I have very high-resolution - 60meg - images of John Blanke’s two appearances from the 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll, I also have a quarter size 5 metre facsimile of the complete Roll. I have seen countless images of him on line, copies of copies as well as my John Blanke Project’s seventy two interpretations and imaginings of him and his image. So, I can say with some confidence I know what John Blanke’s image looks like what I did not know was what John Blanke’s image felt like until I saw the actual 1511 Westminster Tournament Roll from where those many photographic reproductions came. Last Friday morning I saw the actual Roll itself at the College of Arms.
It was a brilliant, awesome, humbling, extraordinary experience to see the actual Roll, itself, in the flesh, up close, after seeing so many countless reproductions - I was star struck - It looked magnificent, a five-hundred and eight year old document still radiant after all those years. Its reds, greens and blues were still wonderfully luminous. The widespread use of gold leaf throughout the length of the Roll really brought the images to life, from its use in portraying the chains of office of the many figures in the Roll, the ceremonial and jousting tack on the horses and of course the man himself – Henry - each of his appearances is evidenced by much use of gold-leaf on his figure as well as his tents, his horses and his entourage to emphasise his magnificence.
Such is the fragility of the Roll its unrolling for conservation or photography and the like happens very rarely, almost once a generation, though in future this may change. I was truly honoured and humbled to be invited to be part of a small group including myself, Dr Miranda Kaufmann and the College of Arms team to witness its unrolling.
It was unrolled before us in stages, from one roll to another. The eighteen-meter roll was exposed about two meters at a time. From John Blanke’s opening appearance, the parade of the gentlemen of the court, the heralds and persuviants, Henry and his fellow challengers, the central joust scene with Henry and Katherine and the closing scenes with John Blanke and Henry. As it was unrolled and re-rolled each two-meter was discussed and ideas exchanged with much speculation and reflection between us on the characters’ parts in the Roll and the Tudor court and its times.
Now two days later I am still excited, with mental flash backs to what I saw and felt at the time. I cannot at this time say why I was there, other than it was part of a bigger project, when it happens I will be writing about it for sure, meanwhile I would like to leave you with a thought that occurred to me at the time and has not gone away.
Should we return the Benin Bronzes in the British Museum to Nigeria, The Maqdala in the V&A to Ethiopia, Ashanti gold trophy head in The Wallace Collection back to Ghana?
These objects are revered in their respective countries. Those institutions hold on to them with cognitive dissonance acknowledging their 'problematic’ entries in their collections. These pieces were looted, stolen from their original homes, while at the same time continuing to hold on to them with the argument they provide a secure home for the object for the public to view them. I believe that this dissonance really needs to be resolved with the objects being returned to their original homes and owners.
Now I see the Roll in the light of those ‘problematic’ works.
Imagine if the Roll was held by an institution in another distant country, with Britain’s requests for its return being ignored. I would not be alone in being outraged, pressing for its immediate return. It is a document of national importance and significance produced at time when Britain was undergoing great changes. The elaborate Romantic back story to the Tournament of the nineteen year old Henry and his fellow challengers jousting to win the maiden’s heart along with the black trumpeter, John Blanke were cultural and visual evidence for those changes as the Tudor court sought to embrace Europe and its ideas, in direct contrast to what is happening today through BREXIT.
I would demand its return. The many photographic reproductions, no matter how detailed, could or would ever be a substitute for the actual object. The Roll had a physical and emotional presence that could have no surrogate. Yes, I could have a good idea of what John Blanke and the Roll looked like but in no way can any of those copies or reproductions let me know how it felt to be in the presence of the actual Roll.
So now I am even more convinced we should, no must, return the Benin Bronzes in the British Museum to Nigeria, The Maqdala in the V&A to Ethiopia and Ashanti gold trophy head in The Wallace Collection back to Ghana so their rightful owners can move on from looking at reproductions to feeling their cherished object’s actual presence.
I would like to close by thanking all those who made this happen for me. I will write more about them and the event once the Project is concluded meanwhile they all have my eternal gratitude.
6th May 2019