This article was first published in the February 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine
What does the art of different ages tell us about these ages? That’s the central question in a new series presented by David Dimbleby, The Seven Ages of Britain. “It’s not looking at art as the arrival of the Renaissance or the effect of the Impressionists on painting,” says the broadcaster, “it’s what does this kind of art tell us about the era, the epoch it came from?”
Each of the shows covers an era defined by an overarching theme and each encompasses an array of different artefacts, from everyday items to high art. But what if Dimbleby had to choose just one object to sum up each age? Here are his selections.
The Age of Conquest: from the Roman era to the Norman invasion
The Alfred Jewel, a piece of Anglo-Saxon jewellery found on the Somerset Levels
“Alfred the Great seems to me to be one of those characters that’s almost fictitious in most people’s minds. I had never seen this Alfred Jewel before, it’s at the Ashmolean Museum, and you suddenly see this great big piece of crystal and gold with “Alfred ordered me to be made” on it. The theory is that it was one of a series he had made to give to bishops.
For me, reading into that and discovering about this jewel, and the thought that he actually might have held it and given it, was just hugely powerful. It brought the whole of the Anglo-Saxon era alive really, just made me feel a contact with it. It’s also extremely beautiful. It’s strange, this curious man holding these flowers, there are all sorts of explanations of it.
I felt what I suppose people feel if they hold a religious relic and they’re religious. I did feel there was a sudden, intense communing with the past through this object.”
The Age of Worship: the medieval era
The Coventry Doom, Holy Trinity Church, a depiction of the Last Judgment
“It was so exciting going up to see it on a rope and being hauled up 40 feet above the nave. It’s a huge painting, the like of which I’ve only seen in Italy before. It was recently restored, but even with the restoration it’s still quite pale and you have to get up close to get the vivid picture.
I like it because it takes you back into an era when the church and faith and religion were vivid, living things, which they’re not for many people any more. The church was everywhere and the Doom seemed to me to sum this up because it’s so vast. It so dominates this church that when you go in, you look at it and just think, ‘Oh my God, I’ve done that, I’ll go to Hell…’”
The Age of Power: the Tudor era
The Anthony Roll, a record of the ships in Henry VIII’s navy
“The book consists of beautiful pictures on vellum of all the ships of the line that Henry had built up to make England powerful. Hearts of oak, it’s all that. As you turn the pages, it’s like looking through a catalogue of the German navy in 1914: you suddenly realise that, yes, this country is a threat, you suddenly see that England has become a dominant sea power. I start at the back, where there are little galleys rowed by 20 or 40 people. Gradually, it builds up as you come to the front and you get the Mary Rose.
Apparently, it was done as a present by Anthony Anthony [a clerk in the Ordnance Office], it wasn’t commissioned. It’s also the beginning of a bureaucratic attitude to power: you list things very carefully, you have to know where your money is being spent.”
The Age of Revolution: the Civil War and the Restoration
Charles I’s vest, worn on the day of his execution
“It went to a relation and it’s authentic they say. I think they did DNA tests on it, quite what they discovered I don’t know. It’s just the idea of seeing this. It’s part of the series’ thesis: you see this thing and suddenly the idea that on a cold winter’s day the king put this on and was executed becomes very forceful.
Going down Whitehall, it still seems unreal to me that Charles I was executed in front of Inigo Jones’s Banqueting House, I sort of think the building must be much more recent. I always think of Charles I’s execution as being way out in history. The thought that he came on to a platform and was executed before the crowd in Whitehall, it’s quite mind-boggling.”
The Age of Money: the Enlightenment era
Doctor and anatomist William Hunter’s plaster-casts of the wombs of pregnant women who had died
“What I like about the culture of the 18th century is that things were jumbled up together – that Dr Johnson went to watch scientific experiments. There was quite a small gang in London who were an intellectual elite, who were either like Joshua Reynolds in the arts or like Hunter doing science, and they all met together. It must have been really exciting.
I was very, very taken by Hunter’s models. One of the things that intrigued me was that it was the first time people had realised that babies developed gradually. They had this idea that the two-month-old child, for instance, was actually a fully grown human being but small.
It’s a curious idea because they must have known that mewling infants were mewling infants, your three-year-old was a three-year-old, you couldn’t talk about Euclid with him. The casts are also very beautiful. It’s rather sad because you feel all those mothers have died in agony and the children are stillborn.”
The Age of Empire: from the mid-18th century to the 20th century
The Gordon ‘relics’
“When General Gordon was killed at Khartoum, all sorts of funny little things emerged that came back to Britain. They’re all in Chatham at the Royal Engineers’ barracks where there’s a statue of Gordon. In the museum there, they showed me some of these things, one of which was something Queen Victoria had. It was a piece of the stone that he was said to be standing on when the spear went through him, which Queen Victoria had mounted in silver with a little silver cross. Then it all became a sort of joke. They had a little cigarette box with some cigarettes in and they had a fly on a bit of paper and it said, “A fly that landed on General Gordon’s nose”. They’re absurd things. But the point is you suddenly saw how this man was made a complete hero of the empire.”
The Age of Ambition: from the end of the First World War to today
Austin Seven car
“I like the Austin Seven because it symbolises ambition and freedom, it was the first people’s car in Britain. It was rather like the Ford Model T in America, and there were films made about where you could go in an Austin Seven and why it was worth having one. It was priced at about the same level as a motorcycle and sidecar, which used to be the working-class way of getting about when you had a bit of money. It was £165 in 1933.
It’s beautifully designed, I think it’s wonderful. It’s got a very spare, lean appearance, absolutely utilitarian. There is nothing added, there are no go-faster stripes, that would be a bit pretentious. We drove it and it was wonderful. I knew how because my first car was a 1929 Austin Seven. You have to treat it gently, you have to double-declutch all the time.”
Jonathan Wright writes the TV and radio previews for BBC History Magazine
TV: The Seven Ages of Britain began on BBC One on 31 January
BOOKS: The Seven Ages of Britain by David Dimbleby (Hodder & Stoughton, January 2010)