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England looking outwards

By Lara J Carim, on 18 October 2011

Conservative politicians struggling not to mention Europe at this month’s party conference might take some solace from the fact that the country’s ambivalent relationship with the continent dates back at least half a millennium.

England’s “two-way pull” towards isolationism on the one hand and exploration on the other can be traced to the mid-15th century, according to Professor Helen Hackett, who gave a whistlestop introduction to the period through the media of contemporary art and books during a lunch-hour pop-up talk at UCL Art Museum on 11 October.

The talk, which showcased highlights from the exhibition ‘Word and Image: Early Modern Treasures at UCL’, was entitled ‘England Looking Outwards’, and some stunning artefacts had been brought into the light of day from UCL Art Collections and UCL Library Special Collections to exemplify the itchy feet of our Early Modern forebears (The term ‘Early Modern’ refers to the period 1450–1800, and forms the focus of the new UCL Centre for Early Modern Exchanges, of which Professor Hackett is Co-Director).

Click on the player below to watch a short audio slideshow about highlights from the ‘Word and Image’ exhibition:

For example, one of the prize exhibits was a first edition of Principall Navigations by Richard Hakluyt, the Paul Theroux of his day, who was associated with the publication of more than 25 travel books and sponsored by Sir Robert Cecil, principal Secretary of State to Elizabeth I and James I. In this tome, Hakluyt aimed to detail the “Voiages, and Discoveries of the English Nation” up to 1589, and the beautifully preserved copy with its intact fold-out map of the world elicited oohs and aahs from the 30-strong audience.

The Early Modern “appetite for knowledge and ideas from elsewhere” was also reflected in literary tastes and led to a set of translations – also on display – that proved to be highly influential on the English canon.

George Sandys’ 1632 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses provided inspiration for Milton, Dryden and Pope; John Harrington, writer of saucy epithets about court life, produced a lavishly illustrated version of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso whose modern views on religious tolerance influenced Spenser and Sidney; the translator and dictionary-writer Florio invented the words ‘conscientious’, ‘endear’, ‘efface’ and ‘facilitate’ in an effort to render the French philosopher Montaigne’s essays as faithfully as possible in English (which Shakespeare drew on heavily in Hamlet and The Tempest).

Shakespeare would also have been exposed to more scathing views of Europe via the Calvinist ‘Geneva’ Bible printed in 1579, the precursor to the King James version that featured a running anti-Papist commentary. Henry VIII had only established the protestant Church of England 60 years earlier, Professor Hackett explained, and England’s insecurity as the only major Protestant Western power fuelled a desire to identify itself in opposition to the wider world, while still being so intrigued by it. Similarly, Professor Hackett drew attention to how the Whore of Babylon, subject of one of Dűrer’s astonishing Apocalypse woodcuts, is pictured in the Lutheran Bible with a three-tiered hat and chalice similar to those used in the Catholic Mass.

The talk was a pop-up in more ways than one: the name is given to the new, highly popular series of UCL Art Museum exhibitions curated by members of staff, but Professor Hackett also invited visitors to leave their seats at various points in her talk to inspect specific artworks. As a novice to much of the art and the period, I found the approach worked well, enabling visitors to marvel first at the beauty and craft of the artefacts, before learning about their cultural significance.

Pop-up talks run on Tuesdays, 1–2pm in the UCL Art Museum. The next is ‘Strange Creatures’ by Cultural Property Advisor Subhadra Das.

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