450 to 871 AD: Anglo-Saxon Art
Imagine the gracefully curving prow of the earliest keel boat which made its crossing from Angeln in southern Denmark: look at the craft with its intricately flowing interlaced carvings and threatening Dragon head.
In so doing the very soul of English creativity reveals itself through the ages, forever reinventing itself in every generation, always changing yet always remaining true to its ancient linear roots, and since we are an Island people over time an ‘insular style’ has grown up:
Therefore the key elements which typify English art are:
• Its linear style
• Its narrative subject matter- much of it being pure fantasy.
• A fusion of the abstract with the naturalistic, much of the detail being subtly ambiguous.
• It’s visionary quality.
Yet our knowledge of our earliest English art is sadly somewhat fragmentary. Intentional or accidental destruction and the rebuilding of later centuries mean that few Anglo-Saxon buildings survive in anything like their original state. The interiors of churches would once have glowed with colour, but now almost nothing remains of the wall paintings or of the costly fabrics (sometimes made of silk interwoven with gold) that adorned the altars. Articles made of gold and silver were prime targets for plunder during the Viking invasions, and almost all of the fine Anglo-Saxon metalwork that we now possess has been dug up after being buried for safekeeping. We know from literary accounts that the early English attached great importance to beautiful and costly objects such as church plate and royal regalia, but the destruction of these has been so wholesale that C. R. Dodwell begins his book “Anglo-Saxon Art: A New Perspective” (1982) with the words “The Anglo-Saxon arts which attract most attention today would have had little interest for the Anglo-Saxon writers”. That is to say, early English Anglo-Saxon art was stupendous in its quality and design. So much for the ‘dark ages’…!
There is another way in which our knowledge of early English art is fragmentary, for we often know little or nothing about the precise circumstances in which surviving objects were made. Anglo-Saxon artists occasionally signed their work, and we know the identity of others from documents, but they are usually nothing but names. By the same token, most early English art can be dated only approximately. Sometimes there are inscriptions to help us, and objects that are found in the tomb of a known person can usually be associated with the time of that person, but Anglo-Saxon sculpture, for example, generally has to be dated solely on the grounds of style (by comparison with manuscript illustrations of known date). Historians of architecture sometimes differ by centuries in the date they assign to old English buildings or parts of them.
Nevertheless, in spite of all these difficulties, the broad outlines of the development of Anglo-Saxon art can be discerned reasonably clearly. There were two main periods of achievement, with between them a bleak time when the country was overrun by marauders from Scandinavia. Remains dating from before the 7th century are at present extremely scanty and belong more to the realm of archaeology than to art. The first great achievements are the magnificent jewelled objects found in a ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, dating from about 625 AD. These are heathen, but thereafter the finest works were predominantly produced for the Christian Church. At this time England was divided into a number of small kingdoms and initially the artistic lead was taken in Northumbria, in the north of England, where monks from Ireland (rather than Rome) were the major missionaries (St Aidan came to England from Ireland in 635 AD and founded a monastery on Lindisfarne, or Holy Island, under the auspices of St Oswald, the Christian king of Northumbria). Towards the end of the 8th century, Danish Vikings began to raid England and later to settle. They caused great destruction, and the kingdom of Wessex, in the south of the country, was the only one to survive.
Alfred the Great, who reigned from 871 to 899 AD, led the revival against these Viking invaders, and in the 10th century his successors as kings of Wessex gained control over the rest of the country. From this time until the Norman Conquest, the south dominated the country artistically as well as politically, Winchester being the main cultural centre. This period, and particularly the century before the Norman Conquest, is sometimes referred to as the “golden age” of early English art and certainly the finest English art of this time was a match for anything produced on the Continent.
625 AD: Sutton Hoo helmet – Anglian metalworking at its finest
625 AD: Anglo Saxon jewellery from the Sutton Hoo hoard
|Anglo-Saxon shoulder clasp: possibly the highest standard of European jewellery art ever found. Not until modern kilns were developed that reproductions could be made, such was the intricacy of this work.|
As can be seen from these treasures, brilliant pure clear colouring is not avoided. It serves the line however and not the other way round. Intricate stylisation of boars is intermingled with abstract motifs at either side.
