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British Art

Started: c. 400 AD

British Art Timeline

"I didn't like British art at first. You have to get used to it..."

Vincent van Gogh Signature

Summary of British Art

Whereas Italy (the Renaissance) France (Impressionism) or America (Abstract Expressionism) have provided clearly defined national schools, the development of British art has tended to be more splintered and therefore more difficult to place within the historical trajectory of world art.

Though their global influence might not have reached the heights of the aforementioned movements, one might argue with a degree of justification that the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood or YBAs (Young British Artists) qualify as "quintessentially British" movements. It is also true that Britain has produced a number of internationally renowned artists working across a broad range of styles - names like Turner, Constable, Hepworth, Freud and Hockney come easily to mind - but, though affiliated with specific movements (Romanticism, Surrealism, School of London and Pop Art), they tend to be thought of as exceptional individuals rather than figures who carried the torch for a particular cadre or school. Moving into the 21st century, meanwhile, the Street artist Banksy and the annual Turner Prize continue to represent Britain art at the cutting-edge of the contemporary international art scene.

Key Ideas

The story of Britain can be traced back through its art over 500 years and more. A country that prides itself on its heritage, and the tenets of democratic and personal freedom, its art - from Gower to Hogarth; Holman Hunt to Cameron; Francis Bacon to Emin - represents the full creative ebb-and-flow of the nation's stately and libertarian traditions.
A rain-swept island state, and still thought of fondly (thanks in no small part, no doubt, to William Blake's poetry) as a "green and pleasant land", Britain was in fact at the forefront of the seventeenth-century age of scientific reason and industrialization. The early period of "enlightenment" provided a strong creative backdrops for British art giving rise on the one hand to the exact equine paintings of George Stubbs, and on the other, the biting social satire of William Hogarth.
The age of objective reason brought with it its dissenters and the "romantics" are amongst Britain's greatest internationally recognized artists. The first to explore the links between forces of nature, poetry and art, William Blake opened a door for two icons of British art, John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, who between them effectively "reinvented" the British rural and industrial landscape and whose influence carried far across Europe and North America.
From the ruins of two world wars, Britain was delivered into the global age through 1950s British Pop Art. Since "swinging" London vied with New York as the epicentre of 1960s world culture, British art has continued to keep pace - through Conceptualism, Minimalism, the revival of the figure, and the iconoclasm of YBA - with the insistent march of postmodernism.
British Art Image

Beginnings:

Some of the earliest examples of British art come from sumptuous metalwork of the Anglo-Saxon period and the stone churches, abbeys and castles belonging to the early medieval period. Very rare, early decorative works, including the famous Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 690-750 AD) with their intricately patterned lacework, were also to be found in churches throughout Saxon England. While little remains of their original interiors, buildings such as Exeter Cathedral (the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter) still stand today as an examples of early Gothic architecture. The cathedral's Norman Towers were completed by 1133, while the west front image screen is considered one of the great architectural features of Medieval England. The cathedral also houses the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England as well as an early set of misericords and an astronomical clock.

The Most Important Art in British Art Important Art and Analysis

The below artworks are the most important in British Art - that both overview the major ideas of British Art, and highlight the greatest achievements by each artist. Don't forget to visit the artist overview pages of the artists that interest you.

unknown: The Wilton Diptych (c.1394-1399)
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The Wilton Diptych (c.1394-1399)

Artist: unknown

Artwork description & Analysis: This devotional piece has been described as the "most beautiful dream of heaven to survive in all British art". The work was created as a portable altarpiece for Richard II, who ruled England from 1377 to 1399. Named after Wilton House in Wiltshire, where it was housed for more than two centuries, the diptych depicts Richard II kneeling and robed in anticipation of holding the Christ Child. Behind him stand Saint John the Baptist, Saint Edward the Confessor and Saint Edmund. The work is finely adorned, with golden crowns, finery and gowns. The right panel shows the Virgin Mary holding the outstretched Jesus as she hands him to the king. Mary is surrounded by eleven winged angels in blue, standing amid flowers. The work is rich with symbolism: St George's flag flies in the background; the white harts pinned to the angels' gowns act as the king's badge; and the rosemary of the grassy meadow is thought to be presented in remembrance of Richard's dead wife, Anne of Bohemia.

