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English art

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English Art

Painting and sculpture in England from the 10th century. (For English art before the 10th century, see Celtic art and Anglo-Saxon art.) The strong tradition of manuscript illumination was continued from earlier centuries. Portrait painting flourished from the late 15th century (initially led by artists from Germany and the Low Countries) through the 18th (Thomas Gainsborough, Joshua Reynolds) and into the 20th (David Hockney, Lucian Freud). Landscape painting reached its high point in the 19th century with John Constable and J M W Turner. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood produced a Victorian version of medievalism. In the early 20th century the Camden Town Group and the Bloomsbury Group responded to modern influences in painting, and in sculpture the work of Jacob Epstein, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth led progressively towards abstraction. In the 1950s pop art began in the UK. Artists in the latter part of the 20th century experimented with mixed and sometimes unusual media such as dead sheep (Damien Hirst) and chocolate (Helen Chadwick, 1953–1996).

Medieval: 10th–15th centuries
As elsewhere in Europe, the painting and sculpture of this period was religious and sometimes had an international rather than distinctively national character. Few examples of medieval English painting have survived, though the decoration of churches encouraged wall painting. During the 13th century painting flourished under the patronage of Henry III, but in the 14th it declined as a result of the Wars of the Roses. The 10th-century schools of Winchester and Canterbury produced illuminated manuscripts such as the Benedictional of St Ethelwold (about 960–80; British Museum, London). Later examples include the Lutterell Psalter (about 1340; British Museum). One of the few named figures of the period was the 13th-century illuminator and chronicler Matthew Paris. The late 14th-century Wilton Diptych (National Gallery, London), showing Richard II presented to the Virgin and Child, is a rare example of medieval panel painting. What little sculpture has survived the destructions of the Reformation – and, later, the Civil War of the 17th century – is heavily indebted to French works.

Tudor and Elizabethan: 15th–16th centuries
The Italian sculptor Torrigiano introduced the Renaissance style in his tomb of Henry VII in Westminster Abbey (1512–18). However, the reign of Henry VIII virtually put an end to church art. Painting, in particular portrait painting, survived largely through the influence and example of the German Hans Holbein, who painted portraits of Henry's court. The best artists of the time were, like Holbein, visitors from other parts of Europe. However, in Elizabeth's reign English painters developed a distinctive style in the portrait miniature. Nicholas Hilliard and his pupil Isaac Oliver were the outstanding figures, but excellent work was produced by many artists. Portraiture was to become one of English art's most enduring achievements.

17th century
English art was once again revitalized by foreign artists, in particular the Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens, who visited England briefly, and Anthony van Dyck, who settled in England to become court painter to Charles I. His baroque elegance dominated 17th-century portraiture. Among his successors were William Dobson (1610–1646), the cavalier painter who succeeded Van Dyck as court painter to Charles I, and Robert Walker (1600–59), who painted portraits of Oliver Cromwell and other Puritan leaders. During the Commonwealth and after the Restoration, the influence of foreign artists working in England continued. First among them was Peter Lely from Holland, and later Godfrey Kneller, who came from Germany in 1674. There are few English painters of the period to put beside Lely, except John Riley (1646–91), James Thornhill (1676–1734), who worked at Greenwich and Blenheim Palace, and Robert Streater (1624–80), whose mural paintings were notable in an age of portraiture. The Flemish sculptor John Michael Rysbrack carved portraits and monuments, and Grinling Gibbons, a Dutch sculptor, decorated many interiors with woodcarvings, such as panels for St Paul's Cathedral. The English sculptor Nicholas Stone (1587–1647), who was trained in Amsterdam, worked in a Renaissance style.

18th century
English art at last became robustly independent, with great achievements in portraiture and landscape.

Portraiture was transformed by two outstanding figures, Gainsborough and Reynolds. Both brought a new subtlety and refinement to portraits, their images an expression of the wealth and confidence of English society. The Royal Academy was founded in 1768, and as its first president Reynolds was able to promote a classicism based on art of the Italian High Renaissance. Other important portraitists were Thomas Lawrence, George Romney, and John Hoppner. The German-born Johann Zoffany and England's Arthur Devis (1711–1787) were painters of portraits and ‘conversation pieces’. The fashionable portraiture of the 18th century was challenged by William Hogarth, who painted faces and scenes of contemporary life with a vigorous and unapologetic frankness. He was the first English artist to gain an international reputation.

Landscape painting was established in England by the work of foreign artists such as Canaletto. The first British artist to excel at landscape was Richard Wilson, who studied for some years in Rome. Whereas Wilson painted landscape in the ‘Italian manner’, based on the works of Claude Lorrain, Gainsborough brought to his landscapes a more personal and romantic feeling, his influences being Dutch 17th-century landscapists such as Jacob van Ruisdael and Meindert Hobbema. George Morland was his most successful follower.