From the earliest times our English forefathers gathering in their mead halls would love to hear stories, their lives as pioneers in a recently occupied country was precarious and warrior values meant that life was often short, so when they could sit with their companions at the mead bench they were ready to hear fantastic tales of heroes and monsters, such as the poem Beowulf, the first written poem in Old English. They brought other tales from their North Sea lands too and were prepared to pay Scops (musician/storytellers) to relate these from their word hoards. Their halls were painted with decorative scenes from the imagination of native artists and formed a bright background to the flickering lights and the fire.
Many of England’s folk were converted to Christianity at an earlier date than the other northern tribes, notably the Danes, and despite the daily uncertainty of life in an age of frequent local warfare the monasteries gave religious artists the stability needed to push forward a native style in illuminated manuscripts which was to eventually become the envy of Europe. Unfortunately that envy led to various invasions.
698 – 721 AD: The Lindisfarne Gospels
The Lindisfarne Gospels illuminated manuscript shows that despite its church derived Byzantine influence a distinct English liveliness of line and transparent colouring was evolving. Here as in the past days of the great hall the artist was telling a story.
The Lindisfarne Gospels, one of England’s greatest art treasures, was probably made on Holy Island in Northumbria (north-east England), in the late seventh or early eighth century. The artist-illuminator was called Eadfrith. Although written in Latin, the manuscript contains the oldest surviving translation of the Gospels into English, added between the lines around 970 AD.
700 AD: The Franks casket
Ivory carvings, usually in whale bone or walrus ivory rather than elephant ivory, were an important aspect of Anglo-Saxon sculpture and demonstrated a connection between early English art and northern European art materials. This whale-bone box, dating from about 700 AD, is profusely carved with biblical, mythological, and historical scenes, it is also inscribed with runes. It is known as the Franks Casket after Sir A. W. Franks who presented it to the British Museum in London.
871- 970AD: The Golden Age of early Anglo-Saxon English art.
This period, often marked by violent exchanges and pitched battles between the English and Danes resulted in victory and then peace for King Alfred’s Wessex and was marked by a vigorous regeneration of learning which owed much to the King’s encouragement of the arts and religious studies, including his own translation into English of some tracts from the bible. Illuminated texts were made and church embroidery was created by English women on an unprecedented scale. Alas, such perishable cloths, once the pride of the country have long since disintegrated, however, we know that they were of the highest standard because the vestments of the Bishop of Winchester are mentioned in courts from Norway to France for their quality.
7th century Jarrow Anglo-saxon stained glass window.
The oldest surviving example of stained glass – believed to go back to the time of the Northumbrian English historian Bede.
871- 899: The Alfred jewel or reading aestel
The Alfred jewel bears the inscription “AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN”, “Alfred ordered me to be made” and dates from the reign of King Alfred the Great (ruled 871AD- 899 AD). The jewel is made of gold and cloisonne enamel, covered with a transparent piece of rock crystal. It was discovered in 1693, and is kept in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford.
The function of the jewel is likely to have been an “aestel”, an object which Alfred sent to each bishopric when his translation of Gregory’s “Pastoral Care” was distributed. Each aestel was worth 50 mancuses (gold coins), so was a very expensive item. An aestel was intended to be used as a book pointer; at its base is a circular recess into which was inserted a slender bone or ivory pointer. Since its discovery, there have been within the past few years several more such treasures found, albeit not with the same lavish decoration. The Alfred Jewel was found near Athelney, where Alfred had built a monastery.
899 – 1066 AD: England’s artists and artisans thrive
1020 AD wall painting Nether Wallop church (below). This painting, one of many which must have graced the churches of the early English at one time survives as one of only four left in the country.
This scene shows two angels and was painted by artists of the Winchester School who worked here around the year 1020 AD, they were lime-washed over at a later date…by the Normans who tried to oppress English art and language for some 400 years after 1066 AD.
Later a Gothic arch further marred the design (which by that date was under several coats of lime wash)
1066-1348 AD: The period from the time of King Alfred up to the coming of the Normans and the destruction of a unique form of artistic expression and folk culture, was marked by an increase in both the decorative and applied arts in England. English pictures, silverware enamelwork and fine embroidery were in demand throughout northern Europe.
The final flourish after the cataclysm of 1066 was the creation at Canterbury of the so-called Bayeaux tapestry-an English art treasure of world importance. This work was made by English needlewomen at Canterbury after the battle of Hastings on the instructions of King William and Bishop Odo. One can only imagine the feelings of those women as they were forced to partake in recording the shame of their own people in this commemoration of a crushing defeat by an alien culture which neither respected nor valued the former artistic endeavours of the country they held and occupied.
