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.

Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire, embodies the Elizabethan love of symbolism

Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire, embodies the Elizabethan love of symbolism
© Richard Lea

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. 

Chamber organ at Carisbrooke Castle, made in 1602 and still in working order. Over the course of the 16th century organ music evolved from Latin verse to English hymns, one of the many by-products of the Reformation.

Chamber organ at Carisbrooke Castle on the Isle of Wight, made in 1602 and still in working order. Over the course of the 16th century organ music evolved from Latin verse to English hymns, one of the many by-products of the Reformation.

FAMOUS FACES

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.

PLAYWRIGHTS

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.

Miniature portrait of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, by Nicholas Hilliard. A patron of William Shakespeare, Henry may have been the ‘fair youth’ to whom Shakespeare addressed his sonnets 1–126.

Miniature portrait (painted c.1594) of Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, by Nicholas Hilliard. A patron of William Shakespeare, Southampton may have been the ‘fair youth’ to whom Shakespeare addressed his sonnets 1–126.
© Bridgeman Art Library

RENAISSANCE MEN

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.

DANCING FAVOURITES

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.

  • More on perceptions of painted images as idolatrous in Tudors: Religion
  • More on how artists travelled between England and continental Europe in Tudors: Networks 
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