Dan Jones on how the Armada tapestries, destroyed by fire, are being recreated

Anthony Oakshett points to a palette and shows me a colour called ‘sea-monster grey’. The tall and genial artist is guiding me around his cool, airy temporary studio in an outhouse at Wrest Park, the Bedfordshire country house. Around us stand six vast canvases depicting scenes from the failed attack of the Spanish Armada in 1588. There are indeed a number of sea monsters in various stages of completion, their terrible mouths yawning and their tails thrashing as English and Spanish ships give battle around them.

Oakshett is the artist leading a two-year project to recreate the Armada tapestries, a largely forgotten glory of the pre-Victorian House of Lords. The original tapestries — of which there were ten — were commissioned in 1592 by Lord Howard of Effingham, Elizabeth I’s apparently rather dishy cousin. As we all know, Howard led the Brits against the swarthy Spanish dastards in 1588, and the beautiful, gold-trimmed tapestries were his way of celebrating his victory. They were enormous: perhaps 27ft by 15ft each, and if they survived today would probably be the finest works of tapestry in the country, if not in Europe.

All art, George Orwell wrote, is propaganda; a typically sweeping claim, but one that is certainly true for the stuff that got the Elizabethans going. After being purchased by James I, the tapestries were paraded around various royal residences, before finding a home in the Palace of Westminster. They hung in the Lords chamber from around the 1650s, gathering soot and filth, but reminding everyone who saw them of the moment that British maritime dominance came of age. Paintings made of the chamber during the years in which they hung there depicted the tapestries fully covering the walls from floor to ceiling. A satirical print dating from the late-18th century imagined the horrible scenes that might occur if the French invaded England: Gallic greasers in horrible frock coats leap about the chamber like monkeys, slashing at the precious tapestries with their cutlasses.

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The reason the tapestries no longer survive is because they perished in the great fire at Westminster Palace in October 1834. Kaput. No sword-waving Froggies necessary. The only record that remained was a series of etchings made by the artist John Pine in 1739. Some of the greatest treasures in the royal collection, along with almost the entire palace, were lost.

Now, though, Oakshett is recreating the tapestries. Or versions of them, at least. He is completing a task first conceived in the 1840s when, following the fire, the Fine Arts Commission was convened under the direction of Prince Albert to organise the design and decoration of the new Houses of Parliament. At some point the idea changed to making paintings, not actual tapestries. But unfortunately, when Albert died in 1861, the project was shelved. The rest of the antechamber was filled as planned with copies of famous Tudor portraits, which were at that time scattered across various English country houses, and with bronze sculptural bas relief showing famous scenes, such as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Queen Elizabeth knighting Drake, and so on. But to this day there are six big gaps where the tapestries ought to be.

This is typical of the place. For all its elaborate Victorian Gothic splendour, if you look closely, the decoration of the palace is part-finished throughout. (In fact, if you want to see a public building project running way over budget and time, don’t bother sniffing around the Olympic site. Just write to your MP and have him sort out a tour of the Houses of Parliament for you.) The Victorians ran out of time and inclination and we’re still trying to get the job finished. Why has it taken so long? ‘There’s what you might call a continuum of thought in the Lords,’ says the nice lady from the media office, tactfully.

Anyway, back to Wrest Park. The main canvas Oakshett is using for inspiration is a 14ft by 12ft painting of the tapestry depicting ‘The English Fleet Pursuing the Spanish Fleet Against Fowey’. It is most likely the work of Richard Burchett, the artist who directed the rest of the Tudor copies in the Prince’s Chamber and who headed what later became the Royal College of Art. Burchett’s work is often written off as second-rate, but he was a nice enough imitator. His sole Armada effort has been painted on what Oakshett calls a ‘thick canvas resembling sack’, so it looks similar to tapestry. Though it has been restored, it is a little murky with age, an effect Oakshett will mimic in his versions with a wash of paint to dull the gilted colours his team of artists is currently applying. It’s the model for the other five paintings that Oakshett is aiming to complete by the end of the year, and the source, among other colours, of the exact hue of ‘sea-monster grey’.

The project poses, says Oakshett, some interesting questions of historical imagination, not to mention artistic skill. Some of the task is facilitated by the powerful computer-aided design from a shiny bank of Apple computers. But there are some problems that only human judgment can address. Because Oakshett is working from Pine’s tiny engravings, he has the technical problem of having to add information and detail lacking in the original. The shapes of the ships and the distribution of the men aboard can look strange when they are blown up, and Oakshett the artist must become Oakshett the historian when he fills in the gaps.

In doing so he must answer some mundane but vital questions: what was the weather like? We know it turned on the Spanish, but the engravings don’t tell the whole story. Oakshett says he consulted a historical meteorologist for advice. Apparently, such people exist — and, by the sound of things, they take their jobs very seriously: at the committee convened to consider the details of the new paintings, it is said that cheeks were puffed and sharp words exchanged over the climactic conditions as the Spaniards floated up the sink.

When Oakshett’s paintings are finished, there will be a grand unveiling at the House. (In case you’re worrying, you’re not paying for these paintings; the £225,000 has been stumped up by an American philanthropist.) It won’t exactly be job done, but we’ll be a little closer to fulfilling Barry’s and Pugin’s vision of the Palace. It might seem a bit old and stuffy, especially when we’re completing Barry’s Trafalgar Square by adding all sorts of nonsense to the fourth plinth, but there’s something about it that appeals, not least because it is a task of painstaking detail and serious thought about a great episode in our history.

But first there are the politics of copying Burchett, who was copying Pine, who was copying the original tapestries. Oakshett has become an expert in the design and nature of Tudor warships and has spotted mistakes in Burchett’s work: Tudor pennons flying from the English ships ought to be green and white — Burchett forgot the green bits. Should Oakshett now be faithful to the model or to historical accuracy? Accuracy, in this case, prevails: Oakshett is putting the green back in. There are also diplomatic questions: should there be any Spanish faces filling the gaps that appear onboard the expanded ships? ‘No,’ says Oakshett (though he originally offered out of politeness). ‘I wanted to stay true to the spirit of the original propaganda.’

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated