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Newsletter, January 2004 (Issue 154)

Gothic Art for England


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 deceased.

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 Museum.

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 Gothic.

MARY HOLLIS

    Front cover of issue 154 Cover, issue 154

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