Paper Presentation: John of Gaunt

June 21, 16.20-16.50: Jessica Fure, University of Essex

John of Gaunt: The Fictions of History/A History of Fictions
An examination of the use of John of Gaunt in Literature and the Arts

My research looks at how an impression of John of Gaunt, a real person, is shaped through a progression of fictional portrayals in both literature and art, with a special focus on major works from 1730-1950. Although Gaunt appears consistently in various works during his life and after his death, from the early Georgian era onwards these appearances become driven towards the public in the manner of all commercial art, fostering a consumption of image and identity, while expanding the popular culture’s consciousness of the historical person to suit the artists’ aims.

Beginning with a short background in the Tudor era, with Shakespeare’s Richard II and the earliest known portraits of Gaunt, I proceed onward to the Georgian era, where consuming culture became a political act available to the general public and where the idea of a British identity could be, in a sense, purchased and displayed. From there, Ford Maddox Brown utilizes Gaunt to advance his idea of Victorian moral obligations, and the mid-twentieth century American author Anya Seton uses the Duke to speak to an audience looking for women’s experience in postwar fictions.

These works engage fully with the available popular histories of the time, to question and embellish scholarly history, and to employ previous “common knowledge” regarding Gaunt – including mining previous uses in the arts – each creating, in the end, a cumulative portrait that accomplishes what T. S. Eliot claimed was an artist’s ultimate goal: to find the unspoken idea or unexplained idea and to articulate that into humanity’s ongoing conversation, to add to what we know in a manner that speaks to having listened.

The interdisciplinary aspect of the work looks at the intertwining methods and reasons for creating a character for public consumption, and the results of that consumption on later works. My analysis methods cross techniques from literature, history, art history, and film studies.  There is a strong element of close reading to emphasise how the particular texts or paintings articulate intended goals and/or highlight the ways the works are anchored in their time.

The additional aim of my project is to show the value in an interdisciplinary approach to any subject – to view the artefacts as objects in a museum collection that can be utilized in several different contexts, and to provide a case study in how to come to a subject from several angles and highlight myriad avenues outward.

My true passion is for interdisciplinary education, encouraging students in different disciplines to use the same subject, coming together to express differing viewpoints, using their particular skillsets and interests and sharing those, leading to new, exciting ways of seeing that subject. Crossing these boundaries, whether it leads to continued collaboration, or simply enhances one’s own studies, leads to a richer experience and the potential for more far-reaching research.  To that end, my thesis is to a degree, a case study for this multi-purposing of a subject, done on a single-student scale.