Autumn 2003 Issue 45
Planning 'Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547'
Ten years ago, Linda Lloyd-Jones, Head of Exhibitions, V&A, asked me to think about organising an exhibition on Late Medieval art in England. I had been involved in the planning of the two great English medieval exhibitions of the 1980s – English Romanesque Art 1066-1200, held at the Hayward Gallery in 1984, and Age of Chivalry: Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400, shown in 1987-88 at the Royal Academy – and it seemed obvious that this last piece of the ‘English medieval jigsaw’ should be put in place. After all, there could be no doubt that this would have broad popular appeal – including as it does such historical luminaries as Henry V, Richard III, Henry VII and Henry VIII – and its artistic treasures more than merited being highlighted.
Because of pressure of other work, in 1993 I was able to do no more than sketch the outlines of a possible exhibition, but the Museum’s exhibitions committee received the proposal with enthusiasm and expressed the hope that we would be able to carry the project forward. Unbeknownst to us, Professor Richard Marks of the University of York was working along similar lines with the Royal Academy, and it was not until the following year that Richard and I started to discuss the possibility of joining forces. When Alan Borg became Director of the V&A in Autumn 1995, we judged that the time was right to take the initiative, and were delighted when he agreed that we should start serious work on the exhibition, with Richard as the Guest Curator.
One of the first things we did, in 1996, was to form a small advisory committee of leading scholars drawn from across the university and museum sectors, and shortly afterwards we were in a position to apply for a substantial research and development grant from the Getty Grant Program. The application was successful, the $175,000 being used: to fund the appointment of Eleanor Townsend as Exhibition Assistant (subsequently up-graded to Assistant Curator of the exhibition), to allow Richard to be seconded to the Research Department in 1998-99, to pay for travel, research seminars, photographs and to meet other associated costs. Richard and Eleanor travelled the country, identifying and photographing numerous objects which we knew of in cathedrals, parish churches, Oxbridge colleges, town halls and private collections and discovering several others along the way; members of the advisory committee did the same. By 2000 we had the intellectual framework and themes of the exhibition worked out, and through a painful process of pruning managed to whittle down the object lists to just over 300 pieces. Richard and Eleanor and the other catalogue authors had of course recorded the basic condition of every object being considered for inclusion on their travels around the country – and abroad – but it was only when the list had been finally agreed that we were able to carry out detailed conservation checks on many of the key objects.
Clearly, only those objects which we thought would be fit for travel reached the short list. Nevertheless, the extraordinary range of materials to be included, ranging from stained glass panels in church windows, paintings, woodwork, through to stone and gilt-copper sculptures, required detailed examination and method statements needed to be prepared. Very few museums would have the necessary conservation expertise to do this, nor have the staff with the skills required to install these precious works of art. The end result is therefore very much a joint effort between the exhibition organisers and our conservators, co-ordinated for this project by Charlotte Hubbard, Simon Metcalf and Jane Rutherston.