Beginnings of Medieval English art
1170 AD: Wall painting Winchester cathedral
For long years after the Norman occupation foreign artists were imported to adorn the stone buildings which were being thrown up across the country. The indigenous cultural traditions and established early English style along with the steady growth of native creativity had been discarded as unworthy by the Norman masters whose slavish copying of Parisian inspired Romanesque art forms revealed the shallowness of Norman cultural roots and exposed its pretentions. It is very telling that no new pictorial forms were introduced during this period as the native taste for linear complexity and ambiguity of form was suppressed.
|Anglo-Saxon cathedrals and churches would have been a wonderment of bright painted art and wall coverings.|
It took over 100 years for the aftershocks caused by the destruction of the old English culture to subside in terms of the pictorial and applied arts: for literature it took much longer. It was only with the re-emergence of the English language almost 300 years later that the indigenous culture regained its former expression and wholeness of structure.
As enthusiasm for all things French declined the English artist and craftsman was finally able to return to his native sources of inspiration in a country still dominated by a mediaeval clergy who although they were the most important patrons of the arts at this time could not prevent the English artisan from expressing himself in terms of fantasy and elaborate decoration.
One example of this is the Winchester Psalter, a truly original work, which re-forges the link between old English illuminated art and the new order.
The confidence of the design showing Hell’s mouth, its clear lines and perfect execution along with the glowing colours place this firmly in the mainstream of English linear art. Similarly brilliant colouring and flowing design appeared in church glass of the period.
1190 AD: Winchester Psalter – Hells mouth – Pure fantasy and a glorious linear design.
This illumination, by an unknown artist, shows a love of clear colour and bold design. Note the mirror images of the gaping toothed mouths into which the souls of the damned fall to their doom.
|The Winchester Psalter.|
1180 AD: Stained glass Canterbury Cathedral – Adam Delving.
The windows in Canterbury Cathedral evolved during the medieval period over several centuries into a collection which is considered to be one of the finest in Europe. The earliest shown above is one of the ‘Ancestors of Christ’ series of windows.
|Canterbury Cathedral. Canterbury, England.|
|1240 AD: Under seat carving (misericord) showing man with pipes and tabor Exeter Cathedral, Devon, England.|
|The execution of St Alban.|
1250 AD: Matthew Paris – Execution of St Alban
Matthew Paris is one of the earliest artists about whom we know something. He was a man who travelled, created sculpture, illuminations and wrote books. His reputation as a writer and historian grew and important people visited him, no doubt hoping that he would say good things about them in his records. Those who visited him included Henry III. However, Matthew disagreed with Henry’s policy of appointing foreign advisers and he was often very critical of the king.
As well as being a talented English writer, Matthew was a gifted English artist, and in the margins of his books he illustrated the text with drawings and paintings. Although he has been criticised for relying too much on rumour and gossip and being prejudiced against foreigners and friars, Matthew Paris is considered to be one of the most important artist/historians of the medieval period. He died in 1259 AD.
1250 AD: The Evesham Psalter
The Evesham Psalter shows the beginnings of a more naturalistic treatment of human form and the natural world.
|The Evesham Psalter shows more depth to human form.|
Circa 1270-1300 AD: Medieval English Metalworking
Love of metalworking has always been second nature to the artisan in all areas in England. The graceful lines of the ring plate above form flower heads where nails give a raised centre to the design.
By the fourteenth century the rise of the merchant class was making itself felt and the new wealth these merchants owned was translated into houses and tapestries, fine books and beautiful objects. The church still provided the main source of patronage for the artist but increasingly the mood of the rich was becoming more secular.
|Ring plate with stamped work, great hall entrance, Bisham Abbey, Berkshire. (handle renewed). Similar styles are copied in modern English art.|
1340 AD: Luttrell Psalter – The earthly paradise
Realism interspersed with pure decoration and fantasy. The peasant sows corn whilst behind him a crow eats the grain from his sack. In front of the seed sower his dog scares off another bird, which lets a few grains fall from its beak. Intricately ornamented strap work transforms itself into leaf and acorn forms to produce geometric shapes thus fusing abstract with organic forms, and revealing the ambiguity of form, which formed part of a centuries old English art tradition.
|The Luttrell Psalter|
Ripon Cathedral North Yorkshire. Utility, grace and elegance of line in ironwork of this period. The Nordic roots exposed.
|Late 14th Century strap work (with 19th century refurbishment)|
1349 AD: The Black Death and its lasting effects.
And then suddenly the world was changed overnight by a dreadful visitation of biblical magnitude. The Black Death had arrived in England from the Continent bringing with it the destruction of half the population of the country and altering the balance, which had existed for centuries between landowner and peasant.
