The Westminster Retable at the National Gallery

[This article was written for the website of the Social Affairs Unit.]

The British people do not love their own visual culture as much as they might. All the clichés of our national identity tell us to look elsewhere for Britain’s greatness. Ask a thousand people what it is that Britain has historically done as well or better than any other nation on earth: the answers, though plentiful and various — language, political institutions, legal systems, written literature, engineering, industry, empire-building, choral music, children’s television, self-deprecation, irony, whatever — will not include the visual arts. We are aware that our most feted artists — from Holbein and Van Dyck to Sargent and Freud — were born elsewhere, have rightly or wrongly regarded most of our native-grown products as mad or silly or both, and look out towards Italy, France or points farther west, our faces creased with a mixture of anxiety and condescension, for our measures of visual achievement. It is as if we still, at some level, need to define ourselves as a people of the Word rather than the Image — of reality rather than imitation — and are never really comfortable unless this is seen to be the case. Hence the jealous husbanding of ‘our’ second-rate Raphaels, the assumption on the part of the media that every arts story is humorous, and an ongoing inability to get to grips with even the most modest of public commissions — except, oddly, in wartime, when we do this rather well.

Ruined choirs, reused retables
These, anyway, are the reflections prompted by the Westminster Retable, just back from six years’ worth of painstaking conservation work and currently on show in the basement of the National Gallery. For most of its 750 years, this extraordinary object could be found about half a mile south, in Westminster Abbey. For although its history is more a matter of learned conjecture than of certainty, the best guess — and much has apparently been learned in the process of conservation — is that the Retable was created by Anglo-French artists around 1260. It may well have been commissioned by Henry III in the course of the pious project of rebuilding and decorating the Abbey as a fitting shrine to his royal predecessor, St Edward the Confessor, whose body was interred behind the abbey’s High Altar. The Retable’s dimensions, sophistication and splendour suggest that it could well have formed part of the High Altar itself. And if this were true, what we see before us in the National Gallery today was once a focal point of one of pre-reformation England’s most opulent and famous devotional destinations.

Less than three centuries after it was set in place, however, the Retable fell victim to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which in 1540 transformed the Benedictine abbey into the cathedral church of the new Diocese of Westminster, and then in 1560 refounded again as a collegiate church. Like other popular pilgrimage sites, the Shrine of the Confessor was largely demolished. Although there was a brief restoration of St Edward’s cult under Mary, Elizabeth’s reign saw a reorganisation both of St Edward’s Chapel and of the Choir, where the High Altar stood. As so often was the case in the English reformations, however, this reorganisation was the stuff of matter-of-fact bureaucracy rather than hot-blooded iconoclasm. Some unknown administrator’s practical streak ensured that the Retable, rather than being tossed onto the bonfire or smashed into a thousand pieces, ended up, by the late seventeenth century, serving as part of a cupboard in which the wax funeral effigies of monarchs were stored. In 1778, the disregarded cupboard was modified once again so that an effigy of William Pitt the Elder could be displayed more attractively for paying tourists — a project that involved scraping down some of the surfaces and repainting part of the Retable in fetching shades of green, white and grey. More damage was done to the wretched object at this point than in the course of its entire previous history.

Only in 1827 did anyone apparently realise that the Retable was of any interest whatsoever — and needless to say, this being Britain, the ‘interest’ was antiquarian, rather than aesthetic. Nevertheless, a rescue was executed. The Retable then survived in varying degrees of general obscurity until 1998, when the Dean and Chapter sent it off to Cambridge’s Hamilton Kerr Institute for cleaning and conservation. And now for four months the Retable — Britain’s oldest major altarpiece, and undoubtedly one of the most significant survivals from the medieval art of the British Isles — is on display in the National Gallery, before returning to the Abbey. Public display may, perhaps, raise this magnificent, ruined treasure to a more elevated place in our national consciousness. More likely, however, indifference will prevail, followed swiftly by oblivion, if only because the object on show in the National Gallery constitutes, at some level, such an alarming departure from what we believe to be the truth about British art. Or to put it another way, while our seventeenth century forefathers recast the Retable as a cupboard and did so quite successfully, there are all sorts of reasons why our own attempts to remake it again as ‘art’ may prove a good deal less effective.

