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The Tudor Period - The English Styles

( Originally Published 1920 )



As it was in France so was it in England. The Renaissance was an affected style. This was also true of the Gothic in England, although the Gothic was indigenous to France. The Renaissance was a natural outcome of geographical position and of social evolution in Italy. The English adopted the Renaissance as a new and interesting means of expressing national ideas. They adopted the forms rather than the ideas for which they stood, and, as is always the case, these forms were at first copied, and later modified, into what may be styled the English expression of Italian ideas. The development of these forms in England, however, was considerable, although neither so complete nor so distinctive as those in France under the inspiration of Francis I.

In order to make a simple comparison between these two national types that we may the more clearly understand the fundamental qualities of the English form, it is well to consider first some of the elements concerned in their development.

In the first place, the life of the people of any country is the greatest factor in the evolution of its art. It is their daily activities that determine the needs of the time, and these needs are satisfied by the normal production of such objects as are essential. These objects accordingly represent the art of the nation.

Up to the last quarter of the fifteenth century the English people may be said to have developed rugged, solid, individual but primitive expressions of their social ideal. This is partly due to the geographical isolation of Great Britain. By its position it is cut off from other types of life with which it might have, under different circumstances, commingled. It is also due, in part, to the fact that the national mind had given its attention to political rather than social development. But, most of all, it may be attributed to the mixed qualities which we call the English temperament. Perhaps we can perceive something of this temperamental aggregate by noticing for a moment the strains of influence which are fused together in the comprehensive term "the British nation."

This people is Celtic in origin, and while perhaps little of the Celtic quality remains in England, much of the feeling is still present in the quality of the Irish mind, and no doubt hereditary strains are clearly traceable to this origin even in the English. Before the beginning of the Christian era the Romans had invaded the British Islands. By the beginning of the fourth century England was practically under their domination, and to this day appear inerasable marks of the power of that mighty nation.

The early Britons mingled with and absorbed many of the Roman traditions, particularly in political and social life, which remain as mountain-top traits in English modern life. In the first place, English law is based somewhat upon Roman law. Much of jurisprudence, political organization, and desire for territorial expansion, as well as substantial, formal, warlike measures, are of Roman origin. These elemental factors have produced qualities of solidity, strength, formality, conservatism and fearlessness, which are fundamentals in the English character and are clearly discernible in their art.

Before the eighth century Roman power had gradually declined, and the invasion of the Anglo-Saxons with their traditions of somewhat barbaric domesticity brought into the language, social forms and domestic relationships, the Teutonic qualities which are perceptible in the domestic ideals of English life. The amalgamation of the Anglo-Saxons and the added domestic ideas of the Danes furnished a remarkable complement to the formal imperialism of the Roman time.

The tendency toward democratic equality, the inclination for comfort and moderation, and the distinctly non-monarchic viewpoint of these Anglo-Saxon invaders were also strong factors in the rapid development of the home idea in England after the beginning of the eighth century. But this was interrupted and greatly modified by the invasion of the Norman French under William the Conqueror about the middle of the eleventh century. Very different was this ideal from the crude democratic social ideal of the two previous centuries. With William the Conqueror came the feudal system, with all its military power, caste system and monarchic principles. He laid the foundation for the absolute monarchy which reached its height under Henry VIII at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

Brief mention of these different races has been made here to stimulate an inquiry regarding the different phases of the English periods in order that it may be kept in mind that the British people are the most mixed, comprehensive and varied in experience of all nations. In consequence of this complexity, they have perhaps more ideas to express and less definitely formulated traditions in one style of expression. Their ideas have been less thoroughly worked out than those of nations which have had one ideal from time immemorial, and have expressed it in traditional forms that grew more and more insistent until the climax was reached, when decadence set in and resulted in the destruction of the original idea.