The poet and etcher William Blake was a unique figure, fashioning his own highly individual style to express a complex personal mythology. His visionary creations, among the first powerful expressions of Romanticism, briefly inspired Samuel Palmer, who brought a strong note of mysticism to landscape painting. The nightmarish visions of Henry Fuseli reveal a darker strain of Romanticism.

Caricature flourished in the second half of the century, its leading practitioners, earthy and bitingly satirical, being James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, and Hogarth. Their favourite targets were the Georgian court, the follies and evils of society, and, during the Napoleonic Wars, Napoleon.

At the very end of the century John Flaxman became the leading exponent of neoclassical sculpture.

19th century
Constable and Turner gave a depth and range to landscape painting that made it not only one of the most popular expressions of English art, but also one of its most important. Their achievements were complemented by a host of other landscape painters, including Richard Bonington, John Crome, John Sell Cotman, Robert Cozens, Thomas Girtin, and David Cox.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement, which was established in the 1840s, dominated English art for the rest of the century. Its members – such as Holman Hunt, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Everett Millais – concentrated on religious, literary, and genre subjects, their style colourful and minutely detailed. At first ridiculed, the style of the Pre-Raphaelites produced a host of popular imitators. In the late 19th century the Arts and Crafts Movement, dominated by William Morris, promoted a revival of crafts and good design. Book illustration, a revival of which had been inaugurated by Thomas Stothard at the beginning of the century, flourished under the inspiration of both the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts and Crafts Movement, its leading practitioners being Walter Crane, Kate Greenaway, Arthur Rackham, Aubrey Beardsley, Randolph Caldecott, John Tenniel, and William Morris.

Among the most popular artists of the day were George Watts, who made his name with allegories that expressed Victorian pieties; William Etty, who was one of the few artists to concentrate on the nude; Edward Landseer, who specialized in animal pictures; and Lord Leighton and Lawrence Alma-Tadema, both of whom made their reputations with lavish recreations of ancient Greek and Roman life.

By the end of the century English art was being influenced by French artists, in particular Edgar Degas and the Impressionists. The US-born artist James McNeill Whistler was typical, rejecting the concern with storytelling and descriptiveness that characterized so much Victorian art in favour of the aesthetics of form, colour, and tone. English Impressionists founded the New English Arts Club in 1886, and French influence, which continued well into the 20th century, can be seen in the work of Wilson Steer, John Singer Sargent (another American working in England), Walter Sickert, and Augustus John.

20th century
In 1910 an exhibition arranged by the critic Roger Fry introduced English artists to post-Impressionism and fauvism. The Camden Town Group was formed in 1911 to encourage artists who were bringing a new sense of form and colour to the depiction of scenes of everyday London life. Walter Sickert, Charles Ginner, and Harold Gilman (1876–1919) were its leading figures. Artists of the Bloomsbury Group, such as Duncan Grant, Dora Carrington, and Vanessa Bell, were more adventurous in their development of the same influences.

Just before World War I Vorticism, the one specifically English art movement, was created by Wyndham Lewis, one of the few artists to be directly influenced by cubism and Futurism. Paintings by David Bomberg and sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein are among the movement's main achievements.

Between the world wars, artists soon began to reflect a wide range of styles and intentions. Matthew Smith worked in a fauvist style; Christopher Wood (1901–1930), Cecil Collins (1908–1989), and L S Lowry developed a childlike naivety. Using a finely detailed realism, Stanley Spencer sought to express a visionary apprehension of everyday life. Ben Nicholson evolved an entirely abstract art; Paul Nash, Ceri Richards (1903–1979), and Graham Sutherland responded to surrealism. Surrealism was also an influence on the sculptor who dominated English art of the 20th century, Henry Moore. Other important sculptors to emerge at this time were Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson (both abstract), and Jacob Epstein (who soon outgrew Vorticism), Eric Gill, and Frank Dobson (all figurative).

After World War II English art became increasingly pluralistic. A strong figurative tradition was continued, in very different styles, by Francis Bacon (whose nightmarish visions are some of the most forceful expressions of contemporary spiritual despair), Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, John Bratby, Keith Vaughan (1912–1976), Carel Weight (1908– ), and (all in varying degrees associated with pop art) Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake, David Hockney, and R B Kitaj. Abstract painting, which has never had a strong following in England, was practised by Victor Pasmore, Patrick Heron, William Turnbull, and Bridget Riley, the leading figure in op art. Outstanding among sculptors – who also have explored a range of creative possibilities – are Reg Butler, Lynn Chadwick, Kenneth Armitage (1916– ), Anthony Caro, Elizabeth Frink, Eduardo Paolozzi, and (more recently) Richard Long, Antony Gormley (1950– ), and Damien Hirst. Performance artists include Gilbert and George (who styled themselves ‘living sculptures’) and Bruce McLean (1944– ).

© RM 2009. Helicon Publishing is division of RM.


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