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Started: c. 400 AD

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The Most Important Art in British Art

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

Thomas Gainsborough: The Market Cart (1786)
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The Market Cart (1786)

Artist: Thomas Gainsborough

Artwork description & Analysis: Born in Sudbury, Suffolk, Gainsborough trained in London before setting up his practice in Ipswich. He later moved to the spa town of Bath where he attracted many fashionable clients seeking portraits. A great admirer of Anthony Van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens, Gainsborough continued to paint landscapes (it is estimated that he produced some 200 in total) though many of these were produced from the memory of his rural Suffolk origins.

A founding, if somewhat indifferent, member of the Royal Academy (and favorite painter of King George III), Gainsborough was considered, with his competitor Joshua Reynolds, the leading portraitist in late 18th century England but both men made important contributions to British landscape painting. Speaking of his great rival, Reynolds was generous in his praise for his more instinctive, "less academic," colleague: "If Gainsborough did not look at nature with a poet's eye [as Reynolds had] it must be acknowledged that he saw her [nature] with the eye of a painter; and gave a faithful, if not poetical, representation of what he had before him." Indeed, according to Rothenstein, when compared to Reynolds, Gainsborough's landscapes were considered by many of his contemporaries to be positively realist.

The Market Cart belongs to Gainsborough's mature period (it was completed two years before his death) when his work had become more nostalgic. He was engaged in the creation of a "credible" Arcadia; that is an Arcadia comprised of two elements: observation and poetry that, when combined, would produce a kind of "material paradise". His later landscapes featured a series of pictures of peasant life that were generally more ideal than real, but The Market Cart came much closer to his version of a "material paradise" and in fact looks forward towards Constable in its treatment of breaking light and overwhelming foliage. Indeed, commenting on Gainsborough's landscapes, Constable said: "The stillness of noon, the depths of twilight, and the dews and pearls of morning, are all to be found on the canvases of this most benevolent and kind-hearted man. On looking at them we find tears in our eyes, and know not what brings them." It was a view supported by Rothenstein who argued that Gainsborough had ultimately produced "An Arcadia so touching in its beauty that it has never ceased to haunt the English imagination."

Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, London

William Blake: Beatrice addressing Dante from the Car (1824-27)
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Beatrice addressing Dante from the Car (1824-27)

Artist: William Blake

Artwork description & Analysis: All but unknown in his own lifetime - he was buried in a pauper's grave, and even those who were acquainted with him thought him mad - William Blake, painter, poet, draughtsman and printmaker, has assumed an illustrious position in the history of British art. A bona-fide radical whose personal, spiritual and expressive language proved inspirational for future generations of artists - especially the Romantics - many would argue that he is perhaps, if not the most technically gifted, then certainly amongst the most original, of all the great English artists. Blake developed a visual language all of his own but he remained mindful of the fact that his work should possess a clarity that could communicate his heart-felt spiritualism to the lay spectator or reader.

Confirming his distaste for formal art education and the likes of "academics" such as Joshua Reynolds, Blake declared "Men think they can copy nature [but] they will find this impossible, and all the copies of nature proves that nature becomes to its victims nothing but blots and blurs". His view was then that the power of imagination was the greatest artistic tool and he painted free, as much as that is possible, from the chains of convention. As such, Blake preferred to bring the written word to life by illustrating stories including those from the Bible, Milton and Dante.

Commissioned by John Linnell, Blake produced a total of 102 illustrations (most of them left incomplete due to ill health and his subsequent passing) that brought his own Christian interpretation to Dante Alighieri's epic fourteenth century poem The Divine Comedy. In this watercolor, for instance, he imagines the end of The Divine Comedy where Dante is led to paradise (through the gates of heaven) by Beatrice, the earthly (rather than divine) personification of Vala, the Goddess of nature. Beatrice is flanked by the four apostles, here represented by Blake through Christian symbolism: Luke resembles an ox; Mark appears as a lion; John with the face of an eagle while Matthew is shown as a man who resembles Christ himself. Blake also uses color to promote the idea that beauty exists in the natural world rather than in the divine and now that Dante comes to this realization he can enter into paradise.

