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Interview with Jonathan Foyle JUNE 2016

Henry VII's marriage bed, Lichfield Cathedral and why you should go to Rome

1. You have written extensively on England’s cathedrals. Which has struck you the most and why?

England's cathedrals have been written about by many authors, over several centuries: you'll always see titles on cathedrals in second-hand bookshops. But they tend to be quite broad and old-fashioned in scholarship. The most interesting material from recent archaeological studies often awaits general audiences, while modern academic work offers fascinating cultural context unthinkable to previous generations. So detailed analyses of individual cathedrals are actually rare. When that lack of focus meets with condensed writing and fresh thinking, the results sometimes have the power to transform understanding. By writing on Canterbury, Lincoln and Lichfield in chronological order over several years, I was able to identify some unsuspected trends in the way St Mary became venerated and symbolised. The Lichfield volume reinterprets the so-called 'Tudor rose', which we've misunderstood for 400 years. It was a religious symbol that stood for Mary, adopted by Henry VII. Cathedrals focussed much more on their dedicatory saints than has been acknowledged, and they are expressed if you know how to look for them. That sort of realization is quite a thrill- when you rescue knowledge from oblivion, you cheat death in a small way.

2. What inspired you to focus your studies on architectural history?

Many moons ago, I studied drawing, architecture and then history of art in three cathedral cities. I could never aspire to build anything as great as those ancient churches. And then I took a PhD in archaeology, because it was clear we have inherited a fraction of what once existed. Throughout it became clear to me I didn't want to be an architect because society has an odd relationship to architecture: buildings are our habitat, but we treat architecture as esoteric in concept, and practically, it's something that professional architects and builders do. We must be unique amongst animals in this personal estrangement from construction- I regard a lack of interest in buildings much like a fish not being interested in water, or a bird in nests. We should all be interested. Partly as a result of compartmentalising our skills, much of our modern habitat is mere building which is all we need to survive in, but great historic architecture always has some integrity in the way it was conceived, crafted in fine or local materials that lend a strong sense of belonging to places, and then carved and painted with images that stem from a deep and broad set of cultural beliefs. Those values have gone in a commercial age: we look to maximise our financial investments in dense developments of assembled parts; the Victorian developers built for perpetuity and often with civic responsibility, with generous gardens, squares, parks and bandstands. That moral impulse behind civic building is always admirable and reminds us we can do better for our children. Our spirituality has changed too. Four hundred years ago, people believed that spirits might come down the chimney unless they cut a six-petalled witch-mark on its bressummer beam. As far as religious expression goes, while I rarely subscribe to the spiritual beliefs of centuries past, I can't help but admire the eloquence and craftedness of their expression in buildings, and ultimately find them spiritual places.

3. If you could ask any historical figure a question, who would it be and what would you ask?

I'd be in 1535 asking Henry VIII 'can we find another way of doing this?' as he planned the Dissolution of the Monasteries. That man was a velvet-clad nightmare.

4. Which single historical site would you recommend everyone visit?

In a time capsule, I'd recommend the Palace of Westminster in 1485 when it was at its fullest medieval development and Henry VII and Elizabeth of York's marriage bed was installed in the Painted Chamber. I've been working on that, that extraordinary and illuminating bed having been rediscovered a few years ago, awaiting publication. Amongst sites today, each cathedral is like a member of a family and has unique qualities. So I'll say the single site to focus on is Rome- as a wellspring of Western Civilization, what survives of of ancient Rome precedes all we know in England and remained influential through time. So on foot, absorb Rome, and I'd recommend an Aperol spritz while you're there.

5. Who in your view has been the most influential figure in architectural history?

Too many writers to choose from, all of whom offer perspectives. For me, Alec Clifton-Taylor was a great influence. He understood the power and value of noble materials and the value of writing well about beauty. Pevsner was undeniably influential, too, and remains so in his admirable Buildings of England series though he yearned for a certain type of order which was often irrelevant to those who conceived and used buildings. I like people who think outside academic fashion and reject the lure of jargon and convolutedness. I love reading those who can find a balanced view of significance by forgetting themselves and projecting into a past that never knew the instant visual saturation and home comforts we enjoy today that so blunt our appreciation of the medieval era. Ideas were both immensely practical and extremely strange then and life was immeasurably hard and short for many, so we have to be flexible enough to embrace their cultural creations on their own terms.



National Museum in Warsaw JUNE 2016

Director's Choice

The National Museum in Warsaw houses a monumental collection of objects, ranging from a mysterious bull’s head mask – from West Iran, thousands of years old, made from filigree gold; clearly the work of a master craftsman but of unknown purpose and origin – to a dramatic rendition of the battle of Grunwald (by Jan Matejko, 1878), depicting men and horses snarled together in battle, mud frothing up around ankles, weapons glinting in the sun and smoke like dragon-breath billowing towards the heavens. 

The institution is distinguished by its spectacular collection of Polish paintings (in the Gallery of 19th Century Art); a magnificent set of medieval sacral exhibits from Central Europe (housed in the Gallery of Medieval Art) and unique collection of Early Christian art from Sudan unearthed by Polish archeologists (Faras Gallery).  It celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2012, and is currently undergoing a comprehensive modernization programme.

Agnieska Morawinksa has been the director of the National Museum in Warsaw since 2010. In Director’s Choice: The National Museum in Warsaw she discusses fifty of the objects from the collection, providing an intimate insight into a remarkable collection. 


Bill Jacklin and Sting Celebrate Launch of 'Bill Jacklin's New York' MAY 2016

Photos From the Launch Party

Our American editor, Jennifer Norman, had a wonderful night celebrating our book Bill Jacklin's New York.

The conversation with Sting and Bill was moderated by Alex Gilkes. It was a lovely personal chat about being Englishmen in New York. Sting then performed the song with his special guest Chris Botte on the trumpet. We're all very jealous of her!