It’s not much fun being British at the moment. Whereas, years ago, people used to fret against hooligans shouting “IN-GER-LAND”, going on about the 1966 football World Cup, the Dambusters and waving the flag of St George, the identity articulated these days is invariably British. It seems that “Britain” has become a cipher for English self-importance, exceptionalism, and punching above its weight. Britain First. For Britain. Brexit means Brexit – all of these are English above all else. Cultural identity is often expressed through a self-deprecating tweeness, embodied by the endlessly lauded but utterly dismal opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, and a new set of ten pence coins. T for tea. Q for queuing. The E for England is wasted on English Breakfast (surely F for Full English would have been better?). The disdain we give to our fellow constituents in the UK epitomised by Scotland being represented by the Loch Ness Monster.What is “British”? Technically, there is an archipelago off the north west of continental Europe known as the British Isles. This consists of a long island, Great Britain, a few smaller islands such as Man and Wight, and controversially includes the island of Ireland to its west. It has been settled by many peoples over the millennia, until the Kingdom of England was consolidated under the House of Wessex in the 10th century AD. There are now two countries that occupy these islands: the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (yes, that’s actually our county’s name) is made up of four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their alliance as “Britain” has been precarious to say the least.
Wales and Ireland never had strong dynastic kingdoms in the Middle Ages. The Normans had a crack at both following the 1066 Conquest, but it was Edward I who subdued Wales into becoming a principality of England in 1282, and Oliver Cromwell brutally reconquered the island of Ireland in the 1650s: the subsequent confiscation of Catholic landowners’ property setting the scene for the division of the island in the 20th century. Scotland and England were of course, bitter rivals in the Middle Ages, but shared a monarch by the 17th century, formally joining together as the United Kingdom in the Act of Union of 1707.
In 1800, a second act of Union brought Ireland into the United Kingdom. The 19th century was when the idea of “Britishness” as we know it today was forged through the British Empire. The East India Company was dissolved in 1858 and India came under direct rule from the Crown, making Queen Victoria Empress of India. Britain also benefited greatly in the Scramble for Africa. This archipelago became a new Italy and London its the new Rome of an Empire that famously spanned the globe.
But all Empires rise to fall. The first half of the 20th century – not that we learn this in school – was the century of Britain’s worst atrocities as it grasped onto its declining Empire. The concentration camps in the Boer War. The Amritsar Massacre. The Bengal Famine. The Firebombing of Dresden. The Partition of India. The Maylan Emergency. Britain was first humiliated on the world stage by the Suez Crisis in 1952. When Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal – the artery of the Empire from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean – Britain threw a tizzy and invaded Egypt to win it back. They couldn’t.
Since then, we don’t seem to learn and still act like we’re super important. The Falklands (oh yeah, we won that one, great job Maggie). The Iraq War. The exit from the European Union. The current mudslinging reaction to the Skripal incident in Salisbury. The idea of “Britain” is so deeply toxic, symbolising entitlement, control, exceptionalism and dominion, I almost think it’s unsalvageable. It would be deeply significant if we acknowledged – and this is something that could have happened if the 2014 Scottish independence referendum has gone the other way – that England is a nation on an island, not an island nation.
Anyway, time for art. How does one cultivate an English identity? We of course need to acknowledge that all our art is greatly influenced by waves of immigration, not some unshakeable racial character. Next, we acknowledge our neighbours: the constituent countries of the UK, but also Europe. Then of course, we need to accept responsibility for the Empire. But first, we actually need to recognise our great works.
In our fetish for tea and queuing, we don’t celebrate our own art. I go on about how no one takes our medieval parish churches seriously as objects of knowledge, instead dismissing them as picturesque curiosities. It’s the same for our artists. It is only recently that the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers have become acceptable in “serious” art history, and great artists such a G.F. Watts and Edward Burne Jones are studied in the context of European symbolism rather than as eccentric wackos. But our orchestras only play a few select pieces and composers from the English tradition: especially bloody Elgar, making Nimrod from the Enigma Variations into some radio-friendly jingoistic hymn. Composers such as Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Granville Bantock, William Havergal Brian, York Bowen, George Butterworth, Arthur Butterworth are basically unknown (I don’t know why they all begin with B). Sullivan, Britten, Tippett and Walton also receive short shrift. The Hallé are about the only major orchestra who make an effort with English music: London orchestras play more Russians (Shostakovitch, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff) in a single concert than they do English composers in an entire season. Because money.
And yes, a lot of British culture is dangerously obsessed with money, including the art establishment. Probably the most famous living English artist is Damien Hurst, an artist absolutely orientated to the market, who thrives on capital, and is incapable of making any sort of statement to his audience except “ooh, isn’t it scary that we’ll die?” and “wow this looks expensive”. Bombastic shite from vacuous shills like Thomas Heatherwick and Anish Kapoor strives to be “iconic”, but is empty of meaning, let alone any culpability. The Garden Bridge went away: but only because it turned out to be unprofitable.
