Semper Eadem: Elizabeth at the National Maritime Museum

CULTURE: Semper Eadem
Elizabeth at the National Maritime Museum

Ageless Elizabeth
Once in a while, an exhibition comes along that is simply so good that it is almost impossible to say anything unpleasant about it. Elizabeth, opened by HM the Queen at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich last week, is such an exhibition.

The subject hardly requires introduction. Even now, in a nation that grows more vague by the day on the subject of its pre-Blairite history, the memory of Good Queen Bess is likely to ring bells, if bells of distinctly different castings, tones and timbres. For some she’s simply one of the trio of these islands’ great, long-reigning and high-profile female monarchs, a familiar figure in her increasingly improbable costumes and lead-laced face-paint; for others she’s a stock figure vaguely recalled from dozens of films and books of varying age and quality; for a sizeable number her image is still an icon of English exceptionalism, insular and Providential, projected with swashbuckling vigour overseas or nurtured industriously and fluently at home, in the face of Continental perfidy and error. That the tiny band who remember her mostly as a martyr-making she-Stalin to Walsingham’s Beria generally have the good grace to keep quiet about this in mixed company is more a sign of the resilience of her popularity than anything else; that she has given her name to an age almost universally if dimly regarded as a Good Thing is, at any rate, more or less incontrovertible.

In her own time Elizabeth worked as hard to shape her own image as others did to impose their particular preferred image upon her. And indeed, how could it have been otherwise, given how absolutely unacceptable the realities of her situation must have looked to everyone: the realities of life as an only intermittently legitimate heir and female monarch, first young then unmarried and finally terminally childless, faced with a kingdom that was bankrupt, riven by doctrinal and factional rivalries and surrounded by hostile and aggressive foreign powers, unable to achieve anything except by through an alchemy of compromise, subterfuge and good luck?

But by the same token, ever since her death four hundred years ago, each age has been equally assiduous and inventive in producing its own, bespoke, purpose-built Elizabeth. Thus it is that within memory, Elizabeth was successively the triumphant leader of an embattled little island, or a pretty young girl-queen set to preside over an age of bracing economic and social transformation. More recently, in contrast, there was Cold War Elizabeth, negotiating her way in a world terrifyingly poised between the claims of two all-encompassing, thoroughly incompatible ideological systems, one of them characterised by authoritarianism, repression and foreign tyranny, the other characterised by liberty, economic freedom, individual expression and a subliminal tendency to look out towards a broader Anglosphere for support. And as Christopher Haigh, amongst others, has pointed out, it was only a matter of time before Elizabeth became confused in the public mind not with her regal namesake, but with quite another image-conscious, carefully-coifed, indefatigable, larger-than-life female, surrounded by scheming courtiers, would-be favourites and dubious adventurers, and fully capable of capturing the public mood — so much so, in fact, that by the time of that tragic, final overseas banquet, when Mrs Thatcher appeared in that strange yet unforgettable purple cape, the blending-together of these two world-famous English women seemed not only fitting but somehow inevitable, not vainglorious or mad but simply absolutely right.

But now that the Cold War has given way to other styles of conflict and the Iron Lady is herself lapsing gently into the role of living legend, it is time for a new Elizabeth. That, in essence, is what the National Maritime Museum is offering us in their magnificent, intelligent exhibition, both in displays themselves and in the marvellous accompanying catalogue. And what does our new, twenty-first century Elizabeth look like? Strange to say, she looks very much like a management guru. In all seriousness, the press pack for the exhibition actually includes a flyer offering ‘Leadership lessons from Elizabeth I’, aimed at business studies students, while the exhibition itself has, for all its qualities, more to say about issues of presentation, style and ‘spin’ than it does about doctrine, legitimacy or Britain’s relationship with the world. Truly, even after all these years, Good Queen Bess can still surprise us all.

Mirrors into historians’ souls
The guest curator of the Elizabeth exhibition is Dr David Starkey, currently a bye fellow at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, but far better known for the energetic omnipresence and distinctive tone he brings to his various roles as author, broadcaster and multi-purpose commentator. And although his function in this context is, presumably, to front the long roster of very eminent scholars and curators involved with the show and to provide the enterprise with an eye-catching, celebrity, him-off-the-telly Big Name, there are moments in the exhibition where the Starkey touch is both unmistakable and decisive. Not least, the Bess-as-management-guru line of attack has ‘Starkey’ written all over it.

