The Development of Heraldry as Art

 

Heraldry owes its very existence to its physical representation, whether in two dimensions or three. It is judged initially by the public at large on the quality of the artwork. For many years the artistic standard has in most countries, been in decline. In some, for so long that we now appear to expect nothing else. In the past, heraldry has been one of the most effective forms of decoration available to the artist in both two and three dimensions. Its use in this way has almost ceased except on rare occasions. In the short time available I would like to explore why the artistic quality of heraldry has declined and what can and should be done to restore it.

 

The earliest heraldic manuscripts, in the form of Rolls of Arms, were often made in situ at battle, siege or tournament and were no more than a hurried record of the arms of those knights who present. A few artists such as the monk Matthew Paris used the same tool with which both to write and illustrate their manuscripts, achieving a rare unity of text with decoration. It not until it was incorporated in more formal manuscripts, often to establish the owner or patron, that the artistic standard was reflected in the work of the scribe and illuminator. This inevitably resulted in almost all two dimensional heraldry, from the 13th to the 15th century, being coloured "drawings" rather that tonal paintings. This gave much of it a freedom and spontaneity which at least in the United Kingdom we have only just began to recapture.

 

The way in which it was perceived was directly influenced by the evolving skill and techniques of the illuminators who incorporated it into the decorative letters and borders of manuscripts. By the 15th century miniaturists of the highest calibre, producing fully tonal paintings with a dawning understanding of distance and perspective in a picture, such as Jean Fouquet, Pol and Jehannequin Limbourg and Jean Bourdichon, were be- now considered as being irrelevant. When I decided to pursue the craft as a living in 1949, no course existed which would enable me obtain the necessary training. I was obliged to learn where and from whom I could. I initially trained as a scribe and illuminator of manuscripts, but very soon heraldry became a major part of my interest. I started exploring the most effective ways of combining calligraphy with heraldry, because I am professionally concerned with producing documents in which heraldry plays a major part (fig. 2). I have always been fascinated by the miniature jewel-like quality of 14th and 15th century manuscripts and try to incorporate these qualities into my work (fig. 3). I am now experimenting with introducing into paintings the textures with which heraldry is made up.


Furs, precious metals, precious stones, leather and different materials to make the work more visually exciting
(fig. 4).

 

In 1968 at a small provincial art school in Reigate, in Surrey, I was able to build up a full time three year course for calligraphers, illuminators and heraldic artists to train to a professional level. It ran until 1989, when it was discontinued like many other small specialised courses, because of a government policy of reducing expenditure on art education generally. We trained students from all over the world in the disciplines involved in producing manuscript books, documents and heraldic art and design. Many of them now practice and teach their art both in the United Kingdom and their own countries. This is still just a drop in the ocean however, compared with what is needed. The standard of the best of their work is very high indeed, a fact which those who employ them have not always fully appreciated or understood.

 

In recent years several artists have attempted to bring heraldic art and design "up to date", as they see it. William Metzig produced a book Heraldry for the Designer in 1974, expressing his heraldry in the contemporary design idiom. He discarded most of what is traditional and familiar, and with it the very qualities which attract me to it. His style looks curiously dated and sterile now. The Dutch artist, Daniel de Bruin is producing some cleverly designed and well-drawn work, but it lacks the essential quality of instant identification. One has to look long and hard at an achievement to recognise what the arms are.

 

There is a fashion in the present day for artists to go sometimes to extravagant lengths to find a completely new style for their work, as though this alone will justify their existence, re-enforced by the artificial and often snobbish distinction made between art and craft. I think it is a mistake to assume that in order for heraldic art to be in tune with contemporary culture, it must of necessity be freed completely from its traditions and conventions. Work which is produced by artists of any period in history will inevitably reflect the society into which they have been born and live, quite apart from their own feelings and attitude to it.

 

The heraldry which is produced now will be of the end of this and the beginning of the next millennium, whether we like it or not. It will be as surely identifiable to future generations as the work of the 14th or 15th centuries is to us. It may well be influenced to some degree by computer graphics and other innovations yet to come, but it can never possess those qualities of life and immediacy which only work done by hand in the traditional ways and materials has.

 

In the countries with a comparatively recent heraldic history, such as South Africa and Canada, there are already vital and lively styles of heraldic art developing, particularly suited to their own needs. It is owing to the initiative and imagination of the Chief Herald of Canada, Robert Watt, that the work of the heraldic artist has at last been brought into focus.

 

The best work coming from the College of Arms in London is now as good as any, possibly because some of the young Herald Painters have also been trained as calligraphers and illuminators. Recent Grants of Arms are of a much higher standard artistically, than only a few years ago.

 

But the one recurrent problem, with few exceptions, is that very few young artists have had any basic training in general drawing and design.


Heraldry in the United Kingdom was until the outbreak of World War II, part of the curriculum of every first year art student because it is pure basic design. Sadly this is not longer the case. In at least one art school figurative drawing is no longer taught at all. It is now considered unnecessary. Unless and until those who are involved with and have a love of heraldry are prepared to take whatever action is necessary to ensure that the standard of artistic excellence in the work they commission is raised, it will continue to fall rather than improve. Few artists of real talent specialise in heraldry and calligraphy because they can see no possibility of earning a living comparable with their contemporaries in computer and commercial graphics.


If we want the best, we must be prepared to demand it and pay for it.

 

Fig 1: Freedom of the Grocers' Company. Detail of a document carried out for one of the great Merchant and Craft Guilds of the City of London. On calfskin vellum in raised and burnished gold and colour for presentation to Princess Margriet of the Netherlands (by Anthony Wood).

 

Fig. 2: An honorary Grant of Arms. Undertaken for Blumantle Pursuivant, an Officer of Arms at the College of Arms in London. Honorary Grants are made to ex-patriot Englishmen who have settled abroad, and are signed and sealed by all three Kings of Arms. This document is unusual in having been carried out entirely by one artist, and unique in having the armorial bearings of the artist in the lower left hand border. On fine calfskin vellum in 23 carat gold and colour (by Anthony Wood).

 

Fig. 3: Arms of Charles, Dauphin of France. One of a series of miniature illuminated panels of mediaeval arms. Carried out on free calf vellum, in raised and burnished gold, flat gold, silver and gouache colour (by Anthony Wood).

 

Fig. 4: Arms of the Professional Golfers' Association. A painting commissioned by Robert Noel, then Bluemantle Pursuivant of Arms, of the arms recently granted to the Association. It was required to include the arms of the Royal Patron, and those of the Past Presidents of the Association since its foundation. 1 also had to include a display of the flowers representing the national symbols of England (rose), Scotland (thistle), Ireland (shamrock) and Wales (leek). Painted on calfskin vellum stretched over board for framing, in gold and colour (by Anthony Wood).

 

- Anthony Wood

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