Issue 40 Britannia

£11.95 GBP

May/June 2011

“LIKE THE BRITISH CONSTITUTION, she owes her success in practice to her inconsistencies in principle.” Thomas Hardy is not alone in attempting to sum up the driving force behind the British, but with his paradoxical little aside in The Hand of Ethelberta he comes closer than many others. Contradiction, or pure contrariness as some, such as Luella Bartley, might say does seem to propel the British forward…

We’re a nation with a long and complicated history but with a reputation for innovation, particularly in fashion and textiles as our round up of new graduates, proves. Tradition is important to us but often just provides something to push against (Britain must be home to the happiest iconoclasts). Symbols of the establishment offered inspiration to the Sex Pistols while remaining a source of pride for patriots as Sarah Jane Downing points out as she traces the history of the Union Flag. Perhaps it is our geographical isolation that fosters an independent way of thinking? Geography certainly plays a part, but again there’s contradiction. We are a green and pleasant land that owes much of its wealth to dark, satanic mills. But we are beginning to understand the beauty of our industrial past as the Queen Street Mill in Lancashire shows.

In East Anglia contrast can be found in the textile legacy of the city of Norwich, where early industry brought great wealth but where sleepy villages surround the area’s churches and stately homes, seemingly untouched by commerce. Of course, it wasn’t isolation that ensured the success of Norwich’s textiles. Dutch, Flemish and Walloon settlers known as ‘Strangers’ brought their skills to the region and were an important part of the recipe. Maybe that is a clue? Is it the British ability to absorb and assimilate that is the key to our creative success. Great Britain is a repository of peoples and influences from around the world and has benefited greatly. It’s an approach reflected in our greatest institutions, such as the Victoria and Albert Museum. The world's greatest museum of art and design is an idiosyncratic place offering many different things to many different people. Surprisingly personal for such a vast entity, it contains grand monuments and tiny, intricate works of art, ancient pieces and new works by contemporary artists – it has something for everyone and is worth exploring and celebrating – a microcosm of our entire, wonderful island.

Polly Leonard

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