The History of the British Art

Skilled immigrants
England is exceptionally late, among the wealthier regions of western Europe, in developing a native school of artists of sufficient distinction for their names to survive. The exquisiteWilton Diptych, dating from the 1390s, may have been painted in England (its origin is uncertain), but it has no national characteristics (being classed in the International Style) and it is anonymous. From the period when the great Renaissance masters are at work in Italy, the Netherlands or Germany, there is no English artist whose name survives. When English kings and nobles want their portrait painted, they look to continental Europe for someone with the necessary skills.By far the most distinguished painter to fulfil this function is Hans Holbein, who spends thirteen years in England between 1526 and 1543.
Holbein provides the images by which we know members of the Tudor court, and in particular Henry VIII himself. He also profoundly influences John Bettes, the first English portrait painter whose name has come down to us. Bettes’ name survives by a single lucky accident. A painting known simply asA Man in a Black Cap, now in Tate Britain, bears the inscriptionfaict par Johan Bettes Anglois (made by John Bettes Englishman). It is significant that his English origin is considered worthy of mention.Bettes’ portrait, dating from 1545 (two years before the death of Henry VIII), is very closely in the forthright Holbein style. But in the subsequent Tudor reigns a different kind of portraiture is more in demand.
English aristocrats now like to be depicted in sumptuous clothes and jewellery, often half- or full-length (thus showing more of a spectacular costume) and frequently with pale faces and distant, reserved expressions. One of the first exponents of this style is Hans Eworth, who comes to England from Antwerp in about 1545 and remains until his death in 1573.Later in the century a second John Bettes, son of the first, also paints in the new style. But the most fashionable painter now is Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, who arrives as a child in 1568 with his Protestant family, fleeing from religious persecution in Bruges. His painting of Elizabeth I, painted probably in 1592 and now in the National Portrait Gallery, is an outstanding example of this ornate school of portraiture.
Another splendid example, dating from some twenty years earlier, is an oil painting of the queen by Nicholas Hilliard (now in Tate Britain). With Hilliard the story of British painting reaches its first native-born artist of international reputation, but this almost life-size portrait is entirely unchacteristic of his work – in terms of size rather than style.Holbein, while working in and around the English court in the 1530s, had developed a new interest. He tried his hand at painting miniatures, tiny images on vellum or ivory of a kind which were being produced at the time by Flemish artists illuminating manuscripts for Henry VIII’s library. In doing so he unwittingly encourages the emergence later in the century of the first identiable school of English art, with Hilliard as its founder.
Hilliard and Oliver: 16th – 17th century
The first important English painter, Nicholas Hilliard, is born in 1547, four years after Holbein’s death in London. When he writes his Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning, late in life, he says that his model in painting miniatures was always Holbein.From the 1570s Hilliard is a prolific painter of the queen, of the nobility and of anyone else willing to commission him. More than 200 of his exquisite little portraits survive (as opposed to only a dozen by Holbein). They are the first English view of the English. In addition to the usual tiny head-and-shoulder portraits (in precious settings, often worn as a jewel), Hilliard pioneers a new tradition – that of the full-length miniature.
One of Hilliard’s earliest full-length miniatures is the Young Man among Roses of about 1587. It has the dreamy quality characteristic of these larger miniatures, both by Hilliard himself and by his pupil Isaac Oliver (son of a Huguenot goldsmith, who brings his family to London in 1568) . The same mood pervades Oliver’s miniature of the 1590s, now bewitchingly entitledUnknown Melancholy Young Man.Isaac Oliver dies in 1617 and is followed as painter to the English court by his son Peter. During Peter’s career a foreign portrait painter arrives who easily outshines all English competition. But this foreigner makes such an enormous contribution, and has such influence on the English portrait tradition, that he must be considered as part of British art. He is Anthony van Dyck.
Van Dyck: 1618-1641
Van Dyck works in Rubens’ studio in Antwerp between 1618 and 1620 and then spends most of the 1620s in Italy. In Genoa he makes an extremely successful career as a portrait painter, providing elegant and darkly dramatic full-length portraits of the city’s aristocracy.It is this same elegance, in a slightly gentler vein and with a lighter palette, which later makes van Dyck the favourite portrait painter in English court circles. He moves to London in 1632 and is immediately encouraged by Charles I, a most enthusiastic and knowledgeable collector of paintings. Within weeks of Van Dyck’s arrival the king and queen are sitting for him. That same summer he is knighted.
There are to be many more such portraits of the royal pair. The charming but weak face of Charles I, with the delicately trimmed beard, and the fragile beauty of Henrietta Maria are the most familiar images of British monarchs, in the entire long span between the queens Elizabeth and Victoria, entirely thanks to the skill of van Dyck.Other members of the aristocracy are as eager to use his services. They glow in his canvases, handsome and arrogantCavaliers in fine fabrics (John and Bernard Stuart in London’s National Gallery are a perfect example). Nemesis awaits them when civil war breaks out in 1642. But the painter who gives them immortality has died in the previous year.