But if you detect a faint sneer somewhere in the vicinity, it certainly isn’t mine. Let’s make a brief digression. Years ago, my career took a false turn and stranded me for a season in the world of Tudor academic historians, so I make the following observations with a sort of weary jaundiced confidence. First, David Starkey is a real and, in the best sense, serious historian, who continues (long after fame could have spared him the hard work) to dig with profit in some exceptionally well-turned soil, still unearthing enough of significance to cause occasional consternation amongst his colleagues and still achieving more than plenty of tenured fellows unburdened with media careers. Secondly, in a profession not over-endowed either with generosity or human kindness, he is (pace that carefully-crafted media persona) remarkably lavish with both, and energetic besides. Thirdly, if many of his colleagues profess complete contempt for him, this is simply a left-handed acknowledgement of his ability both to write books that specialists need to read, and — more surprisingly — that non-specialists persistently want to read. His preferences for individual biography over generalisation, court politics over economic and social history, aristocrats over commoners and psychology over religion are less evidence of essential frivolity than profoundly-rooted and respectable methodological stances. Or to put it another way, there is a lot of jealousy out there, directed as much at Dr Starkey’s imagination, hard work and good luck as at his big bank-balance, high profile and widespread appeal. And jealousy is, probably, the least attractive vice on earth.

Like all competent popularisers (and is there anything that those education-is-a-right-not-a-privilege, access-for-all, socialist academics hate more than ‘popularisers’, with their quaint old-fashioned appeal to intelligent generalists and the notion of self-improvement?) Dr Starkey realises that the past, like the present, is rarely of any intrinsic interest unless it somehow has implications for the observer’s own life. Thus his typically lively introductory essay to the exhibition catalogue makes various references, with varying degrees of subtlety, to familiar cultural fixtures such as the events of 11 September 2001 and the subsequent ‘war against terrorism’, as well as the odd axiomatic pronouncement with broad geopolitical and indeed personal relevance: ‘And she was right. You cannot hold respect and sacrifice territory’.

There is no great mystery about Dr Starkey’s attitude towards Elizabeth. Anyone who has read his biography of her, or who has seen any of the relevant television programmes, will by now be well aware that the waspish, theatrically unpleasant tele-Starkey has more than a soft spot, not so much for the aged, sexless, wig-wearing, toothless defender of Tilbury, but rather for the bookish, precocious, strange-looking, probably emotionally damaged teenager who overcame all odds and made such an unlikely success of the hopeless hand that fate had dealt her. Who knows what is being worked out there? Never mind. It is perhaps not surprising that Dr Starkey’s introduction to the catalogue focuses particularly on the first few weeks of Elizabeth’s reign, which were to set the tone for its whole 45-year course. Elizabeth is seen hand-picking a tiny but trusted team of advisors, seeking plain-spoken rather than sycophantic counsel, acknowledging that rebellion is sometimes the fault of inept government rather than the wickedness of the governed, going on walk-abouts, nurturing her own popularity, seeking a ‘middle way’, making compromises but at the same time remaining rigid on the few points that really mattered. Dr Starkey phrases this in terms of mission-statements, chairmen, boards of directors and so on. In other words, this is a very old story recounted with typical concision and flair, but given a smart new twist.

So far, so slick. But at the same time this all feeds into to another, closely related response to Elizabeth — a personal response that takes us perilously close to the old-fashioned notion of historical-figure-as-role-model, as the object of intense personal identification and even guidance. So whereas Mary, Queen of Scots is damned (rightly) as ‘foolish, self-indulgent, frivolous, unreliable and treacherous’ and whereas there is precious little sympathy here for those who ended up on the wrong side of Elizabeth’s decision-making (of whom there were many), Dr Starkey concludes his introduction with the following shrewd aside:

Not only was [Elizabeth] great; she was also admirable. She can appeal — and that is the magic of her — both to an age who loved heroes, as did the Victorians, and to us, an age of sentimentalists who like our public figures to be a bit cuddly and victims too (but Elizabeth had the good sense to keep quiet about the cuddliness and the victimhood, and I like her all the more for it.)

There’s obviously a fair bit of self-conscious irony here on Dr Starkey’s part (was there ever a media performer who put more effort into keeping quiet about cuddliness and victimhood?) but there is also something agreeably unfashionable about it. History is, at present, so frequently a matter of ‘debunking’ ‘myths’, producing revisionist assaults on yesterday’s verities, cutting historical figures down to our own size, seeking out social and personal vice with all the creepy zeal of latterday inquisitors, that the absence of these things seems positively refreshing.

Happy and glorious
Elizabeth, as its title implies, focuses largely on Elizabeth’s life, but in doing so also casts long glances over a series of related themes. Therefore we are shown The Young Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s England, The Court, Elizabeth’s Adventurers, Presenting the Queen, Threats to the Crown, and Elizabeth’s Final Years. The emphasis on Elizabeth per se has, inevitably, the effect of highlighting some aspects of the reign while cold-shouldering others. Personality, decision-making, leadership is all-important here — impersonal matters of theology, parliamentary rule or nation-building a good deal less so.

