass. Grimy festive bonfires were lit, and the common people were encouraged to warm themselves as their religious past went up in flames.

As regards the teaching and the discussion of British history, especially British art history, the extent of this destruction has not been acknowledged. But it must be, Graham-Dixon insists, if a true understanding of that history is to be attained.

Once he’s fairly launched into the body of this work, Graham-Dixon presents us with some stunning images from pre-Reformation  Catholic Britain. Most of these have survived by having been deliberately hidden or simply overlooked. The author laments:

The Middle Ages in Britain have become the Missing Ages, and British churches and cathedrals have become the graveyards or excavation sites of the art produced during the long centuries of Catholic belief….But there are certainly enough remains to refute the eccentric and still often repeated notion that the British have never proved themselves to be an especially exuberant or self-expressive nation. The British were once a zealous, convulsive, rowdy, colourful and superstitious people, possessed by consoling dreams of other, brighter worlds and by nightmares of death and damnation, living their painful and devoted lives in a world of  smoke and incense and music and hot, hot colour.

(I find that last sentence amazing. It contains an entire ethnography of the British people of the Middle Ages. And so beautifully expressed. I love the way this man writes.)


In 1892, the Church of St. Peter in Wenhaston, Suffolk, was being restored. Workmen had taken the tympanum – a painted  backdrop for a carving of Christ on the cross – out of the building and laid it on the ground. (The crucifix itself was long gone.)

At the time these events occurred, the painting on the tympanum was covered with whitewash that had been applied centuries before. Was the plan to paint it afresh? to burn it? No one knows for sure. What is known is that during the night, while the tympanum lay outside, it rained. The whitewash dissolved and ran off. When the workmen returned the next day, this is what they saw:

“Too crude to be a masterpiece but crude enough to be unforgettable,” it is called the Wenhaston Doom and probably dates from around 1490 AD.


Ranworth, a village in Norfolk, is home to St. Helen’s Church, which dates from the fourteenth century. The church keeps within its premises a medieval Latin antiphoner dating from the 1400’s. This type of illuminated prayer book, used in the Catholic worship service, was banned in 1549. The Ranworth antiphoner, consisting of 285 vellum pages, was undoubtedly slated for destruction. Yet miraculously, down through the ages, it has survived:

Nativity with shepherds

Jonah and the big fish


King David Kneeling


According to Wikipedia, The Worshipful Company of Mercers is “…the premier Livery Company of the City of London.” We are further informed that “It is the first of the so-called “Great Twelve City Livery Companies.” First constituted 1394, the Mercers are based in Mercer’s Hall. This edifice is now in its third iteration, having first been destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and then again in the Second World War.

I think it’s fair to say that this is one of those entities whose historic function is somewhat hard to grasp for those not intimately familiar with English history. Its present function, or at least one of them, however, is easier to understand:

‘This exclusive hall has now opened its doors to the corporate market for the first time in its 500 year history and is perfect for all evening dinners, receptions or conferences.’

In the 1950s, while digging under the Hall’s foundation, builders discovered this:

Here is Graham-Dixon: “Art was the sympathetic handmaiden of a faith rooted in sympathy for the sick and the dying, whose God had Himself experienced human pain and an excruciating death through the person of Jesus Christ. There is no more moving meditation on this theme than the Mercer’s Hall Christ.”

It is here, while discoursing on this work which dates from the early 1500s, that the author gives a free reign to his frustration with the state of British art history scholarship as regards this particular period:

The fact that its existence has been known to only a handful of people until now makes it one of the most compelling instances of the black hole of amnesia and ignorance into which so much of the medieval art of Britain has  been allowed to fall….It should be on public view but is to be found, instead, lying on the floor of the Mercer’s Hall boardroom. Time has lent the work additional pathos and now this marble corpse of Christ proclaims two deaths, the death of God and the death of an entire tradition of British art.

(A History of British Art was published in 1996. One wonders if this situation has since been addressed.)


In  the Renaissance wing of London’s National Gallery can  be found the Wilton Diptych (ca. 13395-9): “…the most beautiful dream of heaven to survive in all British art: a paradise garden think with fat, bright blossoms, occupied by a lethargic, almond-eyed Virgin and crowded round with long-necked, sleepy angels with flowers in their golden hair.”

In this gallery filled with the art of the great Sienese painters, the Wilton Diptych is the sole work by a British artist.

Walking through the rest of the museum, the visitor passes all that never took place in British art. There was to be no British Titian, no Tintoretto, no Raphael, no Michelangelo, no Caravaggio, no Velasquez.


Taking a leap forward in time: “It took two foreigners to repair the wreckage of the British visual tradition and to lay the foundations of a recognizably British way of making and thinking about painting.” They were:

Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), of Augsberg, in Bavaria;

Jane Seymour, Queen of England

King Henry VIII

The Ambassadors

Sir Thomas More

Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641), of Antwerp;

Hemtrietta Maria and the dwarf, Sir Jeffrey Hudson

Charles I, King of England at the hunt

Triple portrait of King Chares I


There’s more to come on this fascinating subject.

1 Comment

  1. Barbara said,

    Having just finished A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr, I was fascinated by the portion of your post describing the Wenhaston Doom. The book is about a newly returned WWI soldier hired to restore a medieval painting in a small country church. It is remarkable and I think you might enjoy it in tandem with this new book you’re reading.

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