Charles Barry and A. W. Pugin: The Palace of Westminster (1830-60)
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The Palace of Westminster (1830-60)

Artist: Charles Barry and A. W. Pugin

Artwork description & Analysis: The Houses of Parliament, otherwise known as the Palace of Westminster, is possibly London's most iconic landmark and a symbol of Great Britain and its proud parliamentary democracy. The central block of the Palace is skirted by two towers: the Victoria Tower (which at 325 feet was thought to be the tallest square stone tower in the world) served originally as a royal entrance and as an archive for parliamentary records, and the Elizabeth Tower - known colloquially as "Big Ben" after its famous clock face - which overlooks Westminster Bridge and Parliament Square. The Palace, and the neighbouring Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret's Church, are classified as UNESCO World Heritage sites while the palace itself is a grade 1 listed building.

The original Palace was built during the eleventh century when it was the official residence of the Kings of England until it was destroyed by fire in 1512. The Palace was duly rebuilt and became the seat of English law. This move was necessitated somewhat by the rule of Henry VIII, whose break with the holy church of Rome, and his various divorces (which threw the succession to the throne into confusion) caused constitutional chaos. The current building replaced the timber-framed parliament building when it too burnt to the ground in 1834. Considered the worst fire since the Great Fire of London, only the Jewel Tower, the medieval Hall, cloister and the Chapel of St Mary Undercroft were spared.

Charles Barry (he had estimated a six-year construction period that eventually took 30 years at a cost of over two million pounds) won the competition to design the new Palace having proposed a complex of buildings - reclaiming some eight acres of land from the river Thames - in the Gothic style while incorporating the surviving medieval buildings. The perpendicular structure is home to some 1100 rooms, positioned around two courtyards and Barry was preoccupied with bringing a harmony between the horizontal bands of the panelling and the vertical turrets that rose above the walls. He is also credited with introducing steeply-pitched iron roofs which made a special feature of the Palace's skyline. Barry was aided by A. W. Pugin who deserves the best part of the credit for the sumptuous exterior and interior Gothic detail. It is he who extended Barry's decorative gothic scheme to interior furnishings - such as wallpaper, carvings and stained glass - and its various thrones and canopies. Sadly, both men died before the Palace was completed.

J.M.W. Turner: Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844)
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Rain, Steam, and Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844)

Artist: J.M.W. Turner

Artwork description & Analysis: In contrast to his contemporary, John Constable, Turner's take on Romanticism is expressed in his fondness for symbols of the industrial age, and their relationship to nature. In this acknowledged masterpiece, we see Brunel's Maidenhead railway bridge emerging from the mist as a locomotive thunders towards us. Beneath the bridge runs the River Thames as it courses eastwards towards London. A lone boatman drifts in the water, his stillness at odds with the noise and speed of the oncoming train. The drama and power of this work echoes the change seen by the era: the locomotive rushes towards us from the swirling mists and vapor: Victorian Britain is witnessing irreversible changes to its industry and landscape. This work was produced just two decades after Constable's The Hay Wain, but, in a sense, they are an age apart.

The theory of "the sublime" in art was proposed in 1757 by British stateman and philosopher Edmund Burke in his book A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Burke defined the sublime in art in terms of works that could evoke the very strongest emotions in the spectator: "whatever is in any sort terrible or is conversant about terrible objects or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime" he wrote. This work shows Turner's exploration of the sublime, as foreboding notions of speed, time, change and progress are mixed with Turner's flamboyant brush strokes. Its striking effect (which caused discontent amongst Academy members) was alluded to by art historian E.H.Gombrich who noted: "In Turner, nature always reflects and expresses man's emotions. We feel small and overwhelmed in the face of the powers we cannot control, and are compelled to admire the artist who had nature's forces at his command." It was Turner's study of architecture and industry that proved him to be a true pioneer. As historian Andrew Graham-Dixon put it: "Turner did not just predict modern art. He anticipated at least some of the poetry and adventure, and uncertain, speculative beauty of modern science". Indeed, some of Turner's landscapes could be seen as precursors for abstract art given that he was willing to transform the familiar by altering the light and scale of his compositions.

