Painting the Past

The following is a guest article by BP Travel Award Winner Isobel Peachey. The text is based on the catalogue of an ongoing exposition in the National Portrait Gallery London. The exposition will travel to Lincoln and Aberdeen afterwards.

As part of the BP Travel Award 2009 I traveled to two major historical re-enactment events. Firstly, I attended the weekend occupation in June 2009 of Gruyères Castle in Switzerland by the medieval organisation The Company of Saynt George. This was followed in September 2009 with a visit to Oostmalle in Belgium, for a re-enactment of the 'forgotten battle' of Hoogstraten. I hoped that meeting and later depicting twenty-first-century people, who had assumed historic identities, would offer a new conceptual direction for my painting.

Roberta, graphite on paper (image and drawing by Isobel Peachey)

At the medieval town of Gruyères, situated in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, I was joined by my childhood friend and BP Portrait Award model, Ruth Edwards. As we made our way through the quiet medieval streets at dawn, we found ourselves in front of the large wooden castle gates. Beneath the portcullis were a pair of medieval boots and the butt of a halberd: our first introduction to The Company of Saynt George. This organisation, co-founded by the historical illustrator Gerry Embleton in 1988, re-enacts the military and civil life of a Burgundian artillery unit of the 1460s and 1470s. Its pursuit of research-based 'living history', high standards of authenticity and uncompromising membership criteria attracted my interest. Members immerse themselves entirely in medieval life and allow no modern artefacts on site during the re-enactment. Food is prepared as it would have been in medieval times, and members sleep on straw mattresses in their linen shirts under their cloaks. Mornings comments with stoking the fires for breakfast and with men dressing their masters, followed by a roll-call at which the day's instructions are issued.

Jonas, oil on canvas (image and painting by Isobel Peachey)

We were introduced to Jonas from Sweden, who wore custom-made armour that, he told us, cost a small fortune. Jonas looked at ease in his armour but explained that the role of the medieval knight was not a pleasant one and that the truth was far from the pure and honourable depiction of knights in paintings. Back in Stockholm, Jonas was a train driver, but our perception of his identity had been so profoundly shaped by our first impression that he had great difficulty imagining Jonas in his present-day role.

Over a period of three days the company re-enacted halberd and gun drills, commercial life, feasting and dancing, and a siege of the castle. At dusk on the last day, the event came to a close with a procession through the castle gates to the medieval town square. In the square, before a large fire, there was dancing music played on authentic instruments. The gunners fired smoky and deafening salute before the company to the castle and their beds.

Daniel, watercolour, ink and graphite on paper (image and painting by Isobel Peachey)

Each of the two re-enactments ended with eager invitations to future events and promises to keep in touch. Once the public had left, the cars and vans arrived; tents were dismantled and fires left to die down. Equipment was packed, straw bedding turned out and flags lowered, and the off bottle of beer or can of Coke appeared. I was not prepared for the surprise when the re-enactors whom I'd got to know so well seemed barely recognisable in their modern-day clothing. Halberds, rifles and cannon were exchanged for car keys and mobile phones. It took some time for me to adjust to the twenty-first century. We said our farewells and I left them to their long journeys home to their kitchens, warm beds and showers.


By Isobel Peachey, guest author.

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