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6 FEB, 2011

Making Art in Tudor Britain: The Conference

Posted By Hope Walker

In early December, 2010 the National Portrait Gallery (London) and the Courtauld Institute of Art held a three-day conference in London as part of the Making Art in Tudor Britain research project. One of the project's goals is to "[help] increase understand of early painting practice and the production of portraits in the Tudor and Jacobean periods." As a five-year project, the MATB conference was held during the forth year and brought together scholars from across the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States.

The weather was somewhat against the conference, however, and a few speakers were unable to attend because of the sudden heavy snows that swept across London and most of southern England. Indeed, as I was landing in Heathrow, Gatwick was closed and would remain so for nearly all of my ten-day stay in England. This, coupled with the subsequent lack of transportation by train or air, made it difficult for a few speakers to arrive, though several made valiant (and dangerous!) efforts to get into the city. I had originally planned to attend the conference and then head south to visit three private houses in Kent so that I could view several Eworth portraits. Those plans changed because of the weather and ultimately I remained in London for all of my stay. Fortunately I was able to locate accommodation (a real challenge because of the weather with so many others trapped inside the metropolis) and spent my remaining time in the archives, making the most of the circumstances by gathering research material at the British Library, the Heinz Archive, and the Institute for Historical Research. I plan to return to England in March or April and will catch up on my houses visits then, when I hope to have pleasant spring weather as a backdrop to what will surely be some lovely site visits. Still, although the weather was a challenge, the conference was a huge success (a fully-booked event) and my time in the archives provided some fascinating and very useful results; I will share more about this in a future blog post.

The MATB conference was divided into three days of lectures as well as a series of tours--conference attendees could chose from three tours: visits to the Tudor galleries at the NPG, a visit to the NPG Conservation Studio, or a visit to the Courtauld Institute Conservation Studio. Since I have visited both of the Studios in the past, I opt'd to tour the Tudor galleries with Dr. Tarnya Cooper. And although I have visited the gallery literally hundreds of times in the past, it was quite a pleasure to do so with Dr. Cooper, whose expertise and knowledge of the pictures within the gallery was incredibly inspiring and provided many new insights into the NPG's fantastic collection. I also enjoyed the speakers dinner, held during the second evening of the conference. It is rare as a young scholar to have the chance to sit, literally surrounded by ones scholarly s/heroes, and break bread. Needless to say it was a great evening, and the food and wine wasnít bad, either!

Though each talk was extraordinary, it would be impossible for me to discuss the details of every speaker at the conference. Still, there were a few that stood out for me, primarily because they touched upon issues related my own work in some way. Ian Tyers, for example, provided us all with a humorous and thoughtful lecture on dendrochronology that was particularly helpful. I have examined the reverse of several pictures attributed to Eworth and Dr. Tyers very useful explanation of the markings found on such pictures answered several questions; his discussion of the difference between Baltic oak and English oak was also fascinating. Rica Jones and Catherine MacLeod's talks on George Gower (Jones) and Robert Peake (MacLeod) were helpful in coming to a better understanding of these men and their respective oeuvres. Susan Foister's discussion of foreign and native artistic praxis, particularly in the way that some artists seem to have absorbed local style as indicative of success, was a revelation. Elizabeth Goldring on the painter-heralds, Karen Hearn on Jacobean migrant artists, Tarnya Cooper on the painting and commissioning practices of Tudor and Stuart England, and Robert Tittler on regional portraits and circles of painters and patrons were all deeply inspiring and their work (and methods) also very helpful in considering and reconsidering my own research. I also enjoyed meeting many other students and several private owners, including Keith Puddy, whose wonderful Eworth pictures are presented elsewhere on this website.

The good news is that although the conference was sold out, the NPG plans to provide online videos of several of the speakers and their presentations quite soon. [I will link to this as soon as it is available.] In the mean time, I have recorded my own talk and you can view it by playing the embedded videos, below. I will end by saying just how grateful I am to the National Portrait Gallery and their amazing staff, not only for the opportunity to speak at their phenomenal conference, but also for their continued research into art in Tudor Britain. When I began my academic career in art history I was told that there was no future in Tudor art and everything that could be known, was known. I am so pleased to see that, along with many other scholars, the staff of the National Portrait Gallery and the Courtauld Institute of Art have proven that so view very wrong.

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