Margaret Aston. The King's Bedpost: Reformation and Iconography in a Tudor Group Portrait. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993. xii + 267pp. ISBN 0-521-48457X.
Andrew Stott
University of Hertfordshire

Stott, Andrew. "Review of The King's Bedpost: Reformation and Iconography in a Tudor Group Portrait." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.2 (1996): 12.1-5 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-2/rev_sto1.html>.

  1. Studies of English Renaissance art have traditionally noted predictable achievements: Holbein's unparalleled ability to capture a character and iconocize a king, the allegories of Elizabeth, the steady hand of Nicholas Hilliard, and. . . well not much else really, at least until the blessed arrival of Inigo Jones and Van Dyck hard on his heels. With the obvious exception of Roy Strong, art-historical monographs tend to compare the aesthetic production of the English Renaissance unfavourably to that of Italy and the Low Countries, and even Strong seemed to be interested only in the major show-pieces of English art. The problem is that Elizabethan and Jacobean art has suffered from the lack of a suitable framework for discussion -- a situation that has not been helped by the art-historical establishment. These days, the professional curator is as much scientist as humanist, bombarding the canvases in his or her charge with x-rays, infra-red reflectograms, and other devices designed to penetrate the surface and reveal something in the underdrawing that might offer insight into the process of creativity. These procedures summon shades, creating gestures at different angles as if to suggest frozen motion. The image becomes doubled, maybe even trebled, as more and more underpaintings are revealed. Rather than ironizing the concept of unique production, however, the results of these exercises often bolster a sympathetic idea of the master at work. In the case of Elizabethan and Jacobean art, a period short on masters in the conventional sense, the cleft that opens up between process and product could be used more profitably as a metaphor that emphasises the exceptional nature of this enigmatic, and predominantly anonymous, aesthetic period.

  2. Margaret Aston's book constantly foregrounds the doubling of images as an object worthy of study in itself. Aston sees Elizabethan artworks as interventions in a cultural project that goes beyond aesthetics or the history of patronage. This is not a theoretical work that simply produces an art history, rather it seeks to interrogate visual culture, with all its borrowings, intertextual references and iconic iterations. Granted, however, the work reads like the choice offerings of a connoisseur inasmuch as it displays an encyclopedic knowledge of what might be considered the backwaters of English art, and attempts to trace the provenance of symbol and allegory. To read the book as a display of connoisseurship alone, however, would be to miss the invaluable point of this book, namely that the locus of English Renaissance visual culture is not to be found in the famous Armada or Rainbow portraits of Elizabeth, but in the deracinated and intertextual world of print culture, a world that seems without an authoritative iconic centre. Aston is Britain's foremost scholar of the Tudor and Jacobean reformation of images. Her 1988 volume, England's Iconoclasts: Laws Against Images, is an invaluable source for anyone wishing to study the complicated and often inaccessible politics of Elizabethan and Jacobeanvisual culture. Aston's most recent book, The King's Bedpost, consolidates this wealth of learning and fashions it into a completely different kind of discipline.

  3. The King's Bedpost offers a wonderful piece of detective work around the famous portrait known as Edward VI and the Pope, owned by the National Portrait Gallery, London. This image of a young Edward flanked by his dying father and a gallery of attendant councillors, features a representation of the Pope with his chest emblazoned with the legend "All Fleshe is Grasse." He lies at the feet of the young king, after having apparently received a heavy cranial blow from an open Bible that reads "The Worde of the Lord Endureth for Ever." For years this group portrait has been dated at around 1547, contemporaneous with Edward's accession and the portrait's concomitant assertion of radical Protestant politics. Aston's motivation for this study stems from her discontent with this dating. She makes it her task to correct the error and find a more accurate date. She achieves this with exceptional authority, taking small clues from the iconography of the portrait and showing their (unquestionable) similarity to a wealth of other images produced in the Protestant nations after 1547. She constructs an argument with great skill, demonstrating that the portrait is, in fact, an amalgamation of several widely disseminated and readily available images (derived primarily from an ideologically motivated print culture) that have been "naturalized" by having the features of important English figures such as Edward, Somerset, and Cranmer imposed upon them. What these prototype images have in common, she shows us, is their subject matter, as they uniformly feature Old Testament characters who have in some way been involved in iconoclastic activity. Aston then proceeds to show that the painting was in fact a mid-Elizabethan propaganda piece, a collage produced by iconophobes who intended to evoke the memory of the fearless Protestantism of Elizabeth's male relations to firm up support in a time of religious uncertainty. It seems that the case has been accepted by the art-historical establishment -- the curators of 1995's Dynasties: Painting in Tudor and Jacobean England, 1530-1630 at London's Tate Gallery adopted the revised date of c.1568-71 for their exhibition. Indeed, the only way the hypothesis could be reasonably countered is if we found out that Aston had drawn all the pictures herself .

  4. Aston does little in the way of speculative thought or theorizing on the cultural relevance of the material she uses in this book. The text is full of facts, yet leaves the conjunction between image and history completely unproblematized. But her focus on visual culture rather than art history allows the cultural importance of these images to speak for itself, and provides a much needed antidote to the claim that the aesthetic productions of the British Isles are the poor relations of their better known continental counterparts. The dominance of the latter view is not surprising considering that the cult of creative genius was itself started by a group of Italian artists who inaugurated their Acadamia del Disegno as an umbrella group to organize the lavish obsequies of Michaelangelo's funeral. The prime mover in this circle was Giorgio Vasari, whose semi-heroic prose biographies, The Lives of the Artists, Painters, and Sculptors, established a linear history of accomplished genius in Italian art that found its culmination in the "divine" Michaelangelo. English Renaissance art lacks these major figures, mainly because English artists still belonged to humble guilds rather than more dignified academies. "Limning" was a trade that put food on the table, and that same table would probably cost you more than a specially commissioned portrait. Even artists who had powerful patrons would spend most of their time painting decorative trompe l'oeil on walls rather than being "creative." As a result, most people would be hard pushed to name any Tudor and Jacobean artists other than Nicholas Hilliard, Isaac Oliver and George Gower. Aston's book forcibly shows that Elizabethan art operated according to a different set of terms than that of the Italians, allowing us to see the ways in which Elizabethan art prioritized the textual tissue of visual citation, reference, and immediate political impact above any pretentions to greatness. As such, the book represents one of the best attempts to date to discuss Elizabethan culture on its own terms.

  5. Far from being a hindrance, the anonymity of English Renaissance art makes it all the more exciting. Indeed, its very fascination lies in those aspects that high-tech art history sublimates: the double exposure, and the referential, intertextual image that makes connections beyond the implied closure of its frame. Again, Aston is very strong on the relationship between word and image, a relationship in which text is as important as visual material, and indeed, given the censures of iconoclasm, is often privileged. While I accept that I may be reading this book against the grain, drawing theoretically motivated conclusions where perhaps none were intended, this can only be a good sign. I feel that this is a valuable academic work that lends itself to use by diverse groups with different interests. It shows us that in our only partially formulated quest to understand the apparent anachronism of English Renaissance visual culture we have been spending far too long looking in the wrong places. Visual culture cannot be understood simply as the sum total of signed paintings hung on walls, but rather is the complicated amalgam of all those productions designed to appeal to the eye, however they were transmitted. I think Aston has done us a service in this respect.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(September 4, 1996)