The recent discovery of J.H. Nixon’s water-colours of the Eglinton tournament underscores the importance of medievalism in British life.
Gavin Stamp, Monday, 17th August 2009
Nostalgia and progress are not necessarily contradictory. The year 1838 saw the opening throughout of that modern wonder, Robert Stephenson’s London and Birmingham Railway. It was also the year when the cut-price coronation ceremony for Victoria was regarded as such an insult to her and to tradition that the 13th Earl of Eglinton announced that he would stage a grand aristocratic tournament, open to the public, at his Ayrshire seat. The following summer, therefore, it was possible to pass through the new Greek Doric portico at Euston Station, travel by train to Liverpool, then take a paddle steamer to Ardrossan and walk or ride the few miles to Eglinton Castle to witness one of the most extraordinary spectacles of the 19th century.
Thanks to these much-improved methods of transport (Fig. 2), some 100,000 visitors converged on Eglinton Castle at the end of August 1839. What then occurred was described and explained by Ian Anstruther in his book The Knight and the Umbrella (1963). The Earl intended an authentic re-enactment of a medieval tournament, with jousting on horse-back. Armour and other necessary accoutrements were largely supplied by Samuel Pratt, an enterprising Bond Street dealer who catered for the growing interest in things medieval. At Eglinton – a rather feeble gothic castle built by the Earl’s father – were a grandstand and tents designed by the antiquary and architect Lewis Nockalls Cottingham. As well as the knights, there was a Queen of Beauty in the shape of Lady Seymour. The Lord of the Tournament was, of course, Eglinton himself, ‘In a Suit of Gilt Armour, richly chased; on a barded Charger – caparisons, &c. of Blue and Gold.’ He had spent some £40,000 on the event, although it was not the tournament that eventually bankrupted his family (today there is nothing left of Eglinton Castle).
Not surprisingly to anyone familiar with the climate of the west of Scotland, things did not go according to plan. On the afternoon of the first day the heavens opened. The tents collapsed under a torrential down- pour; knights and squires, grooms and horses slithered in the mud and thousands of spectators struggled home drenched to the skin. In consequence, the tournament is often dismissed as a fiasco. It certainly had its comic side: it was laughed at in Punch (itself a new invention) and mercilessly satirised by the artist Richard Doyle. But the sun came out the following day, jousts were conducted and the final medieval banquet and ball were a great success.
More to the point, the tournament was not an isolated phenomenon. It was part of a much larger revival of interest in the Middle Ages encouraged by antiquarianism and the Romantic movement. The novels of Sir Walter Scott (Ivanhoe especially); the many paintings illustrating chivalrous themes; John Henry Newman and the Catholic movement within the Church of England; the rebuilding of Windsor Castle by George iv to make it look more medieval; and, indeed, the whole gothic revival all lay behind Lord Eglinton’s jamboree – which had a serious purpose. As Rosemary Hill, A.W.N. Pugin’s biographer, remarks, ‘to take a steam train to a Gothic tournament was to enter fully into the spirit of this particular age’.
1839 was also the year when both Daguerre and Henry Fox Talbot announced the invention of photography to the world. Of course, there are no photographs of the tournament, but, fortunately, the event was recorded in a lavish book, A Series of Views Representing the Tournament Held at Eglinton Castle…, published in 1843. These lithographs by James Henry Nixon illustrated the processions of the protagonists in full heraldic detail as well as the actual jousting. Recently, the exciting discovery has been made of most of Nixon’s original watercolours (Fig. 1). These have been carefully conserved and exhibited by the London firm Abbott & Holder. Commendably, this collection has been kept together and the Yale Center for British Art hopes to acquire it.
The pity is, perhaps, that despite Abbott & Holder’s best efforts these precious historical documents have not found their way into a Scottish archive (although, at the time of writing, efforts are being made in Ayrshire to mount a bid for them). But the sad truth is that modern Scotland is not comfortable with the Romantic origins of Scottish nationalism, with the novels of Walter Scott and his role in stage-managing George iv’s visit to Edinburgh in 1822, with the revival of tartan and the vogue for visiting the Highlands, even though all this made Scottish culture of European fame and significance.
It is not just the Scots who are blinkered, however, for all Britain now seems to have lost a sense of the deep importance of medievalism in national life. Five years before the tournament, the Palace of Westminster was destroyed by fire and Parliament, conscious of history and wishing to express its own origins, decided that its replacement should be gothic or Elizabethan in style. Pugin would help Charles Barry to create what is surely the finest gothic revival secular building in the world. Today, the ignorant and stupid dismiss this great work as ‘mock-gothic’, thus misunderstanding not only the nature of architectural style but also its symbolism. For gothic always meant something. For Pugin it was the national, Christian style. For Lord Eglinton, medievalism was aristocratic and Tory (he refused tournament tickets to Whigs as well as to a socialist such as Robert Owen). But to the politicians who had recently passed the Great Reform Bill, gothic could represent the origins and development of British parliamentary democracy.
Today, that democracy is rather tarnished, what with the recent scandal over the expenses of Members of Parliament. Many now seem to think the institution should be radically modernised. But neither toning down the rich pageantry of Pugin’s interiors nor dressing the Speaker in a lounge suit rather than knee breeches will address the real problem, which is the venal mediocrity of so many of Britain’s elected representatives. Indeed the facile proposals now being aired suggest an alarming lack of understanding of how liberties are vested in traditions and institutions.
The nation and its elected representatives were wiser during World War ii, when the building – especially Pugin’s clock tower – was a symbol of hope and democracy to the world in desperate times. After the bombing of the House of Commons in 1941 (Fig. 3), Parliament decided that the chamber should be rebuilt to the same configuration, and in the same style: gothic (Fig. 4). It was in this debate that Winston Churchill made his celebrated observation, ‘We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.’ The 13th Earl of Eglinton would surely have understood, and sympathised.
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