The New Elizabethan Age: a review

[This review appeared in the LSE Review of Books earlier this month, and is here republished under a Creative Commons licence.]

The New Elizabethan Age. Culture, Society and National Identity after World War II.
Irene Morra and Rob Gossedge (eds).
London, I.B. Tauris, 2016.

The Britain of the late 1940s and 1950s has often languished in the historiographical shadow of its neighbours in time: the World Wars that preceded it and the sixties that followed. The popular perception of the early 1950s in particular is now of greyness and stasis: of a desperately slow recovery from the effects of the war and a return to social conformity; an in-between time without energy or direction. Only in 1963 did sex begin (it would seem), and the nation became young, swinging, forging ahead in the white heat of technological revolution.

Recent scholarship has begun to rescue this period from such caricature. The New Elizabethan Age: Culture, Society and National Identity after World War II, edited by Irene Morra and Rob Gossedge, both of Cardiff University, goes further again in cracking open the time to reveal fresh insights. Far from being culturally uniform and static, the nation that emerges is in vigorous dialogue with itself over both its past and its future. Here are chapters on Shakespeare, opera, ballet, musical theatre and film; others engage with national identities in the constituent nations of the UK; still more with British technological invention and with the persistence and usefulness of Arthurian, Byzantine and medieval themes. They are for the most part clearly written and suggestive, although some seem only to be connected with the theme in the most tenuous sense, notably the two pieces by the playwright Edward Bond, which although interesting, add little to the volume as a whole and should perhaps have been omitted.

The volume as a whole stands as a highly stimulating exploration of culture, society and national identity, as the subtitle suggests. This reviewer was left with more reservations about the overall theme of the ‘New Elizabethan Age’. As the introduction clearly shows, there was a moment associated with the coronation of Elizabeth II in which media and other commentators sought to bring the figure of the first Elizabeth into symbolic play. The ‘New Elizabethans’ were to be in continuity with their past, but also youthful, inventive, exploratory – a spirit most clearly to be seen in the arts. This was no ‘false start’ to the sixties, but rather an enduring cast of mind that deserves close attention. The instruments of this particular discourse were the media (and the BBC in particular) and the arts, as fostered by the newly founded Arts Council. The particular attention paid to the means by which this discourse was articulated is important and welcome.

That there was a ‘New Elizabethan’ discourse is therefore hard to dispute, but there is a marked centrifugal tendency among the essays not wholly overcome by the introduction. Too many of the authors seem to acknowledge the notion of the ‘New Elizabethan’ in introductory paragraphs only for it to recede to vanishing point in the body of the chapter. Not everything that occurred in the early 1950s may usefully be dubbed ‘New Elizabethan’ without emptying the concept of its meaning. Readers most interested in this particular aspect would be best served by the introduction, and Chapter One from Morra, which explore and define the New Elizabethan discourse. Also key are Paul Stevens on the historian A.L. Rowse and Powell and Pressburger’s A Canterbury Tale, Helen Phillips on literature for children and Stephen Banfield on the ambiguous music of the ‘New Elizabethan soundtrack’. Amongst the others, it becomes clear that British people in the 1950s looked all over for resources to fund their thinking and actions, including to Tudor revivals that were in fact much older, such as in music, and to several periods of the past that were not Elizabethan. For every example that might fit the template, there are counter-examples, dissensions and dissonances.

One other striking omission is the visual arts, in which the symbolic play of past and present may be observed in other contexts, and which were similarly the object of both state and private patronage, and the forces of a growing market. Of course, the editors may only include work which is available to publish, but there is yet a space open for studies of artistic representations of both the new queen and of the Tudor past in this particular period.

The New Elizabethan Age as a whole is highly suggestive and valuable, and shows well the moment in which answers to pressing questions of national identity were sought. Several of its chapters throw light on aspects of British culture seldom if ever illuminated before, and will be read with profit by cultural historians and scholars of the arts alike. However, it may be that in order to realise the full value of this collection the reader needs first to set aside the search for an essential New Elizabethanism. Read without this particular frame, the collection vividly presents a Britain seeking a means to reconcile a reverence for elements of its history while also imagining a future in fundamentally changed circumstances after World War II. While losing both an empire and any last vestiges of world leadership and adjusting to a new social settlement in the welfare state, for some the figure of the new Queen and her earlier namesake did indeed symbolise something important; for others, notably outside England, the new Queen provided little symbolic heft. Ultimately, the interest lies in the fact of the search for such meaning, rather than in any single finding.

The arts in evangelical history

I’m very pleased to be able to say that I have agreed to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming Ashgate Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism. This is to be one of the first volumes in a new series, Ashgate Studies in Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones.

Some of my publications in the past have touched on evangelicals and the arts in twentieth century Britain, most directly in relation to worship music, but also in relation to the theatre and the visual arts. This project will require a much wider perspective, taking in the whole of evangelical history from the early eighteenth century onwards, and across the world.

I’d thus be very pleased to hear of particular issues that readers think I should be addressing, and secondary literature I should be reading, within these broad themes:

(i) evangelical use (or disuse) of the various arts in public, private and domestic worship;

(ii) the use of the arts as means of evangelism;

(iii) evangelical theologies of the created work of art itself, and its right performance, realisation and reception;

(iv) evangelical involvement in the creation, performance and consumption of the arts in situations not associated with worship or evangelism, such as the secular theatre;

(v) evangelical challenge to works of art and/or their performance, on grounds of either their content (subject matter), or their style, or on grounds of their likely effects on performer and/or viewer or listener.

(vi) more generally, all of these matters are intimately connected with evangelical theologies of culture, and the relationship of the church, the individual Christian and “the world”, however defined.