None of which is a complaint exactly — more an observation about what is, by any standard, a marvellously well-organised exhibition. The quantity and quality of objects on show is nothing short of breathtaking. The National Maritime Museum has a fine collection of its own, particularly with respect to Elizabethan seafaring, but the curators have also managed to secure some absolutely extraordinary loans, not just from the usual suspects (HM The Queen, the National Portrait Gallery, the Museum of London, the Public Record Office, the British Library and so forth) but also from a host of private lenders. The result is a stunning mix of the familiar and the completely unexpected. There honestly is no pointless filler anywhere in this exhibition. Everything is here for a good purpose. But it also looks amazing. The labels on the items deal concisely and fairly, and sometimes amusingly, with what are often bewilderingly complex subjects. The overall tone of the exhibition is nothing short of exhilarating. In short, Elizabeth is, as I wrote at the beginning, virtually above complaint, or rather disarms potential complete with a winning combination of generosity, vigour and high spirits. I left, wanting to return as soon as I possibly could, armed with a nearly-fully-illustrated and scholarly catalogue so modestly priced as to suggest abundant subsidy on the part of the sponsors. If the case made by Elizabeth is partial, as indeed it must be, it is also intensely persuasive.

Because the spotlight here is trained so insistently on Elizabeth herself, the picture of that emerges is that of a nation viewed from the heights of its luxury goods market. There are fabrics, mirrors, goblets, musical instruments, jewels and pictures here that would each have cost many hundreds of times a working man’s annual salary, if not a lot more. A trio of cloth caps — virtually the sole evidence of life beneath the level of the gentry and the grander City merchants — are shown, remarkably, in the context of perhaps having been thrown in the air as Elizabeth’s coronation procession passed by. There are also iconic objects sure to stop any viewer with much historical consciousness in his or her tracks: a letter from young Elizabeth to Queen Mary, basically pleading for her life; a marvellous jewel given by Elizabeth to Sir Francis Drake after he not only circumnavigated the globe but brought home a wealth of ex-Spanish riches as well; John White’s beautiful, candid little drawings of life in what would later become the Carolinas; Leicester’s last letter to Elizabeth, which she kept under her pillow until her dying day; some rather ordinary pewter dishes that went down with the Armada; a huge magnificent commemorative volume illustrating the Queen’s funeral procession, at which City sentiment seems to have celebrated the arrival of a new reign rather more than it mourned the passing of the old one.

In short, all these objects confer on legendary deeds and persons the sort of illusory proximity, even intimacy, that constitutes history’s most intoxicating if befuddling vintage. While some, like the magnificent Coronation portrait from Warwick Castle via the National Portrait Gallery, are very well known, others, such as Elizabeth’s ring (loaned from Chequers) containing a portrait of Anne Boleyn, or the two low Spanish chairs from Loseley Park, or an extraordinary walnut orpharion used by the Queen herself, are certainly not. It would be possible to arrange a credible survey of sixteenth century English art on the basis of the works including here, including paintings by Nicholas Hilliard, Marcus Gheeraerts and some jaw-droppingly good entries by the hopelessly anonymous British School. (The survey would, presumably, put to rest the notion that England became a wholly iconophobic, art-hating nation within seconds of the first vernacular Bible rolling off the press.) It is pleasing that the exhibition is in Greenwich, Elizabeth’s birthplace and for so long her home, as well as the shores from which so many of the famous Elizabethan exploratory voyages set out. Meanwhile the references to the City and to the colonisation of North America are similarly apposite, given the exhibition’s sponsorship, and also informative — although it might be mentioned in this context that a more expansive treatment Elizabeth’s other realms, not least Ireland, might have been welcome, if only because the privileging of North America over Ireland in this context displays an anachronistic set of assumptions out of step with much of the rest of Elizabeth.

But indeed, such is the richness of the show that anyone intent on finding fault with Elizabeth would probably have to focus on what is not there — the missing portraits, the subjects that might have received more expansive treatment, the unexplored avenues of approach.

As far as that goes, it is not hard to imagine a looking-glass version of Elizabeth that might have used these same objects, so heavily pregnant with association, to entirely different ends. Such an exhibition would have been less confident of King Henry’s power, Anne Boleyn’s innocence and Elizabeth’s claims to be anything other than one of several of royal bastards, and even then one who ended up enthroned less through the workings of Providence than through the similarly inscrutable workings of contingency. It would have had a good deal more time for the victims of Elizabeth’s personal callousness — Lady Katherine Grey, Amy Robsart, John Stubbs, Peter Wentworth MP, Arbella Stuart, Sir Walter Raleigh, to name but a very few of that large number — and would persistently have preferred as an explanatory strategy ‘personal callousness’ over ‘reasons of state’. It might have turned its attention briefly from Gloriana, her court and her consumer durables to the various economic downturns, agricultural crises, fatal epidemics, armed rebellions, religious persecutions, dynastic uncertainty and increasingly oppressive international isolation that quite possibly loomed much larger in the lives of her various subjects. It would have been more anxious not to take the success of any hallmark Elizabethan strategy — doctrinal equivocation, military stinginess, Anglophone expansion — as read. Above all, it would have despised the older Elizabeth myths in favour of a myth of its own making, which would centre around the possibility — itself clearly mythic at best — that anyone, let alone an exhibition courting and deserving a popular audience, will ever manage to strip the centuries-old carapace of legend, fable and fancy away from the bones of England’s Virgin Queen.

