The best books on Tudor art and architecture

Elizabeth Goldring Author Of Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist
By Elizabeth Goldring

The Books I Picked & Why

Picture and Poetry, 1560-1620: Relations Between Literature and the Visual Arts in the English Renaissance

By Lucy Gent

Book cover of Picture and Poetry, 1560-1620: Relations Between Literature and the Visual Arts in the English Renaissance

Why this book?

A quirky and brilliantly insightful book which is now, unfortunately, out of print. But do snap it up if you chance upon it in a second-hand bookshop or can find a copy online. It is deceptively modest-looking: a slender paperback, with only a handful of illustrations. My hunch is that it will change the way you think about paintings, sculptures, and buildings in the works of Shakespeare, Spenser, Donne, and their contemporaries. Certainly, that is the effect it had on me.


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Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House

By Mark Girouard

Book cover of Robert Smythson and the Elizabethan Country House

Why this book?

Alas, now out of print, this book is part biography, part architectural history, and part social history. The mason-architect Robert Smythson comes to life, as do the houses he designed and the eccentric patrons who employed him. The book's (mainly black-and-white) illustrations inevitably look a bit dated now. But the text is, to my mind, hard to beat: utterly engrossing, particularly when dealing with Hardwick Hall, a house Girouard knows intimately, having lived there as a small child. I remember stumbling across this book many years ago, as a student, while looking for something else at the library. I ended up spending the better part of the day reading Robert Smythson from cover to cover: it was a revelation that a work of scholarship could be so beautifully written.


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A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

By James Shapiro

Book cover of A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599

Why this book?

Strictly speaking, this is not a book about Tudor art or architecture. Rather, it tells the gripping story of a pivotal year in the life of Shakespeare – and Shakespeare’s England. Drawing on all manner of sources, including household inventories and travel diaries kept by foreign visitors to London and the provinces, Shapiro vividly evokes the textures of life in sixteenth-century England: from the humble stained cloths that adorned the walls of taverns and comparatively modest households like the one in which Shakespeare was raised to the tapestries, oil paintings and other objets d’art that lined the walls of the Tudor elite’s long galleries. 1599 reads like a novel – and, like all of the books on this list, is proof that academic writing need not be dry.


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The Elizabethan Image: An Introduction to English Portraiture, 1558-1603

By Roy Strong

Book cover of The Elizabethan Image: An Introduction to English Portraiture, 1558-1603

Why this book?

Strong is the undisputed doyen of Elizabethan painting. As Assistant Keeper (1959-67) and Director (1967-73) of the National Portrait Gallery and then Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (1973-87), he devoted the better part of thirty years to groundbreaking exhibitions and publications on the Tudor court. His writings, more than anyone else’s, are what led me to Tudor art. This book distills the essence of Strong’s many seminal works from a long and distinguished career, but adds glorious new colour photography and generous nods to the art historians who have come after him. Strong wears his learning lightly, making this an ideal gateway text for anyone seeking a way into the world of Elizabethan painting and portraiture.


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Houses of Power

By Simon Thurley

Book cover of Houses of Power

Why this book?

A learned, yet eminently readable, book which synthesizes and knits together the findings contained in several of Thurley’s earlier, landmark publications, including The Royal Palaces of Tudor England (Yale, 1993) and Whitehall Palace (Merrell, 2008). Houses of Power is a compact volume (and available in paperback, too). I have often taken my copy with me for reference when visiting the sites described in it. Thurley’s illustrations include fascinating conjectural reconstructions of buildings that either no longer survive or have been greatly altered since Tudor times. A wonderful tool when trying to visualize now-lost buildings.


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