Moving images
What is there, then, to see in that rather dingy Trafalgar Square basement? At first glance, not much. The Retable is, at some level, even after all that restoration, a wreck. Over three yards long and perhaps a yard high, shaped like a long rectangle divided into five panels, the initial impression is of a mess of damaged gilding and missing inlay, blank surface where there should have been line and colour, omission and loss where there surely ought to have been something else. It’s hard not to wince a little as the reality sinks in. But then, stepping closer, some of that remaining line and colour starts to resolve itself into meaning. Yes, there’s damage and chaos and pointless violence. But here and there, fading in and out of sight like a vision on the point of embodiment or disintegration, there is also — one gradually begins to see — the most astoundingly intricate, delicate, elegant painting, executed in rich and jewel-like pigment on gold ground. This isn’t just a ruin — it’s a wonder, too.

Before discussing its significance, it’s worth spelling out the subject-matter of the work. The first panel, on the left, depicts St Peter. Moving from left to right, the next panel contains three damaged yet largely legible compartments featuring scenes of Christ’s miraculous interventions — The Raising of Jairus’s Daughter (Mark 5:22-43, Matthew 9:18-26, Luke 8:41-56), The Healing of the Man Born Blind (John 9), and The Feeding of the Five Thousand (Matthew 14:14-21, John 6:3-14). Finally, the middle panel — the last in which any painting survives — shows Christ standing under an intricate Gothic tabernacle, flanked by the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. Christ is shown, not crucified, but rather standing whole before us, dressed in magnificent robes, one hand raised in blessing, the other gracefully supporting a tiny globe representing Creation, guarded and guided by His might.

Needless to say, the Westminster Retable was never meant to be a work of art. It was meant, instead, to do its job, which was to provide a fitting setting for the miracle of the Eucharist which took place daily before it. Perhaps, given its proximity to St Edward’s shrine, it also provided some sort of commentary on God’s ability to work wonders with the dull stuff of everyday life. For the imagery of the Retable is extremely unusual. So, too, is its opulence. It is, after all, a good deal more than just a painting, which is what most of us tend to think of anyway when confronted with that word ‘art’. Elaborately carved and gilded, some of the surfaces were once set with stained glass, while elsewhere glass has been placed over oil-based paint in order to simulate enamel. Originally the Retable would also have been decorated with simulated gemstones and cameos. When trying to reconstruct the impact the Retable must have made when new — its sheer visual firepower — it is worth thinking not just of the various thirteenth century altarpieces we now know as isolated panels, stranded in the secularising limbos of galleries and museums, but also of garish, exciting confections such as San Marco’s Palla d’Oro, which in terms of sheer magnificence is perhaps not unlike what Henry III might have wished to achieve, had he possessed the wherewithal to do so.

Get thee to the V&A
For we can’t escape those international comparisons, can we? Not least, conventional wisdom tells us that there’s far too little extant medieval British art with which to construct some sort of frame of reference. And when it comes to painting — ‘art’ in the sense of something that can be seen, looking through the appropriately teleological lenses, to develop over the centuries into museum-quality easel painting — this is, of course, true. How typical was the quality of, say, the Thornton Parva retable, stranded in rural Suffolk? How typical was the Coventry Doom? How mutually comprehensible, let alone consonant, were the visual rhetorics of the court painters and their country cousins? We’ll simply never be sure — and since these wall-paintings, by their nature, are scattered across all sorts of unlikely locations, we are unlikely to be troubled overmuch by such questions.