Oil on canvas - The National Gallery, London

Barbara Hepworth: Mother and Child (1934)
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Mother and Child (1934)

Artist: Barbara Hepworth

Artwork description & Analysis: Between 1920-21 Hepworth and her colleague Henry Moore both studied at art college in Leeds before moving to the Royal Academy of Arts in London. Having formed a close working friendship with Moore, Pablo Picasso, Constantin Brancusi, and later with a host of other European avant-gardists, Hepworth would (like Moore) become a world leader in avant-garde sculpture. She (like Moore) is chiefly associated with the practice, pioneered by Brancusi in 1906, of Direct Carving, a process whereby the sculptor works without preparatory models and maquettes (which would then be constructed, at the sculptor's behest, by artisans). Both Hepworth and Moore were interested in primitivism and drew inspiration from objects on display at the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Hepworth indeed owned several ancient artefacts, including some of Neolithic and Cycladic origin.

Predating her career defining move to St Ives, Hepworth made Mother and Child in her London studio in 1934. By now Hepworth was in a romantic relationship with the abstract painter Ben Nicholson and with whom she developed a symbiotic working relationship. But what might have been thought of as a truly abstract piece - the small stone sculpture is a horizontal configuration using undulating and biomorphic shapes - Hepworth gives Mother and Child figurative form through the nodule like "heads" and, of course, the descriptive title.

We can thus discern that the mother reclines while supporting her "pebble" child on her lap and the opening (the negative space) that draws our eye to the centre of the work acts to denote the shape of the mother's arm that rest on the leg supporting her child. It is possible that the negative space (a concept that Hepworth pioneered) also carries a conceptual value in that it connotes the child's removal/separation from the mother's womb. It appears, moreover, that the couple are independent sculptural elements but they were in fact carved from a single piece of brownish-grey Cumberland alabaster while the piece itself sits on a thin rectangular base.

Cumberland Alabaster - Tate Gallery, London

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)
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War Child: Portrait of a Young Victim of the Blitz. Three-year-old Eileen Dunne, a victim of the London Blitz, in hospital (1940)

Artist: Cecil Beaton

Artwork description & Analysis: The English photographer Cecil Beaton might be considered something of a 20th- century Renaissance man. Best known, of course, for his fashion photography and his high society portraits, Beaton's sophisticated portraiture earned him the role of unofficial court photographer of the British royal family. His standing was such that in 1937 he took the wedding portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and in 1953 he shot Queen Elizabeth II's official coronation portrait against a backdrop of Westminster Abbey. Beaton also won four Tony Awards and three Oscars for costume design and art direction. He is less well-known however for his war photography in which he covered the conflict in England, the Near East, Far East and India, for the Ministry of Information. Beaton was in fact an accomplished war photographer, producing some of the most enduring images of the conflict.

Beaton's 1940 portrait of Eileen Dunne, a bandaged 3-year-old victim of the blitz, was a breathtaking piece of propaganda that, by featuring on the cover of LIFE magazine, encouraged America to take a keener interest in the war in Europe and drew special attention to Britain's defiance of the Third Reich. The portrait repeats the elegant and sympathetic touch that Beaton brought to his portraits of the British royal family. LIFE introduced the portrait thus:

The wide-eyed young lady on the cover is Eileen Dunne, aged 3 3/4. A German bomber whose crew had never met her dropped a bomb on a North England village. A splinter from it hit Eileen. She is sitting in the hospital. A plucky chorus of wounded children had just finished singing in the North English dialect, "Roon, Rabbit, Roon." The picture was taken by Cecil Beaton, the English photographer who generally specializes in fashionable or surrealist studies of society women.