England can do great things when it’s left to itself for a bit. But it needs ideas. It needs stimulation. And English art and culture has always benefited from moments where the floodgates to outside influence were opened. The Norman Conquest kick-started the great rebuilding of the country’s cathedrals and monasteries one of the most extraordinary feats of architecture, even compared to those of Antiquity.
Anglo-Norman Romanesque then developed in its own weird way. Chevron, beakhead – stuff that no one else did. Then just as it started to eat itself with self-referentiality, the floodgates opened again, to French Gothic. In the last quarter of the 12th century, Wells, Canterbury and Lincoln pioneered a new era of English architecture. It was all dogtooth and shaft-rings for a good 50 years when we were fighting with France on and off from 1202 to 1243.
Then in come the waters again – bringing in France tracery which is a lightning bolt for Lincoln’s Angel Choir, Southwell chapter house, Lichfield and Exeter. Parisian microarchitecture in the 1280s inspired arguably our greatest period of art-marking: the Decorated Style of the early 14th century, Ely Lady Chapel, the surprising flourishes of exuberance found in unassuming parish churches such as Hawton, Irnham and Lawford.
Aggression really took hold again with France with the Hundred Years War, which went on till 1453, funnily enough, the greatest period of stagnation in England’s medieval architecture. I give a lot of flak to 15th-century “Perp” and rightly get a lot back from flint-fans, and while of course there are many interesting buildings, you can’t deny that it all gets a bit samey. Run-of-the-mill. Predictable. Sturdy. Self-important. British.
It was looking up at the end of the Wars of the Roses, when we start to let the continental Renaissance in, with “Fantastic Perp” such as Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, all of course scuppered when our megalomaniacal king pulled us out of the Catholic Church because he didn’t want to be told what to do. You can make your own comparisons there.
So we borrow ideas – but what defines what we do with them? Pevsner famously tried to characterise English art in The Englishness of English Art. He made a bit of balls of it, by most accounts. English art has line, sometimes it’s wavy and sometimes it’s a grid, I think is the general gist of it: crap, yeah. Any purely formal characterisation of art is going to fall on its arse pretty quickly as people say “but Herr Professor Doktor – don’t other countries use lines too?”. But one thing Pevsner was sensible with was making it not about race. It’s not about any sort of John Bull shit. It’s about the island itself.
For me, the best English art is characterised by the dark pastoral. The most exceptional thing about the island we’re on is its landscape. In the United States, you can drive for days, and the landscape, can look exactly the bloody same. In England, I can drive for an hour in any direction (well, not west at the moment, because I’d fall in the sea) and see a dramatic transformation. However, the landscape is always characterised by a temperance, rather than sublimity. Despite the efforts late 18th century painters, our landscape is rarely sublime. We don’t have Matterhorns or Grand Canyons. It’s easy to slip into complacency, or worst, sentimentality. That’s where the meditative mode of the “dark pastoral” comes in. We indeed have a green and pleasant land, but we can’t deny the presence of its dark Satanic mills.
The 14th century Decorated draws on nature, but there is no imperial triumphalism, subduing it the control of man. Instead there’s a lingering menace in the twisted foliage, a strange instability in those nodding ogees, a dizzying intimidation in those complex vaults. The Pre-Raphaelites at their best are similar: on the surface idyllic, but not far below, an acknowledgement of the ills of society and the darkness of human nature.Neo-Romanticism was the last art movement in England to fully embody this spirit of humbling awe. John Piper’s depictions of churches are not cosy watercolours, but expressive portraits of awesome places, not apart from nature and conflict, but entwined with it.
Ralph Vaughan Williams also embodies the spirit of loving our land but a twist of darkness, sadness and culpability throughout his work. Anyone who derides his work as “a cow looking over a gate” needs to sit down with Symphony No. 6 which, responding to the age of atomic bomb, is one of the most brutal and bleak things you’ll hear come out of musical instruments. Even his Pastoral Symphony of 1938-43 – has a very dark undercurrent, responding to the Second World War. I finish with his majestic Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for string orchestra as an example of dark pastoral, how its superficial beauty belies turmoil in its cyclic meditation on the melody written by Tallis in the 1560s for the lines “Why fum‘th in fight, the Gentiles spite” of Psalm 2. First performed at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival in the Cathedral of Gloucester, it mourns the needless Earthly squabbling which led to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the destruction of our culture for money and power. Towards the end, a single viola emerges from the plodding organ-like grandeur of the string orchestra. It’s as if it’s responding to the echoing words of the psalm which continues:
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.
It’s like one folk musician, among the stripping of the abbey of Gloucester, saying to the “kings of the Earth” that you don’t need to do this. Yet does anyone listen?