Student-curated exhibit explores enduring influence of castles

Hundreds of castles dot the British landscape, remnants of an era when feudal lords ruled the land. Long after the time of vassals and serfs elapsed, castles continued to stir imaginations and inspire artists.

“The British Castle: A Symbol in Stone,” a new student-curated exhibition at the Yale Center for British Art, explores the lasting influence of castles on art, culture, and the popular imagination.

The exhibition, on view through Aug. 6, is part of the center’s Art in Focus program — an annual initiative that provides the center’s undergraduate tour guides a hands-on curatorial experience.  The eight student curators developed the show’s theme, selected the works on view, and drafted the brochure text. The exhibit occupies two opposing panels in the center’s Long Gallery, a teaching and study gallery where paintings are arranged thematically and hung densely from floor to ceiling. This is the first exhibition to utilize the Long Gallery since the center reopened last spring after an extensive conservation project.

The exhibition is divided into two themes: “The Symbolic Castle” and “The Inhabited Castle.” Each occupies one of the exhibition’s walls. The Symbolic Castle examines the symbolic nature of castles and how artists have interpreted them through the years. The Inhabited Castle explores life inside castles and in towns and cities where castles dominated the landscape. The 32 works on view date from the 16th century to the 20th century.

“When we were throwing out themes for the show, we were really interested in how the castle functioned beyond being a physical building and became integrated into artistic, political, or historical consciences throughout British history and the histories of places abroad,” said Zoe Dobuler, a co-curator and senior at Trumbull College.

The 20 paintings displayed in The Symbolic Castle explore different ways artists have interpreted castles and how the history of specific structures have shaped artistic interpretations over time, Dobuler said.

“Caernarvon Castle,” an oil painting by Joseph Farington displayed in The Symbolic Castle, demonstrates the importance of history shaping an artist’s vision.

Edward I built Caernarvon Castle in 1282 after his conquest of Wales as a way to assert English dominance over the country. The site is associated with Roman myth of Magnus Maximus, the father of Constantine and the first independent king of Britain. The castle incorporates Roman architectural elements, such as polygonal towers and multi-colored stone, in reference to Roman fortifications around Constantinople.

Farington and other artists were drawn to this connection between the castle’s ruins and its illustrious past, Dobuler said.

“He positions the viewer right inside the castle walls,” she said. “Although this is a small painting, it really gives you the sense of grandeur and scale and the sense of intimidation that this castle would have impressed upon anyone who would have come upon it.”

“The Bard” by John Martin represents the aesthetic of the sublime — the quality of awe-inspiring or terrible greatness — that is depicted in several works in this section. Based on a dramatic poem of the same title by Thomas Gray about Edward I’s decision to execute all the bards after his conquest of Wales, the painting shows the last remaining bard standing defiantly on a cliff’s edge. A castle looms in the background, blending in with the towering mountain peaks surrounding it.

John Martin, The Bard, ca. 1817, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection

“The castle sits very quietly in this place,” said Irene Chung, a co-curator and senior at Branford College. “It is a symbol of the English presence in Wales in contrast to the active figure of the Bard.”

A pair of 18th-century panoramic paintings of Shrewsbury is notable for what is missing: Shrewsbury Castle. 

“The castle is a giant, red sandstone structure that should be visible in a view like this, especially in a painting that seems to aim to capture everything about this town and the surrounding landscape,” said Caroline Kanner, co-curator and a junior at Jonathan Edwards College.

Ignoring the castle, the unknown artist chose instead to highlight aspects of the town’s daily life, such as commerce and religion, that had risen to prominence as the castle became less important, Kanner said.

The Inhabited Castle section shows people engaging with castles. It features portraits of nobles who lived in castles and scene from Shakespeare’s King Lear depicted inside a castle. Several paintings on view show the ways castles relate to the cities and towns that developed around them.

“A View of Thames Street, Windsor” by George Vincent depicts a busy scene on Windsor’s main commercial thoroughfare. The artist tries to capture the lived experience: workers chisel stone blocks, pedestrians walk past shops, smoke wafts from chimneys.

“This is very much an urban scene that you might even encounter today,” said Nicholas Stewart, a co-curator and junior at Jonathan Edwards College.

Windsor Castle towers over the scene in the background, demonstrating the prominence of the monarchy, Stewart said.

Organizing the exhibition exposed the students to a wide range of the center’s facilities and staff, said Claire Goldsmith, chief student guide and a junior at Ezra Stiles College.

“We have been in storage pulling these paintings out of the racks; at conservation, learning how they are prepared for display on the walls; in prints and drawings and rare books and manuscripts selecting materials to accompany the exhibition,” she said. “It was a well-rounded experience, and we’re grateful for the opportunity.”

The students faced a challenge in telling a narrative in the Long Gallery, which requires paintings to cover just about every inch of wall space with little explanatory text.

“Creating a dense hang like this is a challenge even for a seasoned museum curator and it’s something that the student’s tackled with impressive aptitude and skill,” said David Frazier Lewis, postdoctoral research associate at the center, who worked closely with the student curators. “I’m proud of what they achieved.”  

Linda Friedlander, senior curator of education, and Jaime Ursic, assistant curator of education also provided the students guidance.

The student curators are Chung, Dobuler, Kanner, Stewart, Goldsmith, Julia Fleming-Dresser, Daniel Leibovic, and Catherine Liu.

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