Gelatin silver print - Imperial War Museum collection, London

L. S. Lowry: Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook (Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook)
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Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook (Lancashire Fair, Good Friday, Daisy Nook)

Artist: L. S. Lowry

Artwork description & Analysis: Though he has divided critical opinion it would be remiss in a history of mid-twentieth century British art to overlook the contribution of L. S. Lowry. In 1976, shortly after his death, for instance, a comprehensive retrospective exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy saw some hail him as a significant artist with a unique vision while others dismissed him as a minor talent and only of interest as a social commentator.

Lowry lived all his life in or near Salford, in industrial Northern England, where he worked as a rent collector and clerk until he retired in 1952. Painting mostly at night in his free time (a recent film-biography shows him at a lonely man at the beck-and-call of his cantankerous bed-bound mother), he has sometimes been dismissed as a "Sunday painter" but he had studied intermittently at art schools, including the Manchester School of Art, over a period of some twenty years. Indeed, one of his most eminent teachers was the French painter Adolphe Valette who produced several memorable Manchester cityscapes of his own in the earlier part of the century.

Rather than Valette, however, Lowry has been likened to members of the Camden Town Group with whom he shared a Post-Impressionistic style that favored urban subjects. Lowry's most characteristic pictures feature firmly drawn backgrounds against which groups or crowds, painted in his signature "matchstick men" manner, go about their daily business. Many of his paintings record his immediate surroundings, but others draw, in part at least, on his imagination. One can locate an element of humor in his work but he is known mostly for what art historian John Rothenstein called "a kind of gloomy lyricism". His first one-man exhibition, at the Reid and Lefevre Gallery, London in 1939, established his name outside of Lancashire, and his reputation steadily increased thereafter, although his new-found fame did not alter his humble way of life. He turned down all honors in his lifetime, including a knighthood.

Lowry's popularity amongst the British public reached its peak in 1978 when a song, Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs (Lowry's Song) by the British music duo Brian and Michael reached No. 1 in the music charts where it stayed for three weeks. The song included the following lyric:

now canvas and brushes were wearing thin
when London started calling him
to come on down and wear the old flat cap
he said tell us all about your ways
and all about them Salford days
is it true you are just an ordinary chap
and he painted matchstalk men and matchstalk cats & dogs
he painted kids on the corner of the street
that were sparking clogs
now he takes his brush and he waits
outside them factory gates
to paint his matchstalk men and matchstalk cats & dogs


The most comprehensive collection of his work is housed at The Lowry, a large arts centre that opened in Salford in 2000. In addition to his signature works, the collection includes a number of unusual fetish drawings of women that only came to light after his death.

A Bigger Splash: David Hockney (1967)
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David Hockney (1967)

Artist: A Bigger Splash

Artwork description & Analysis: Painted around the time of the summer of love, David Hockney's work represents the shedding of a restrictive and restrained British sensibility that tied in with the advancement of British Pop Art. In this painting, the viewer stands at the edge of a pool, into which an unknown person has just jumped (or dived) from a diving board. The water in which he has submerged was completely still; there is no ripple or texture to be seen. In contrast, his presence is marked only by an upward explosion of water, splashing skywards in sheets. Behind is a low building rendered in warm pinks, with a large window reflecting palms and buildings in gray. Beyond, the clear blue Californian sky is interrupted only by two, tall still palms. It is an unpeopled scene; the only other suggestion of human activity provided by an empty solitary chair.

Hockney, one of Britain's best-known artistic exports, has lived much of his life between the United States and Bradford, in West Yorkshire. In tribute to William Hogarth, his first trip to America saw him drawing his own version of A Rake's Progress as he chronicled his own explorations into the 1960s Queer scene. The idea of freedom and sunshine he found in Los Angeles is revealed in his series of water paintings, showing homoerotic images of men swimming, emerging from swimming pools and in the shower. As such his work was considered bold and outrageous (homosexuality was not decriminalized in the UK until 1967). But the mood of this particular work is hard to gauge. In the US, Hockney may have found freedom and pleasure, but as critic Jonathan Jones asks, "Is A Bigger Splash a happy painting or a sad one? The upward rush of white water [...] hangs ghostlike in the air, frozen by art. The diver has vanished underwater. Apart from the splash, the hot day is completely motionless. Palms, sky, the surface of the pool - an impersonal stillness prevails. Is this the beginning or the end of something?"