I’m particularly keen to hear of particular matters of note before c.1850, or from outside Europe and North America at any point between about 1730 and the almost-present.

Walter Hussey, patron of art

[I first starting investigating the career of Walter Hussey some nine years ago. He has appeared in several of my articles so far, but the book I always intended has been put back. Now, though, a proposal for that book has been accepted is currently under consideration by a publisher. Here’s what it is about.]

Walter Hussey is known for an extraordinary sequence of commissions of contemporary art and music, for the church of St Matthew Northampton from 1943 and, from 1955 to 1977, for Chichester Cathedral. The names read as a roll-call of post-war artistic and musical life: Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Marc Chagall in the visual arts; Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Gerald Finzi, Michael Tippett, William Walton in music.

Hussey became something of a grandee: an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, an honorary Doctor of Letters of the young University of Sussex. Kenneth Lord Clark, critic, broadcaster, and sometime director of the National Gallery, described Hussey as ‘aesthete, impressario and indomitable persuader’. As interest in the relations between theology and the arts has grown, so has Hussey’s reputation as the most significant patron of art for the English church of the twentieth century. Countless recording sleeve notes and exhibition catalogues record Hussey’s role in glowing terms, and the art historical literature has accorded him a corner niche in the pantheon of the great individual patrons. For one commentator, Hussey single-handedly ‘turned the tide against Anglican neglect of modern art’.

Missing in all this is any extended critical study of Hussey’s life and work as a whole. The musicological and art-historical literature confines him to a walk-on part, while church historians have paid greater attention to the other major figure in Anglican artistic patronage, George Bell, bishop of Chichester.

Why, then, study Walter Hussey ? Most obviously, the Hussey Papers are a rich source for studying the commissioning of the contemporary arts, giving a vivid picture of the relationship between one exceptional clergyman and his commissionees. Almost none of this material has ever been integrated into the existing literature.

Within the contemporary Church of England with its cathedrals now crammed with contemporary art, Hussey has been seen as a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for a rediscovery of a contemporary language for the Church’s message. This story of dogged effort in the face of philistinism and ignorance is the nearest we have to a meta-narrative of the churches and the arts. But it is a story established by dint of omission, since the integration of the religious arts into the study of recent British religious history is in its infancy. To document Hussey’s patronage is to provide key signposts in this terra incognita.

Hussey is also a case-study in the unspoken assumptions of catholic Anglicans about the arts, the church, and the place of creativity in national life.  The social and economic crises of the 1930s, 1940s and 1960s prompted intense debate over the nature of ‘national religion’, and its connection with the mainstream in national culture. The church could not hope to regain the attention of ‘Modern Man’ without speaking through the art in which he was already expressing himself. Hussey stands as one of the most active and well self-documented case studies of this theological current in action.

Hussey’s career saw revolutionary change between the churches and the people. Church attendance and affiliation collapsed dramatically, as did the church’s confidence in its own ability to communicate and minister effectively. Part of the crisis was of religious language, and its ability to communicate in a manner meaningful to Modern Man.  Some sought new means of mission, and the contemporary arts were seized upon as a means to that end. If words were no longer securely meaningful, then perhaps the arts provided an alternative language. If the 1960s saw the discursive death of Christian Britain, as Callum Brown has suggested, then Hussey made an attempt at resuscitation.

The means by which taste was shaped and determined also changed in the ‘long 1960s’. The vision of a beneficent establishment raising the horizons of the people through the BBC and other channels was overturned by a quite new emphasis on the entitlement to ‘do one’s own thing’. Hussey’s mode of patronage depended on a discerning patron, authoritative critic and notable artist working in tandem, disseminating new art downwards to a grateful if uncomprehending public. This way of working, successful in the 1940s, was by the 1970s no longer fit for purpose.

The period was also one of general cultural fracture, during which the classical in all the arts was shifted further and further from the centre of artistic life; a movement which posed difficulties for those in the churches and outside who wished to place Anglican patronage in the centre of the mainstream of national cultural life. By the end of Hussey’s career it was less than clear where that centre might be.

The career of Walter Hussey thus affords the historian a unique opportunity to examine one sphere in which the church met, resisted, negotiated with or capitulated to forces of change in the society in which it was located.

What good are the arts ?

I note an interesting debate on Radio 3’s Night Waves on the history of understandings of what the arts are capable of achieving; a debate that can’t entirely avoid the religious nature of that claim until at least the nineteenth century, and arguably beyond. Participants included John Carey, Edith Hall and Jude Kelly. It’s available on the iPlayer service.

Roger Scruton on beauty

I note some reviews of Roger Scruton’s recent On Beauty (OUP). Jonathan Ree reviews it in Prospect (March 2009), noting the tendency in Scruton’s work towards the jeremiad concerning contemporary culture, in which there is an implicit historical narrative of decline.

A review has also appeared in the Observer, and an extract in the Times, dealing with the ‘kitschification’ of religious art in particular. See also Scruton on the ‘flight from beauty’ in Axess

See also an earlier post on his Culture Counts

Andrew Motion on the Bible

Two recent things of note from Andrew Motion:

The first was a piece in the Guardian Education supplement, on the centrality of the Bible to understanding English literature. His comments, from a professed atheist, will set heads nodding among those who have tried to teach religious history, even in a university context.
It provoked a number of responses, including that of Andrew Brown, also in the Guardian.

The second thing was another Guardian piece, this time reflecting on the role of Poet Laureate, which Motion is about to relinquish after ten years.

Youth Culture in Modern Britain

I note Ian’s new review of David Fowler’s new study, published today in Reviews in History. Issues relating to the relationships between generations and the growing cultural prominence of youth are never far away when considering ‘pop’ church music, and this study provides valuable background.

See also another review, in the Times Higher. Fowler himself appeared on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed programme in February.