Royal progress
But whether or not such a looking-glass exhibition would be conceivable, it would not, I think, be desirable. And here we come to a point about the nature of historical exhibitions. What’s the point? Well, like all forms of entertainment — and ultimately, that is what they are, or ought to be — they require a shaping narrative, which in turn involves choices, simplifications, elisions, sleights-of-hand and captivating stuff done with smoke and mirrors. None of which is to suggest that there is anything dumbed-down, let alone mendacious, about Elizabeth. Not least, the informing intelligences behind the show — not only Dr Starkey, but his fellow catalogue essayists including Patrick Collinson, Ian W. Archer and Susan Frye, among others — are men and women who have pushed hard at the boundaries of what can be known about the Tudor past, often with some success. If there is a knowable ‘truth’ in history it is hard to see how we are to glimpse it other than through the lens of such research. But at the same time, shining out through each of these quite varied accounts are common threads of admiration, respect and even enthusiasm for Elizabeth — the sovereign as well as the woman — which reflect something at once less and more than simply the effects of decades of archival mining, boring graduate seminars and prestigous if dry publication. Put simply, historians are no different from the rest of us — like us, they have a gut-level feeling about Queen Bess and her age, a sort of intuitive shorthand that’s quite different from what they feel either about the mess of the late fifteenth century or the mess of the mid seventeenth century, informed as much — if we are being honest — by inscrutable issues of personal inclination as by intellectual effort, which is why the personalised nature of this exhibition is by no means simply an exercise in crowd-pleasing for its own sake. And in general, that feeling is still, if in a complicated way and with various reservations, broadly a positive one.

Thus it is greatly to the credit of the organisers of Elizabeth that in reflecting all this, they have managed to avoid every obvious mistake that lay in the path of this exhibition. It could have been an exercise in pointless iconoclasm, on the premise that the more negative and unpleasant a thing is, the more likely it is to be ‘true’. More probably, it could have been a dreary little exercise in projecting present-day snobberies and biases on the opaque surface of the past, with the sole point of demonstrating how lucky we are to have the wise liberal order under which we now live. Bravely, however, the organisers of Elizabeth have done neither of these things. Instead they have put together a treasure-house of an exhibition — indeed it is hard not to compare it, in terms of tone as much as presentation, with displays of treasure in the greater churches of Catholic Europe — which is not afraid to appear at times nostalgic, patriotic and indeed celebratory about its central theme, which in this case is inextricable from the birth of the Britain in which we live.

If there’s a reservation, it’s about something that can hardly be blamed on the organisers of Elizabeth, or on Dr Starkey, or anyone else involved with this exemplary enterprise. It lies, typically, more with the nature of the world to which any present-day Elizabeth must be shaped, and in way it is about a failure to make a certain sort of distinction between right and wrong. In a climate where Elizabeth’s management ethos is treated as important per se — important in terms of efficacy more than in terms of the doctrinal rightness of the results it produced — the reconfigured landscape of Tudor England can look slightly odd to those who remember previous vistas. There is, for instance, precious little sense of religion as something centrally and transcendentally important, rather than simply yet enough policy issue for Elizabeth to finesse — little sense that the nature of the religious settlement mattered, as long as it worked. And indeed one could make similar points about Elizabeth’s relationship with Parliament, with Europe or with what would soon become Britain’s empire.

What this all means, on the other hand, is a good deal less clear, although the easy explanation would lie in either general obliviousness or, alternatively, general consensual complacency towards issues of faith, statesmanship and nationhood, coupled with an exaggerated interest in surface, style and celebrity. Never mind. Elizabeth is as rich, as perceptive and topical an exhibition as I have seen in many years — and no worse for the possibility that somewhere in the midst of it, we may end up catching a glimpse of our own reflection — a glimpse that may, according to taste, prove either revealing or mildly troubling.

Elizabeth, sponsored by Morgan Stanley, will be at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich from 2 May -14 September 2003. Tickets cost £9; various concessions apply.

In an earlier incarnation, before becoming ERO’s arts editor, Bunny Smedley gained her doctorate at Trinity College, Cambridge, working on enforcement of the Tudor reformations of religion at the parish level.

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