The second factor which has influenced in a large degree English art expression is their peculiar political viewpoint. In no country has there been so decided a conflict between supreme monarchic power and democratic ideals as in the national history of this remarkable people. One has only to remember the Magna Charta and the steps which led to it, all that followed its acceptance, the climax of absolutism under Henry VIII, the peculiar strategic ideal of Elizabeth, the ups and downs of the Stuart dynasty, the peculiar outcome of the Dutch regime under William and Mary, the vicissitudes of the Georges, and the remarkable constitutional monarchy under Victoria, to see how difficult it is to consider the English periods as expressing monarchic ideas alone. In France the period of Francis I or Louis XIV or Louis XV was dominated supremely by the monarch and his associates. The corresponding English periods, while somewhat under the direction of the monarch, owed their origin to national ideas rather than to monarchic whims.

The third factor which has played no small part in the development of the people is their attitude to the Christian religion, which was generally embraced by the beginning of the fifteenth century. The English Church, though Roman in its origin, was always less clearly identified with the general movement than were those of the continent. By the last days of the fifteenth century, when Henry VII had completed the chapel in Westminster Abbey, the Gothic influence had spent its force, and already the secular in life was making itself felt. This period in England corresponds to that of Louis XII in France. The English up to this time had less contact with Italy and other continental countries than had France, and had developed a very crude type of interior architecture and domestic furnishing. The houses were mostly made of wood and during the reign of Henry VII became picturesque to a degree.

While we must ignore architecture in its exterior forms in this book, a general feeling for the "Englishman's home as his castle" will be found in the middle and upper class house of the period just named. The furnishings, it is true, were crude and consisted mainly of a Gothic chest, a roughly finished oak table, a possible bread and cheese cupboard and primitive benches. Unlike those of the same period in France, they were lacking in structural niceties and subtle decorative Gothic ornament.

The home idea, however, was innate and the head of the family supreme, while the individual rights of the family were jealously maintained. The days of Henry VIII and the establishment of the English Church in its present form, with the king as the hereditary head, the constant conflict between the mother church and the reformed faith, the dissensions and separations consequent upon this conflict, are too well known to require more than a passing word. The type of religion or religious form which prevailed influenced greatly the art of the time and, sometimes, dominated its style.

With these four great influences in mind, and with a mental picture of the English people, one is fitted, with the aid of imagination, to understand the meaning of the Renaissance in England.

The art periods may be summarized as follows: The Tudor period from about 1500 to 1603. The Stuart period from 1603 to 1688.

The Dutch influence from 1688 to 1750. The Individual period from 1750 to 1837. The Victorian period from 1837 to 1900.

The New Renaissance from 1900 to the present day. For our purposes the Tudor period may be divided into two parts-that of Henry VIII, who came to the throne in 1509 and died in 1547, and that of Elizabeth, extending from the time she came to the throne in 1558 to her death in 1603.

The reigns of Mary Tudor and Edward VI made little impress on the period and need not be mentioned here. Sometimes writers have classed this entire period as Elizabethan, and have spoken of the Tudor as the period including the reigns of Henry VII and VIII. It seems to me, however, that a clearer idea may be obtained by looking at the Tudor period as the expression of two distinct types of ideas.

The reign of Henry VIII is characterized by some remarkable changes. The climax of absolute rule enabled the king and his ministers to dominate in a large measure the public mind, while the religious attitude of the country was so modified that the favourite of the king (his wife for the time being) had a great deal of influence on the development of the style. This new attitude in English court life to the domestic idea had a general bearing on the rapidity with which the style was evolved.

We must not spend time in discussing the phenomenal evolution of the English house, though a familiarity with its history will add greatly to one's appreciation of its furnishings and fittings.

With the establishment of the new English church form and with the domestic ideal determined by the king and his court, some fitting expression of these ideas would naturally be sought. Their attention was first turned to Italy. Italian furniture, textiles, ornament and even the artists themselves were brought into England. These arrivals increased with the ascendancy of Anne Boleyn, and continued after she gave place to others. The style then prevailing may be said to be a modification of the Italian Renaissance without a proper conception of the interior as a setting for the requisite furnishings.