What we do know, however, is that English embroidery, stained glass, manuscript illumination and, in particular, the alabaster devotional sculptures produced in Nottinghamshire were at various points considered sufficiently desirable as to flow steadily into continental Europe. Unfortunately, however, we are particularly likely to ‘know’ this fact if we spend a lot of time poking around the museums and galleries of continental Europe. For what it’s worth, my first encounter with a Nottingham alabaster carving was at the Musee Cluny in Paris — and my first run-in with a really handsome set of English vestments may well have been in the museum of the Cathedral Chapter House in Siena, if not in Padua — certainly, though, Italian regional collections are full of the stuff.

The point, though, is this. Here in London, panels from altarpieces by Giotto di Bondone (maybe), Duccio di Buoninsegna, Hans Memlinc and dozens of others take pride of place in our National Gallery. At the same time, if you want to see medieval British art, you need to travel down to South Kensington to a museum which, for all its glories, was explicitly created to improve the quality of contemporary design and manufacture, rather than to display ‘art’. And there is, alas, still enough life in those old snobberies to provide a persistent undercurrent of commentary on the relative quality of home-grown visual culture, past and present. Or to put it another way, it’s possible to get rid of potentially troublesome objects without actually smashing or burning them.

Art and the Absolute
So, how to regard what’s left of our pre-reformation visual heritage? Stranded somewhere between art and objecthood, these relics — to use a loaded word — challenge us to categorise them.

In the finest British tradition, I was expecting the Westminster Retable to be — what? Interesting, maybe — or better still, to use that good seventeenth century word, ‘curious’, in the sense that I hoped the Retable might somehow tell me something about the devotional practice of 13th century Anglo-French court culture. What I wasn’t expecting, because we are not really accustomed to thinking of British medieval art in these terms, is the degree of aesthetic shock it would confer. The Retable’s beauty — and this time there isn’t really any other word that will do — literally made me catch my breath. The play of blood-bright reds against the dark greens and lapis lazuli blues is delicate, lyrical, intelligent. The flow of line is sinuous, playful, surprising. There is evident love for detail — the curl of a lock of hair, the twisting contours of outstretched fingers — but the demands of that love are never allowed to interrupt the formal imperatives of whole panels, or of the overall composition. There is sweetness in the faces, but also real vigour in the sway and balance of the figures. Naturalism isn’t the really point — but I can never for the life of me understand why anyone looks for ‘naturalism’ in a depiction of Christ in Glory.

Those who enjoy seeking some putative Englishness of English art in anecdote, decorative qualities and an ineffable yet present sweetness will find much to enjoy and recognise here. They may smile particularly on the tiny landscape — the most English, apparently, of artistic endeavours — captured, in schematic miniature, in the tiny orb Christ cradles in His hand. But anyone who might wish to move on from the Westminster Retable to, say, the work of Duccio or Simone Martini may be taken aback by the Retable’s sheer quality. No, it wasn’t meant to be ‘art’ any more than Duccio’s panels were — but there can be little question, even in its current, mangled form, that it can hold its own against the best products of contemporary Siena, Dijon or Paris.

The painted Word
Finally, those who suspect that a rather gentle, low-key, regretfully nostalgic Romanticism was always the authentic mode of English (in this case, not British) visual culture will perhaps suggest something further, which is that the terrible, ravaged nature of the surface of the Retable cannot honestly be disaggregated from our reaction to it. They would, of course, be correct. The chips, the yearning gaps, the achingly empty panels and the pointlessly brutal excisions underlie a thick varnish of known history, for which no degree of wilfully anachronistic aestheticisation is an effective solvent. The work might as well have ‘protestant reform woz here’ scratched across its damaged gilding. To that degree it is now poignantly about loss, change, unrecoverability. Those two long Tudor reigns which made ours a different country likewise made their marks, literal as well as figurative, on the Retable. All of which means that the post-Christian poetry of lost or failed beauty is powerful here — although it is by no means the only possible response to the Retable’s unmistakeable aura. It’s worth noting that both Paul Binski, the Cambridge University art historian who wrote the explanatory notes for the work, and a spokesman for the National Gallery have described the survival of the Retable as ‘miraculous’. Whether this strikes you as to any degree an odd choice of words is, if nothing else, a reliable index as to the subtle secularisation of your own intelligence.

