Tudors: Arts & Invention
As with so much else in the Tudor period, the Reformation wrought great changes in the arts. Artists, dramatists and philosophers sought new patrons and novel, non-religious subjects.
FAITH AND PATRONAGE
Some artists were able to achieve success despite their allegiance to the ‘wrong’ religion. Although they were all closet or avowed Catholics, the organist-composers Thomas Tallis and William Byrd – the ‘founding father’ of Renaissance music in England – and the lutenist-composer John Dowland all managed to thrive in Protestant England.
Perhaps more than any other art form, the Reformation changed the scope of painting. The embellishment of churches with painted religious images was now rejected as idolatrous, so painters sought new patrons and subject matter. Royal or aristocratic patronage was crucial, and Henry VIII’s lavish spending on the arts attracted artists to his court from across Europe.
This was above all the age of the portrait. Iconic images of the great – such as Hans Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII and the representations of Elizabeth I as an earthly goddess by Marcus Gheeraerts and others – were nothing new. But now portraiture was within the reach of the middle classes.
Nobles and courtiers were commonly depicted, as seen in the exquisite miniatures painted by Nicholas Hilliard. Even more significantly, portraits began to emerge of country squires, merchants and prosperous yeomen farmers. Even a cartoon-like portrait by an inexpert travelling painter was a proclamation of rising status.
More than 600 Elizabethan plays survive. Those most frequently still performed were written by Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and, of course, William Shakespeare.
The son of a Stratford-upon-Avon glover, Shakespeare had comparatively little education – something which those who dispute the authorship of his plays find particularly hard to accept. But like many Elizabethan English artists of all kinds, he drew on European Renaissance sources throughout his work.
To be a ‘Renaissance Man’ – excelling not only in the arts, philosophy and politics, but also in physical activities like warfare and dancing – was the Elizabethan aim. Thus Elizabeth I’s godson Sir John Harington, better remembered today for the invention of the flushing lavatory, also translated the hugely popular Renaissance Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso.
This was an important source for Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene (1589). Spenser himself was also, among other things, a soldier – a double life shared by contemporaries including the gallant soldier-poet Sir Philip Sidney.
Good looks helped make the man. Sir Christopher Hatton of Kirby Hall, Northamptonshire, playwright, politician and eventually Lord Chancellor, first attracted Elizabeth’s attention thanks to his ‘young and comely tallness of body’ and his skill in dancing, an accomplishment the queen was also blessed with.
Hatton never succeeded, however, in luring Elizabeth to ‘progress’ to his mansions. His rival for her favour, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, welcomed her several times to Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, though. He included a purpose-built dancing chamber among the apartments he created specifically for her accommodation there.
PHILOSOPHERS, ALCHEMISTS AND INVENTORS
Elizabeth’s circle also included ‘natural philosophers’ like Dr John Dee, who coined the term ‘British Empire’. He also more than dabbled in alchemy and magic, claiming to hold regular conversations with angels.
Sir Walter Ralegh, courtier, poet and explorer obsessed with the fabled El Dorado, apparently invented an all-curing ‘cordial’ during chemical experiments conducted while he was imprisoned in the Tower of London.
But another experiment allegedly proved fatal to the voluble politician-philosopher Francis Bacon. Stuffing a hen with snow to see whether that would preserve it, he caught a chill and died.