While Henry VIII and his reign are responsible for the Elizabethan period, its maturity is found in the days of Elizabeth herself, and for that reason we deal with the Elizabethan period as the culminating expression of what is known as the old English idea.

In the reign of Elizabeth interiors reached the stage of development in which the pointed Gothic hammerbeam roof with its modifications had given place to a flat modified Renaissance ceiling. The walls during this period were panelled in three or four distinct types of oak panelling, each an evolution from the other, each gradually dropping its carved Renaissance motifs and becoming flatter with fewer and less ornate mouldings. These old English panelled walls are radiantly expressive of the dignity and sober earnestness of the period itself. Some are beautifully arranged with pilasters whose faces are carved in Renaissance motifs. The cornices are equally beautiful, and ceilings are modifications of the Italian idea, generally in a remarkably sustained way. The chimney pieces are often large, elaborately carved and chiselled, running sometimes to the ceiling itself, and heavy with Renaissance ornament and other motifs.

The furniture is chiefly oak and is distinguished by its heavy scale, the beautiful soft tones of the wood, and by the awkward proportions of the structural features, particularly during the middle of this period. Perhaps the most distinguishing quality is the series of huge bulges in the legs of tables and in bed posts, and the ugly proportion of the Ionic capital as it was used with these bulges in the supports of tables, beds and on cabinets. The surfaces of these supports are a mass of carving, crudely wrought and often badly proportioned, but rich in general effect. They bespeak a desire to accomplish in English scale and feeling the same result that Francis I developed in working out the idea, in the supports of the furniture in the period which he dominated. The difference in effect, however, is remarkable.

Articles of furniture were few in number even in the days of Elizabeth. Those most commonly found were the bread and cheese cupboard, which served for almost anything that was to be put out of sight, the huge oak table with its ponderous top and often badly proportioned legs, the crude bench which took the place of chairs at the table, the bed, wood canopied with huge bulbous posts, the wainscot chair, wood throughout, almost grotesque in its form and ornament, and various chests which naturally followed the Gothic chest of the period preceding.

Panelled walls at first were covered with huge tapestries, and the floor with rushes or a kind of straw to soften sound and make the room more comfortable. A little later, through the influence of the wonderful Holbein, portraits were developed which, in spirit and technique as well as in size and form, found a proper place over the chimney pieces and on the walls of these heavily panelled oak rooms to which they lent a needed richness.

In the early forms of the banquet hall with its Gothic vaulted ceiling, its huge tapestried walls, its floors strewn with rushes upon which the hunting dogs lay at the feet of their masters, heads of deer and other animals found a fairly suitable place upon the walls as they were hung amid the helmets, armour and hunting implements of the masters of the house. Picture, for a moment, this banquet hall and the zoological ornaments which seem a natural part of it, and then consider the inappropriateness of transferring this armour, these implements, and these deer heads to a modern, sixteen-by-eighteen Chippendale-furnished dining-room. Is it any wonder that there is need for the study of period art to see where the mistreatment of the traditions of bygone ages has brought us?

The textiles of this period are dark, rich tapestries, velvets and damasks. Rich indeed were they in the days of Henry VIII, while they were dark and formal in the days of Elizabeth. The remarkable harmony of the value relation between these and their surroundings explains the sombre impressiveness of the period known as the Elizabethan.

The application of the Elizabethan style may be suggested here. Its scale is magnificent and it lends itself naturally to exploitation in expensive country houses, and is also of use in working out a scheme for a man's room or for cafes in large hotels. It has unlimited possibilities for adaptation in the interior dec oration and furnishing of theatres. American theatres have been largely a barbaric American expression of mixed French styles which mean nothing but glamour and ostentation and which serve no good purpose, since the auditorium of a theatre should be a background, keeping its place as such and giving the stage and the actors on it a chance for at least a part of the public attention.

This Elizabethan period with its panellings, its dark, rich colours, its soft and neutral combinations, its heavy and dignified scale, should appeal more strongly than any other to people of good taste as an expression of the function of a theatre auditorium in which the size will permit the English scale.



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