All of which is quite a lot of reflection for quite a small area of extant pigment. Do, though, if you are in London over the next four months, do your best to visit the Westminster Retable in its dun-coloured, ill-lit, slightly depressing basement. It is not well sign-posted, and since the inexpressible delicacy of the brushwork requires extremely close-up viewing, there’s a certain amount of time spent standing behind dreary and self-important fellow Retable-spotters, craning for a glimpse of this extraordinary thing itself and often failing to achieve that glimpse. But it’s worth every bit of trouble you put into it, if only because viewing the Retable is sure to be so unlike any other gallery experience you will have had before, or are likely to have any time soon. There is, quite simply, nothing like it. For that reason alone, it deserves far more interest and engagement than I imagine it will receive.

No art, please, we’re British
Britain’s casual disregard for her nation’s artistic achievements is, no doubt, a sign of strength. Not for us the wistful resignation of the Italians or the Dutch, always looking back to an increasingly distant Golden Age when everything was so much better — nor the assertive boosterism of anxious places like Catalunya or Eire, or for that matter the USA in the mid-20th century, labouring under the historicist delusion that a strong artistic past might somehow imply an even stronger geopolitical future.

Britain, in contrast, is always wondering, admittedly without any great sense of urgency or seriousness, why her own art isn’t something else. We, for instance, have Hilliard and Oliver — instead of Tintoretto or El Greco. We have Dobson and Lely — rather than Watteau or Poussin or Claude. We have Thornhill — yet who visits the Painted Hall at Greenwich? Meanwhile our Reynolds kept talking to us about the sublime delights of Italy, and our Turner just swore and whored and kept on painting, and our Sickert was half-foreign anyway. By the time we come to the 20th century, what is there to say about British art? Picasso didn’t happen here, nor Matisse, nor Malevich. While the watery lager was flowing in the Cedar Tavern and America was lost in the throes of creating its own high imperial style, British artists were patiently adumbrating kitchen gardens, chalk figures and parish churches. The heroes of Abstract Expressionism played out their various drunken, messy endings with self-indulgent grandeur; in contrast, when our best artist of the 1930s died young, it was because he was shot down over Iceland while serving as an official war artist. We more or less invented Pop Art — a movement hard to read as anything other than commentary not on our own culture, but on someone else’s. And so on, and so on. Art history can be seen to move first in one direction, then another. Quite rightly, we are ambivalent about where we stand, as a nation, in regard to such movement. It must also be said, we also don’t really think it matters that much one way or the other.

On one hand, we do not see ourselves as successes in the field of art. On the other hand, we know perfectly well that political stability and mercantile success has ensured that Britain has better holdings of Italian, French and even Dutch art — let alone that of ancient Egypt, Greece or the Far East — than any other single nation on earth. We may have destroyed, in a low-key way, most of our own medieval art, but we’ve collected an awful lot of everybody else’s. We have provided a safe working environment for Warburg and Gombrich, although we have also nurtured Blunt and T. J. Clark. We would rather have launched the YBAs through the agency of a lazy sort of dole than any sort of concerted patronage of the arts. We quite like Tracey Emin, if only because she lives up to the sort of drunk, promiscuous, shambolic frivolity we’ve expected of artists, from Whistler and John to Bacon and early Hirst and beyond. And for that reason — to protect our sense of who we are, and what matters to us as a nation — we’d probably rather forget the aesthetic claims of the Westminster Retable, and what this strange, sad, horribly abused object says about us. Soon, of course, it will be back in the Abbey, which without doubt is a very good thing. That’s where it belongs. But for the next four months, we are going to have to work harder than usual to ignore the full complexity of Britain’s own visual inheritance.
Before she started writing about art, Bunny Smedley’s doctoral work at Cambridge University addressed the tensions between popular piety and official policy in the course of the Tudor reformations.

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