The work is most significant because it stands alone in the canon of early art history, argued art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, and it marks the point at which the nation cut itself off from the continent. The reformation saw England isolated from the rest of Europe, artistically as well as politically. Indeed, The Wilton Diptych is the lone British piece in the Renaissance wing of the National Gallery. As Graham-Dixon, noted it "hangs among Sienese paintings of the fourteenths and fifteenth centuries and it is the only British painting in this section [...] There was to be no British Titian, no Tintoretto, no Raphael, no Michelangelo, no Caravaggio, no Velázquez."

Egg tempera on oak panels - The National Gallery, London

Joshua Reynolds: Mr and Mrs Andrews (c. 1750)
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Mr and Mrs Andrews (c. 1750)

Artist: Joshua Reynolds

Artwork description & Analysis: In a sunny patch beneath an oak tree, a couple sits informally for a painting celebrating their marriage. Behind them stretches the English countryside, with well-managed farmland and hills beyond. The work acts as a triple portrait, showing not just Robert Andrews and his new wife Frances, but their sprawling 3,000-acre estate.

The Rococo influence can be seen in the ornate curvature of the bench on which Mrs Andrews sits and the couple's status as wealthy landowners can be seen in their fine clothing. And while landscape painting was not given the status of history painting, Reynolds used his technical excellence in his depiction of the Essex countryside so as to emphasize the painting's "Englishness". The row of corn, which would not have likely existed so close to the sitters' location, symbolized harmony between humankind and nature, and the fertility of land - an important factor in a marriage portrait.

A leading portraitist, Joshua Reynolds believed that the Italian Renaissance masters were the brave men of art, and he sought to bring the lessons of their technical excellence into British painting. Indeed, his works mimicked the grand Renaissance style and brought a new gravity to society portraiture. As art historian Wendy Beckett noted: "Reynolds, as befitted a poor boy, responded enthusiastically to the romance of the British aristocracy. He understood the need of upper-class personages - frequently undistinguished in either intellect or appearance - to seem far more interesting than they actually were."

Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, London

William Hogath: The Rake in Bedlam (1753)
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The Rake in Bedlam (1753)

Artist: William Hogath

Artwork description & Analysis: This is the final work in an eight-part cautionary tale series about the demise of the fictional Tom Rakewell, a hapless and greedy young man who has come to London to find his fortune. The plates tell the story of how this arrogant man who thought he could become a member of the aristocracy squandered all his money on drinking, prostitution and gambling, and ended up in debtors' prison and finally Bethlem Hospital (or "Bedlam") a notorious mental asylum. The protagonist lies in the front of the frame, shackled at the ankle, bald and denuded of the fine clothes he had been trying on in plate I. Surrounding him are other patients, ghoulish in their hallucinations to highlight Tom's own delusions of grandeur that brought him down. The walls, covered in art in previous plates, here are unadorned and gloomy, as light from the denied world streams through barred windows. In William Hogarth's times, members of the aristocracy were permitted into such institutions to gawp at the victims for their own amusement. This finale sees two finely-dressed women looking on and whispering in gruesome delight at the stricken Tom.

A portraitist and history painter, Englishman Hogarth's work was groundbreaking in a number of ways. It was he who first created the idea of a British school (of art), he was one of the first self-made artists (producing works independently of direct patronage) and he was considered the creator of satire. His work held up a mirror to a rapidly-changing England and all the social ills that were the downside of industrialization. Previously, lessons in art came from religious teaching, but Hogarth's modern moral tales had important messages for the public about greed, excess, and hypocrisy.

Oil on canvas - Sir John Soane's Museum, London

More British Art Artwork and Analysis:

Thomas Gainsborough: The Market Cart (1786) William Blake: Beatrice addressing Dante from the Car (1824-27) Charles Barry and A. W. Pugin: The Palace of Westminster (1830-60) J.M.W. Turner: Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844) Barbara Hepworth: Mother and Child (1934) Cecil Beaton: War Child: Portrait of a Young Victim of the Blitz. Three-year-old Eileen Dunne, a victim of the London Blitz, in hospital (1940) L. S. Lowry: Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook (Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook) A Bigger Splash: David Hockney (1967) Francis Bacon: Three Figures and Portrait (1975) Rachel Whiteread: Untitled (House) (1993) Damien Hirst: The Pharmaceutical Paintings (1986-2011) Norman Foster: 30 St Mary Axe (known colloquially as "The Gherkin") (2001-2003) Anish Kapoor: ArcelorMittal Orbit (2012)
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First published on 26 Oct 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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