Unexpectedly, there is a talented English portraitist on hand to record the Cavaliers during the difficult years (1642-6) when the king establishes his court in exile at Oxford. Relatively little is known about Dobson until he succeeds Van Dyck in 1641 as chief painter to the court, and he dies in his mid-thirties in 1646. But in his four years at Oxford he produces some fifty portraits, closer in style to Titian and the Venetian schoolthan to the refined elegance of Van Dyck.Most notable of all among Dobson’s works is the strongly characterized portrait of the Cavalier collector and connoisseur of art, Endymion Porter (now in Tate Britain).
Foreign sculptors: 17th – 18th century
There is a rich tradition of tomb sculpture in British cathedrals and parish churches, from the middle ages through to the 18th century, and most of these effigies are carved by local artists. But once fashionable sculptors become part of the scene, in the late 17th century, the story is the same as with painting. Almost without exception they come from the northern regions of continental Europe.Even the most famous and the most English-seeming of them is born and trained in Holland. Grinling Gibbons, son of an English father, comes to London in his late teens and rapidly establishes a reputation for his still lives of fruit, foliage, dead birds and musical instruments, carved with astonishing realism in limewood.
Gibbons’ older contemporary, the Danish sculptor Cauis Gabriel Cibber, has already been in London for a few years when Gibbons arrives in about 1667. Cibber works in stone and on a more monumental scale. Indeed his first important commission is a scene for the pedestal of Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire. His panel in relief (1673-5) shows Charles II, in Roman costume, offering comfort and protection to the inhabitants of the desolated city.Antwerp is the home town of the next two distinguished continental sculptors to make their careers in England. They arrive in the early 18th century, by which time the peak of sculptural success is to carve lavish baroque monuments to famous Britons in Westminster Abbey.
John Michael Rysbrack, who arrives in about 1720, succeeds in this field with his tribute of 1731 to Isaac Newton, mourned by two plump cherubs as he reclines at ease in a Roman toga, resting an elbow on four of his great folio volumes.Peter Scheemakers moves from Antwerp to London at the same period as Rysbrack. He shows his paces in Westminster Abbey with a monument to another British worthy, carving in 1740 a full-length standing version of Shakespeare. The bard leans an elbow on a pile of three folio volumes and points languidly to an unfurling manuscript version of a famous speech from The Tempest.
Some ten or fifteen years after the arrival of Rysbrack and Scheemakers, a French sculptor moves to London and soon outshines his Flemish predecessors. Born in Lyons, he is Louis François Roubiliac (also spelt Roubillac). More informal in style than the older pair, Roubiliac has an immediate and early success with a delightfully natural statue of Handel commissioned in 1735 for Vauxhall Gardens.But he prevails also in the less frivolous surroundings of Westminster Abbey, where he provides no fewer than seven major monunents. In the most famous of them a shrouded figure of Death emerges from a tomb to aim his lance at Elizabeth Nightingale.

British art comes of age: 18th century
In the 18th century native British artists at last make their mark. The first to do so is William Hogarth, but he is quirky and untypical, standing outside any school.Portrait painting is the more characteristic theme of British art, in England and also in Scotland. A Scot, Allan Ramsay, is the first full-scale portraitist of great distinction but he is soon followed by others both north and south of the border. Meanwhile another very British theme develops, from the second half of the century, in the tradition of landscape watercolours.
Hogarth and the English scene: 1728-1764
The first English painter on a grand scale is also the most English of painters. Hogarth observes London life with the keenest of eyes, and makes his main contribution by presenting the bustling scene in vivid narrative paintings.His first great success is a picture in 1728 of the stage of the Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatre during a performance of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, the smash hit of the day (over the next three years he paints several versions of the same picture). In 1731 Hogarth completes the six paintings which make up A Harlot’s Progress, the first of his very successful narrative sequences in which a contemporary moral tale is told as if in a series of satirical scenes on a stage.
Hogarth engraves a version of the Harlot’s Progress himself (his original trade is engraving) and publishes the six plates with great success in 1732. In this combination of narrative satirical paintings, followed by the publication of a set of engravings, Hogarth finds his natural medium. Subsequent series are A Rake’s Progress (1735), Marriage à la Mode (1742-4) and The Election (1754).From the 1730s Hogarth also paints portraits. They tend to have a delightfully rough informality (such as the infants of the Grey family in 1740, cheerfully tormenting a puppy) or a sturdy masculinity (Captain Coram of the same year). But by this time a painter of more elegant portraits, Allan Ramsay, has set up shop in London.
