Graham Turner on The Wars of the Roses

Graham Turner

The artist discusses his new book and the paintings within.
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Graham Turner, many congratulations on a quite stunning collection of paintings for the book. What is it about the Wars of the Roses that make such an attractive subject for your art?

Thank you.

As a child my imagination was captured by seeing armour in places like the Tower of London, and while that early fascination has stayed with me it has evolved to become more about the people who wore that armour, the lives they lived and the world they lived in. My interest has broadened to include every aspect, not just the military, and conveying our ancestors’ stories is what I aim to achieve, to bring their experiences to life.

Pictorially, it’s a colourful period of history, with lots of dramatic, pivotal events, interesting characters, personal stories we can relate to, and it all took place here, in our world, a familiar landscape with many of the places where these events took place still being recognisable.

You write that history surrounds us and is part of us all. The last monarch to be buried prior to Elizabeth II was Richard III (well, re-buried). How important are the Wars of the Roses to the history of these isles?

The course of the future often hangs on specific moments in history, and the Wars of the Roses has plenty of those moments that have shaped the country we live in today. You can endlessly debate the what-ifs, such as if Richard III had been victorious at the Battle of Bosworth there’d have been no Tudor dynasty, which could have meant no Reformation, and so on – all academic of course, but important to recognise so that we might see similar pivotal moments as they confront us today and consider our options and how they might impact future generations.

Did you find the prospect of writing a narrative history of the Wars of the Roses daunting?

Daunting and very exciting! I know where I am with painting, but had no idea of how long the writing would take. Turned out I completely underestimated it and the project took a year longer than originally planned, but I loved being able to immerse myself in it and learned a huge amount doing so. My aim was to make my book more than just a political history about kings and battles, and I have tried to include other aspects of the period that help to bring the people involved to life.

You’ve include contemporaneous writing in the book – how important was it for you to give the reader access to those that witnessed this traumatic period?

These are the words of those who lived through this dramatic period, so they provide a direct connection to the writers and their thoughts and opinions about what was happening around them. I love the quirky spelling and grammar – written English was rapidly evolving throughout this time, and ‘correcting’ their writing seems wrong to me, removing a lot of this connection with the writers. I was careful to include quotes that weren’t too difficult to follow, and added notes where the meaning might not be obvious.

Is there a particular Yorkist or Lancastrian you enjoyed painting most?

I find them all fascinating. When I’m painting an individual we know something about I try to find out as much as I can about them to help inform the way I portray them. If it’s one of the majority who are nameless, I consider what they might have been through to get to the scene I’m painting. I do find myself drawn towards those whose names are lost to us, those who don’t warrant a mention in the chronicles. The Arrivall, written after the Battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury in 1471, refers to ‘many othar knyghts, squiers, noble men, and othar’ that lay on the battlefield. The chronicles often list the names of the notable casualties, but the majority of those killed are here simply acknowledged by the single word ‘othar’. Elsewhere these nameless casualties are referred to as ‘gode yemen [yeomen], and many other meniall servaunts of the Kyngs’.

Is it the battle scenes that you enjoy painting the most, and if so is there one that stands out for you?

Battles do provide the most dynamic, exciting and emotive situations for painting, and with each one I try to choose a moment that encapsulates as much of the story in one scene. Within that the individuals are most important though, trying to capture their predicament in such a life and death situation. However, I also enjoy painting more reflective subjects, and these can be much more intimate – ‘Divided Loyalty’ for example – and not just about men trying to kill each other – ‘Reverie’ and the new ‘Duchess Cecily’s Supplication’.

One gets the impression of knights fighting in a glorious, romantic clash but in actuality, as one takes a step back, we’re really looking at a kingdom falling apart – is that something you try to capture?

I am very aware of the contradiction between the romantic idea of knights in armour versus the grim, brutal reality of warfare, and I am careful to try not to glamourise what I’m painting too much. Often, the suggestion of violence and a nasty outcome is sufficient; in my painting of the Battle of Barnet the central clash between Edward IV and an opposing billmen is obviously not going to turn out well for the billman. Accounts mention the propensity of wounds to the face and limbs, and this can be easily imagined when you look at the vicious sharp hooks and spikes on the poleaxes and bills, and then see the lack of much armour on the majority of those fighting, particularly the open-faced helmets and unprotected arms and legs. Seeing these more lightly armoured figures, and the weapons they’re brandishing, along with some of those who’ve been struck down at the feet of those struggling for their lives, does, I think make it clear that the medieval battlefield was not a nice place to be.

What is your next project?

I am now trying to catch up with the commissions and other work I’ve neglected while creating my Wars of the Roses book. It was such a massive project that I need to let things settle again before considering anything else on this scale. The book is proving very popular so far, which is wonderful, so I’ll give it a bit more time and then see…

Graham Turner is the author, and artist, of The Wars of the Roses: The Medieval Art of Graham Turner, published by Osprey.