Friday, March 4, 2022

Beastly Goings-on in the Victoria and Albert Museum - The Dacre Beasts...

Whilst in the Victoria and Albert Museum, I came across the following four imposing figures, guarding the steps leading to one of the exhibit rooms of the British Galleries. The Dacre Beasts, as they are known, are the last remaining specimens of Tudor heraldic carving dating back to the reign of Henry VIII. Standing tall and proud at around 6ft in height, the red bull, black gryphon, white ram and crested dolphin tower over the visitors, much as they must have done in their former setting in Naworth castle in Cumbria from the early 16th century. There, the beasts loyally stood below a ceiling decorated with paintings of the sovereigns of England in a sign of the allegiance of the Dacre family to the king, and thus highlighting the Dacre motto: « Fort en Loialte » (Strong in Loyalty). The name Dacre, is said to originate from an ancestor, Acre, who served in the siege of Palestine at the end of the 12th century…
Unfortunately, due to the tightening of financial circumstances in the 21st century Dacre family, the beasts were taken from their noble ancestral home that had been their ‘turf’, so to speak, for almost 500 years. In order to finance the upkeep of the Dacre castle, the descendant, Hon Philip Howard, felt obliged to generate funds through the sale of these historic pieces. Put up for auction at Sotheby’s in 2000, they were bought up by the V and A at a bargain price and are now visible to the public. The image of cattle to market did come to my mind at this point as I learnt of their history but at least they have been preserved, unlike the majority of similar works that have not survived to the present day. But if only they could talk ; what would they say of their change in identity, as one man’s insignia has become a rather anonymous, albeit impressive prize for a museum in the new millennium ? Although we visitors have gained in this exchange – I had certainly never heard of the Fab Four prior to my visit – they are perhaps a little lost in their present setting and may even be experiencing an existential blur.
Not so in the past, when the beasts set in their rightful domain were said to have inspired the illustrations of John Tenniel (1820-1914) for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland during the artist’s stay at Naworth. Even those unable to see the actual beasts in flesh and fur within their castle setting would have seen printed works, driven by the Victorian thirst for Medieval imagery, heraldry and that Gothic touch. At one moment in their history, such illustrations were nearly all that was left of these magnificent carved forms when a devastating fire swept through Naworth in 1844, and yet the beasts escaped being reduced to charcoal. Nevertheless, whilst they may have thankfully lived to tell the tale, their current location renders them somewhat speechless and the small museum notice next to them does not tell us a great deal of their story. And what glorious beasts these are !
Carved from a single oak tree trunk by unknown craftsmen at the very end of the 15th century or first part of the 16th, these figures were made for Thomas Dacre (1467-1525), the 2nd Baron Dacre of Gilsland to reflect the dynastic alliance of two powerful families in Northern England through marriage. Indeed, each beast is a ‘supporter’ ; the creature that is shown on either side of the shield of arms. The exact function of the beasts is not known, for although they were apparently used in Dacre’s funeral, it is believed that they were intended to be displayed during tournaments to mark his considerable military skill and valour. Dacre had been a soldier in the last episode in the English Wars of the Roses during which King Richard III was defeated and killed by Henry Tudor in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. He then went on to fight in the Battle of Flodden against the Scots in 1513, thus earning his reputation of staunch defender of the English crown, with the battle cry "A read bull, a read bull, a Dacre, a Dacre".
Thomas Dacre appears to have been a decisive man of action off the battlefield too, for in 1488 he eloped with Elizabeth Greystoke (1471-1516), a landed heiress. The Dolphin therefore represents the Greystoke family, as it carries the banner which displays Elizabeth’s arms – three cushions of argent – clasped between its decidedly fishy fins. Indeed, I must admit to having great difficulty in believing this was actually the portrayal of a dolphin – it looks more like a sizeable salmon, even given artistic licence ! The ram meanwhile, is the supporter of the De Multon family – from Ranulph de Dacre’s wife – and it bears a banner with a lion ‘passant’(walking with right fore paw raised) with three bars gules (heraldic tincture of red) upon argent (silver). The rather closely-shorn fleece and lack of horns make the ram look somewhat sheepish - not to say lacking in virility - but his very ostentatious male appendage would appear to define and display his ancestral power and position, presumably in a manner similar to (the rather more discreet) portrayals of Henry VIII in the royal portraits of Hans Holbein the Younger.
This same feature is shared by the two other beasts - the bull and the gryphon – whilst the Dolphin must content himself with a crown; fair is fair! The red bull of Dacre bears gilded horns, hooves and tongue in honour of his ancestry and wears a chained crown collar around his neck. He clasps the banner between his cloven hooves, displaying the arms of the Dacres – three white scallps on a red field. The black gryphon is the supporter of the Dacres of Gilsland and bears three rose chaplets (garlands of leaves with flowers) that are the 19th century arms of the Greystoke family. After the fire in 1844, the four beasts were repainted using Victorian colours that sought to recreate the initial tinctures, and the coats of arms were added at this stage. The architect in charge of restoration also saw fit to to gild the bull’s 'pizzle', an act that shocked the Victorian sensitivities of certain visitors to the castle at that time. I fear that the photos here may be banned due to ‘inappropriate content,’ which would be the ultimate dishonour to these fine beasts. Since they were on full public display in the Victoria and Albert, in all their finery, I trust they are ‘safe’ on this post too. How else can we learn about historic heraldry, with or without the infamous pizzle?

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