British portraits: 1739-1830
Allan Ramsay, born in Edinburgh in 1713, studies in Rome and Naples during the 1730s before opening a studio in London in 1739 (together with another in Edinburgh). He brings to British portraiture a delicacy previously lacking, as seen to brilliant effect in his 1759 portrait of his wife (now in the National Gallery of Scotland).By the 1750s Ramsay has a younger rival, of considerable skill and soaring ambition, with whom he finds it hard to compete. Joshua Reynolds, who establishes himself in London in 1753 after two years in Italy, has a high notion of the dignity of art and the artist. He is the natural first president of the Royal Academy, when it is founded in 1768, and he endows his sitters with an equivalent sense of importance.
Reynolds often paints his subjects full length, in splendid poses and in close proximity to a classical column or urn. These are the sort of people who go on the Grand Tour. Their easy self-confidence in Reynolds’s canvases revives the great tradition of the English portraits of van Dyck.If anything is missing in these powerful images by Reynolds, it is perhaps the fleeting quality of fashion – a quality abundantly supplied by his slightly younger rival Thomas Gainsborough. When Gainsborough catches William and Elizabeth Hallett on their Morning Walk (in London’s National Gallery), the couple may not have the air of lasting importance which Reynolds would give them; but on this particular morning there is no one to match them.
Gainsborough maintains a studio in fashionable Bath from 1759 to 1774, and then moves to London. The rich English gentry who pose in town for him and for Reynolds have country seats where they are intensely interested in horses. These splendid animals also deserve a good portrait. England has just the man in George Stubbs.Stubbs’s wonderfully calm and elegant images of sleek horses with their grooms, huntsmen or jockeys in neatly tailored landscapes, or of conversation pieces with the family sitting proud and upright in their carriages, are in their own way as significant a part of the portraiture of prosperous 18th-century England as the work of Reynolds and Gainsborough.
The generation after Reynolds, Gainsborough and Stubbs produces two artists who round off in dramatic style the great period of British portrait painting. Henry Raeburn stays almost exclusively north of the border in Scotland, usually depicting his sitters in dramatic lighting against dark sketchy backgrounds. His striking image of The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (early 1790s) is Scotland’s most famous painting but is untypical.Thomas Lawrence, the youngest of this group, is also the most flamboyant and free in the brilliant facility of his brush strokes. As Holbein immortalizes Henry VIII, so Lawrence does the same for the prince regent, or George IV. He and his most famous subject die in the same year, 1830.
British watercolours: 18th – 19th century
In 1771 the topographical artist Paul Sandby sets off with a wealthy patron for a tour of Wales. Sandby’s job is to sketch the magnificent scenery, now coming into fashion with the beginning of the Romantic movement. This new interest will be popularized a decade later by the Rev. William Gilpin, an indefatigable pilgrim in pursuit of the picturesque who publishes accounts of his own sketching tours, beginning withObservations on the River Wye, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1782).Watercolour is the natural medium for sketches of this kind. The passion for the picturesque therefore lies behind the development of the most distinctively British strand in art history – that of the landscape watercolour.
The use of watercolour as the occasional medium for a rapid sketch goes back as far as Dürer, and many artists in the 17th century use monochrome wash drawings as studies for paintings. The difference in Britain in the 18th century is that specialists emerge who paint watercolours for their patrons (and later for a wider market) and in many cases restrict their work to this one medium.This development coincides with a fortunate new discovery in printmaking, that of the aquatint – which for the first time can provide in printed form something very close to the tones of a wash drawing. Again Paul Sandby is a pioneer. His Welsh trips result in the publication, in 1776-7, of thirty-six Views in Aquatinta taken on the Spot in Wales.
Soon British watercolour artists are travelling abroad to bring back views from regions such as the Alps which have scenery even more picturesque than Wales can provide. In a nice paradox, classical ruins in Italy are also now found to be romantic.From the start very individual styles emerge among these artists. Many attempt a neat topographical precision, particularly in subjects such as ruins. Others go for much bolder effects. John Robert Cozens, touring in Switzerland and Italy in 1776, brings back wonderfully misty and evocative images. Francis Towne, in the same regions in 1781, turns landscape into simple blocks of wash so bold that the effect is almost abstract.
Other leading watercolourists who develop their own personal vision of the British landscape include Thomas Girtin, John Sell Cotman, David Cox and Peter de Wint. Vision tips over into visionary in the richly intimate views painted by Samuel Palmer at Shoreham in Kent (under the influence of William Blake, a master of watercolour in his own visionary scenes).One figure above all personifies the development of the watercolour in England. Turner in his twenties paints brilliantly in the detailed topographical style. Later in his life he produces bright shimmering washes as bold as his large canvases of the same period. Constable says that they seem to be painted ‘with tinted steam, so evanescent and so airy’.
This History is as yet incomplete.

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