Acrylic on canvas - Tate Gallery, London

Francis Bacon: Three Figures and Portrait (1975)
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Three Figures and Portrait (1975)

Artist: Francis Bacon

Artwork description & Analysis: Born in Dublin in 1909 to English parents, Bacon emerged as a dominant figure in post war British art. He spent the majority of his life working in London where he developed his unmistakable style of figurative painting. Referred to by Margaret Thatcher as "that man who paints those dreadful pictures" (and inadvertently enhancing his already enviable reputation!), Bacon is a truly iconic British painter whose art transported the spectator into a world of human suffering, psychosis and even death. A time of great creativity and experimentation, the 1950s was an important decade for Bacon. Indeed, his international standing reached new heights when he exhibited with Ben Nicholson and Lucian Freud in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 1954. Bacon's work took on wider national significance however, when, in the mid-1970s, he joined an elite cadre of new figurative artists.

In 1976 R. B. Kitaj curated the Human Clay exhibition featuring 80 paintings and drawings by Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Peter Blake, Stephen Buckley, Richard Hamilton, Allen Jones, William Roberts and Euan Uglow. The exhibition is best known however for Kitaj's catalogue essay in which coined the term "School of London". The School of London would mount a forceful challenge to the avant-gardists preference for Minimalism and Conceptualism and it would soon focus on the output of just six painters: Bacon (who was not part of the Human Clay exhibition) Michael Andrews, Auerbach, Freud, Kitaj and Kossoff. Between them, the School of London expanded the possibilities for figurative art and brought it new critical respectability.

In addition to the disfigured heads and bodies, and his morbid fascination with animal carcases (witnessed here in the left sided figure's protruding spine), Bacon's style, which drew on a disparate range of influences including Van Gogh, Eadweard Muybridge, Velazquez and filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, was characterized by figures in motion set against still backgrounds. In this image, two twisted human figures occupy a claustrophobic room while in the foreground a bird-like form is contained (restrained?) within a geometric frame. The figures are being looked upon by a portrait of a man nailed to the wall. All three human figures are thought to be that of George Dyer, Bacon's lover who committed suicide in 1971. It is unclear what the disturbing bird-like creature in the foreground represents. There us some suggestion that it is a Fury, feared agents of divine judgement according to Greek mythology, or perhaps a Harpy, which Bacon had introduced as a symbol of mockery or malice. In either case, it brings a disquieting presence to an already punishing image.

Rachel Whiteread: Untitled (House) (1993)
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Untitled (House) (1993)

Artist: Rachel Whiteread

Artwork description & Analysis: Whiteread studied painting at Brighton Polytechnic before moving to the Slade School of Fine Art in London where she majored in sculpture. While at Slade she made the acquaintance of Tracey Emin and Gary Hume and thus begun her association with the YBAs. Having already won the Turner Prize for Untitled (House) in 1993 (and having been shortlisted for the same award in 1990), Whiteread exhibited with the YBAs at the notorious Sensation exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997. Though she did not court publicity in the way some of her more media savvy colleagues had, on its unveiling on 25 October 1993, Untitled (House) had already caused a sensation in its own right.

Sitting between a busy traffic junction and the Regent's canal, Wennington Green is in Bow, East London, an area that for two decades had succumbed to various failed attempts at urban gentrification. The terraced houses around Wennington Green had been heavily bombed during the Second World War and they were among the properties marked for demolition in order to make way for a "green corridor" around the new financial district of Canary Wharf. Having gained the appropriate planning permissions, Whiteread and her team pumped the old house at 193 Grove Road with liquid concrete before then demolishing its exterior. Turning the house "inside-out" as it were, Whiteread had created an inversion of domesticity - a house "not for living" and an impression of something that no longer existed - that suggested a meditation on the relationship between human beings and the spaces they inhabit.

