On Saturday 15 November, a full complement of Ipswich Society members
travelled to the Victoria and Albert Museum to view the Gothic Exhibition.
Our guides for the day, Charles Tracy and Judith Meredith-Stewart, to whom
we were greatly indebted, accompanied us on the coach. Charles used the
journey to prepare us for the exhibition by generously supplying us with a
copy of the genealogical Houses of York and Lancaster. This helped us to
place, by means of his explanation, Gothic Art in England in the context of
the very turbulent period from Edward III in 1327 until the death of Henry
VII in 1509.
Today we use the term "Gothic" to describe buildings and objects whose form
derives from the pointed arch developed from the mid- 12th to the end of the
15th century in most parts of Europe. However, the word was unknown during
this period and was first used in the Renaissance to define a "barbaric"
style which did not reflect the classical ideals popular at that time. In
the late 18th and early 19th century the Gothic style regained popularity
through architects such as Pugin, when "Gothic" came to identify not just an
artistic style but a whole epoch - "The Gothic Age".
Our guides split us into four groups, taking two groups before and two after
lunch. This was extremely helpful as we could all derive benefit from expert
guidance and knowledge. My curiosity centred on the manner in which this
exhibition would be presented, as it must have been quite a daunting task
for the exhibition curator, Professor Richard Marks, to decide which
artifacts to display and how to do so.
In the foyer of the exhibition the subdued lighting and predominantly black
and red colouring acted as a rich and appropriate backdrop for the period.
The entrance was flanked by the towering mythical painted carvings of the
four Dacre beasts, the bull, gryphon, ram and dolphin (c. 1520) from
Narworth Castle in Cumberland. They are rare examples of a tradition of
heraldic ornament and are said to have been taken to the Field of the Cloth
of Gold in France. In stark contrast, mounted in a glass case and spot-lit,
was the beautiful tiny crown which belonged to Margaret of York, sister of
Edward IV. It is one of only two existing medieval crowns. This was only the
introduction to the exhibition and for me it encapsulated the perfect feel
of "the Gothic".
The main exhibition was thematically displayed under the titles Culture,
Royalty, War and Chivalry, Patrons, City and Town, Household, Church and
Death. but inevitably many of these themes overlapped.
For each of us there were exhibits that held our attention for different
reasons, but most of us were stopped in our tracks by the Reliquary of the
Order of St Esprit (c. 1390-1410). This is an elaborately arcaded structure
of gold, enamelled en ronde bosse, set with pearls, rubies, sapphires and
enamelled flowers superimposed with a plaque of the arms of Henry III of
France. Another show-stopper was the tournament armour for the foot combat
of Henry V111 which was made by Flemish and Italian craftsmen working in
England c. 1520. It stands 188cm high proving that Henry was not only stout
but tall. The armour was made for the tournament at the Field of the Cloth
of Gold and shows signs of being hastily assembled as Francis I of France
changed the rules governing the type of armour to be worn! The horse armour,
also for Henry VIII, displayed on a model horse, was probably a gift from
the Emperor Maximilian I to Henry VIII to mark his wedding to Catherine of
Aragon in 1509.
1 don't intend to re-write the catalogue of the exhibition, which is a hefty
tome selling at E45 per copy and currently available at Waterstones, but
hope to give a flavour of our day. For those of you who won't be able to get
to the V&A, an easier and longer term option would be to visit churches,
towns, houses and museums in this area which feature quite prominently as
source material for the exhibition.
Paycocke's House at Coggeshall was cited as a fine example of a fashionable
Tudor timber merchant's house, elaborately decorated with his own merchant
mark, an ermine tail. Perhaps more unexpected was the Charter of Henry V to
the Borough of Colchester (from Colchester
Museums). The illuminated initial encloses a figure of St Helena who also
figures on the Colchester town seat matrix (c. 1413). St Mary's Church in
Bury St Edmunds was represented by the cadaver tomb of John Baret. It is
meant to prompt the viewer both to consider his own fate and to pray for the
Also in this section, the Art of Death, is the brass of Thomas and Emme
Pownder originally from St Mary Quay, Ipswich, now in Christchurch Mansion.
Pownder was one of the bailiffs, orjoint mayors of Ipswich, and a
ship-owner. Another amazing exhibit from Ipswich is an unusual oak wicket
door surrounded by a large imposing frame once belonging to a merchant's
house in Key Street, now in Ipswich Museum.
Exhibits from churches in Suffolk are many, namely Holy Trinity Long Melford
and St Peter and St Paul Lavenharn for their architecture, St Mary's Bury St
Edmunds for its nave and corbel angel (now in the V&A), St Mary's at Kersey
for part of a chancel screen with images of prophets and kings, St Mary's
Ufford for one of its many fine benches and an early 15th century burse from
St Ethelbert's in Hessett (now in the British Museum). Lastly the Exning pyx
(1450-1500) found in Exning churchyard in 1845 and now in the British
Many of the artefacts have been borrowed from sources outside the V&A and
because of their age and rarity are priceless, offering us a rare chance to
see them. Gold and silver plate, manuscripts, tapestries, carvings,
sculptures, armour,jewellery, vestments all were expertly displayed and they
gave us, the visitors, a much better appreciation of the period now known as
Cover, issue 154