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This review is from: Seven Ages of Britain (Hardcover)
David Dimbley's Seven Ages of Britain is best read in conjunction with the television series. Indeed, there are times when the book reads more like a television script than an historical narrative. History is discovered "through seeing art and handling objects that bring the past to life." This explicitly favours a visual approach which is incapable of being transferred to the written page without losing some of its essence. This is clear at the outset when Dimbleby holds the Alfred Jewel and in the picture of him being hoisted in the Church of the Holy Trinity, Coventry, to get a close up of the Last Judgement.
The Book is presented in seven chapters, each of which is written by different person, all of whom are qualified in their own fields. The first is called the "Age of Conquest". This refers to the invasions of Britain by a variety of peoples including the Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Norse. The island accommodated a number of small kingdoms. The growth of Christianity was accompanied by the establishment of monastries and the development of Christian art, although most art from the period has been overshadowed by the Bayeaux Tapestry which signalled the of Anglo Saxon rule.
The second chapter concentrates on medieval life which was dominated by the crown and the church. Although the medieval church was used as a mechanism of social control, it did provide "purpose and structure to daily life (and) helped protect the sick and the poor." It also brought it into political and economic conflict with the crown which led to the murder of Thomas Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket's death had unexpected consequences including his proclamation as a saint and regular pilmgrimages which Chaucer immortalised in his Canterbury Tales. The notion that the Middle Ages was a "block of time" between the Romans and the Renaissance is summarily dismissed. It was an ordered society with "a natural spirit of riotousness" seen in art of the period through reminders of mortality combined with gargoyles and other figures representative of an unseen world.
The Age of Power is about the Tudors who took power away from the Church and sailors who took to adventuring. Hans Holbein was one of many painters who left realistic portraits of their contemporaries seen in the magnificent pictures of Henry V111 and the 1533 painting of the Ambassadors. Miniatures became fashionable, often combining a picture with a motto or short message, although in many cases the meaning has been lost with time. The Age of Revolution describes the way in which visual art reflected the conflicts within society, Catholic and Puritan, Roundhead and Cavalier. The magnificent Mansion House in Whitehall, designed by Inigo Jones, epitomised James The First's philosophy of Divine Right. Other notable artists included Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony van Dyck while Samuel Cooper's portrait of Cromwell captured him "warts and all". Neither should anyone overlook the magnificent St Paul's Cathedral rebuilt after the original was lost in the Great Fire of London.
The Age of Money, with the emergence of the middle classes and The Age of Empire, saw changes in communication with the expansion of technology and communication, including turnpikes and daily newspapers. Road travel between London and Manchester was reduced from ninety hours to thirtythree, although some preferred the isolation which existed before tarmacadam. "Artistic interest became focused on the British landscape" especially when the traditional Grand Tour fell victim to the revolution in France. This ushered in the Romantic period of the nineteenth century. Imperialism as a sacred duty was expressed in paintings of war scenes. The deaths of Wolfe, Nelson and Gordon were particularly popular.,
The book closes with the Age of Ambition in which, "art came off the gallery walls, freed itself from old power structures and became an instrument of self-expression at the service of the individual." The result was "sometimes wonderful, sometimes obscure" although for many (including myself) the obscure usually hid the wonderful. Epstein, Nash and Henry Moore still do nothing to raise my interest while abstract art is too, well, abstract (and pretentious). The Turner Prize History website wrote of the 2009 prize entrants, "Roger Hiorns' cow brains and crystallized bedsit questioned our assumptions about certainty, materiality and the future whilst Lucy Skaer's full sized whale skull and alluring yet illusive drawing of a whale skeleton implicated the body in the act of looking. Contemporary surrealist Enrico David's cast of uncanny characters floating in a theatrical black void drew us into a strange childlike world of imagination and uncertainty." I can think of a single adjective to describe the lot.
I've given the book four stars for two reasons. Firstly, it provided knowledge which my traditional concentration on political history had missed. Secondly, by the time I reached the end I had a better, if still imperfect, understanding of what people see in art. It's well worth a look for beginners.