As soon as it was unveiled, Untitled (House), polarized opinion amongst the denizens of Bow, in the popular press, and amongst seasoned art critics. Of the latter, Andrew Graham-Dixon was celebrating "one of the most extraordinary and imaginative public sculptures created by an English artist this century" while Brian Sewell condemned the piece as "meritless gigantism". Despite, or perhaps because of, the controversy, Untitled (House) drew advocates and pilgrims from all over the world even though the sculpture stood for only 80 days before it was demolished by the local authority leaving not trace or commemoration of the work. Whiteread was asked later if she thought her most famous sculpture might have become something of an albatross. In reply she stated: "I was always aware of that, but no. I'm very proud of House [...] and I don't want to sound arrogant [...] but it opened up a dialogue. It really did change contemporary art in the UK".

Plaster and steel frame - now destroyed

Damien Hirst: The Pharmaceutical Paintings (1986-2011)
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The Pharmaceutical Paintings (1986-2011)

Artist: Damien Hirst

Artwork description & Analysis: In an article published in 2007, The New York Times called Hirst a "shining symbol of our times, a man who perhaps more than any other artist since Andy Warhol has used marketing to turn his fertile imagination into an extraordinary business". The most prominent and financially successful of all the YBAs, Hirst made his name pickling (and sometimes dissecting) dead animals in formaldehyde. But his bigger achievement has been to create (like Warhol) a recognizable "Hirst" brand. His "spot" series is now highly recognizable, only to be surpassed by his "Shark" - his iconic 1991 sculpture, titled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, that is now considered a prime example of contemporary art..

Produced between 1986 and 2011, and reflecting the artist's preoccupation with the theme of mortality, the spot series was introduced with his "Pharmaceutical" paintings. In fact, Hirst would create a total of thirteen sub-series under the spots category, his overarching aesthetic goal was to find a way to use color in a way that moved beyond Expressionism: "to do those colours, and do nothing [...] It was just a way of pinning down the joy of colour" he said. In the "Factory" spirit of Warhol, Hirst employed assistants to create his spot paintings which could in theory yield a random and infinite range of color combinations. Hirst stipulated that all residues of human intervention, such as the compass point left at the centre of each spot, were to be concealed so as to give the false impression that the hand painted works had been mechanically produced.

In 1988 Hirst organized the so-called "Freeze" exhibition which is considered by many to have been the launching pad for what would become the YBA movement, and "a golden moment of British art" according to art critic Johnathan Jones. Hirst was able to secure the loan of a redundant warehouse in London's south-east dockland which he and his colleagues transformed into a makeshift exhibition space. Most of the 16 exhibiting artists were, like Hirst, ex-students of Goldsmiths College of Art including Mat Collishaw and Anya Gallaccio. For his part, Hirst painted his near identical spot paintings - called "Edge" and "Row" - directly onto the warehouse wall. However, Hirst's bigger achievement was in his ability to secure a sponsorship deal that allowed for the production of a professional exhibition catalogue that was widely distributed in galleries and bookshops ahead of the Freeze exhibition itself. Thanks in no small part to the catalogue, the exhibition caught the attention of several notable curators and Hirst was celebrated for his entrepreneurial savvy. Hirst's Goldsmith's tutor Craig Martin saw things slightly differently however: "It amuses me that so many people think what happened was calculated and cleverly manipulated whereas in fact it was a combination of youthful bravado, innocence, fortunate timing, good luck, and, of course, good work. It caught people's imagination".

Acrylic paint on canvas - Gagosian Gallery, New York

Norman Foster: 30 St Mary Axe (known colloquially as "The Gherkin") (2001-2003)
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30 St Mary Axe (known colloquially as "The Gherkin") (2001-2003)

Artist: Norman Foster

Artwork description & Analysis: This distinctive skyscraper stands proud at the heart of the City of London's business district and has become an iconic landmark on the capital's skyline. It was designed by Norman Foster, whose firm Foster and Partners also designed the Reichstag in Berlin, London City Hall, the Great Court and Reading Room at the British Museum, and the new Wembley Stadium. In contrast to the rectangular concrete high rises that neighbored the building at its inception, the Gherkin is rounded and covered in reflective glass; its curved structure enabling it to find a patch of blue sky to reflect on a grey day. As art critic Jonathan Jones noted: "Its entire body curves at every point. It glitters and reflects all over, creating optical patterns that change with distance, and with the times of day. It is a masterpiece that opens new possibilities for world architecture."

The building, which houses offices and restaurants, comprises an elongated, curved, shaft with a rounded end that has been described as "reminiscent of a stretched egg". Adjacent buildings added since its completion have complemented its original design, echoing its bright glass and curved edges. Jones added: "Where other recent architecture has a lot in common with the extravagance of the baroque, Foster and his team have created a form that is manifestly in the classical tradition [...] Its expansiveness culminates in a dome that rhymes with that of St Paul's. Far from being a stranger on the London skyline, this is a shape that Wren, or Michelangelo, or any of the architects of the European great tradition would have recognized, admired and envied."

The Gherkin has helped London compete on a national stage, not just in terms of business and industry, but architecturally. Reminiscent of Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and comparable to New York's Chrysler Building, the Gherkin is in Jones's words "a masterpiece that opens new possibilities for world architecture."

Glass and steel - City of London

Anish Kapoor: ArcelorMittal Orbit (2012)
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ArcelorMittal Orbit (2012)

Artist: Anish Kapoor

Artwork description & Analysis: The ArcelorMittal Orbit is the UK's tallest sculpture and was designed, in conjunction with engineer Cecil Balmond, as a new landmark to celebrate London's 2012 Olympics (an estimated 130,000 people visited the structure during the Games). The sculpture's name combines that of ArcelorMittal Steel company, its chief sponsor, with that of Orbit, the original working title for the design. Made from 600 pre-fabricated star-like nodes, the structure also contains a staircase, elevators, an interior viewing platform and an enormous helter-skelter slide. Made with the equivalent of 265 double-decker buses' worth of steel, and held together with 35,000 rivets, installation artist Anish Kapoor wanted the work to be both a visual and experiential event, encouraging visitors to ask themselves questions about how they occupy and move through space. Beginning in darkness beneath a huge domed steel canopy, the visitor travels up via the lifts towards the light at the top of the structure where they are met by two huge concave mirrors - Kapoor's trademark - bringing the sky in as if in the lens room of a telescope. The visitor is then returned to earth via the helter-skelter that twists its way through the spectacular steel sculpture.

Kapoor's work is highly international and he has set up momentous public sculptures around the globe. This work, with its spirals and steel bears similarities to Vladimir Tatlin's Tower (project for the Monument to the Third International (c. 1917)). But while Tatlin's work was a monument to nation, Kapoor's is more personal. The artist was fascinated with origins, and with this work the "viewer" starts from the bottom, ascends to the top, only to slide down to their roots, replicating one's journey through life. Kapoor said the work acted as a meeting point between sculpture and architecture: "I wanted the sensation of instability, something that was continually in movement. Traditionally a tower is pyramidal in structure, but we have done quite the opposite, we have a flowing, coiling form that changes as you walk around it [...] It is an object that cannot be perceived as having a singular image, from any one perspective. You need to journey round the object, and through it. Like a Tower of Babel, it requires real participation from the public." This comparison is significant; East London in 2012 was a melting pot of nationality, culture and language and the Games and the ArcelorMittal Orbit had a vital role to play in promoting a multinational British identity.

Steel structure - Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Stratford, London



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First published on 26 Oct 2019. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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