Suddenly the work of the labourer was keenly sought and his slavish bonds were broken. The numbers of workers to plough and sow, to reap and harvest were desperately low, so instead of being a bondsman forced to servitude on one manor for life, the agricultural labourer began to demand freedom of movement and the right to work for whom he chose and for the highest wage he might get. In Kent as in other counties and shires land, which had been cultivated for generations stood empty and desolate so in desperation a plea went out to the London poor. They were told by Kentish landowners that in return for their work on the farms families would be given an acre or two of land on which to grow their own crops and keep one or two animals, and that they might build houses for themselves. Many from the disease ridden slums took up the offer and made a good living in the countryside, some even becoming in the course of several generations yeoman farmers themselves.
These yeomen over time joined the merchant class and formed the beginnings of a middle class in England who wanted the trappings of wealth; good houses, fine paintings even books.
1349 AD The Black Death had altered the way men looked at their lives. In architecture the flamboyant French inspired gothic style was abruptly replaced in all new constructions by the English perpendicular style which matched the new mood of the country which was rapidly abandoning French and Latin pretensions and speaking the language of the people who now held greater sway in a land where for the first time it was realised that all parts of society were important for the well being of the realm. Poets were writing in English, pictorial art was showing everyday scenes drawn from earthly English life, not solely remote ecclesiastical imagery; however, King and Clergy were still the main sources of power throughout the land, and thus the main commissioners of English art.
1350 AD: The Black Death in English art
|Riches cannot fight the Black Death! It would come to all in medieval England. Irrespective of rank or wealth.|
1395 AD: English National Identity through art
|English National Identity through art.|
The Wilton Triptych shows St. Edmund The English Martyr, St Edward, St. John the Baptist and King Richard II being presented to the virgin. Note England’s National flag on the right – The Cross of St George. Those who refuse to show it – don’t know how old it is! This picture shows how far the English painter had come from the ethereal iconic Byzantine and Romanesque art of previous centuries. All the figures in the left panel are portraits of real people. On the right are the heavenly host whom nonetheless look human.
1350 – 1485 AD: The aftermath of the Black Death – The dawn of the new ‘humanism’ in English art.
The new human approach took it’s opportunity to remake the link with books, and one of the earliest portraits of an ordinary man-not a saint or King or member of the nobility, was of a poet and writer of prose; the father of English literature Geoffrey Chaucer.
Chaucer was a man of the folk, his Canterbury tales tell us much more of what it was like to live through this time than any learned treatise, and he gave us characters like the wife of Bath and the Miller and a host of others showing the various strata of society from top to bottom.
1412 AD: Thomas Hoccleve – Return to the narrative in art.
Carving in the middle ages echoed this new found interest in humankind, most notably in ‘grotesques’, amusing characters drawn from life and intricately crafted in areas such as beneath misericords –ledges on the top edge of hinged seats for standing priests or monks who had to prop their ailing bodies due to age or infirmity.
|Geoffrey Chaucer. This is a faithful likeness made by his humble admirer and follower.|
|15th-century: Painting on the walls of South Leigh church in Oxfordshire St Michael, with wings and sword raised, weighs a departed soul in the balance.|
1450 AD: English Folk Woodcarving
Carving of a woman grooming her daughter’s hair. Exeter cathedral. This very personal expression by an unknown medieval craftsman is Folk art in essence.
|English Folk Woodcarving|
1485 – 1588 AD: English Art Re-birth
After the long and savage Wars of the Roses much of the old aristocracy lay dead having destroyed itself through its own mighty ambition and unrelenting aggression. A new social order was growing as due to the reformation monasteries were dissolved, which meant that artists could no longer look to the church for patronage instead having to turn to the new aristocracy and newly rich merchant gentry.
Rather than stained glass and ecclesiastic images of saints and angels the new taste was for family portraits and scenes taken from everyday as well as courtly life. This new age now dawning coincided with ideas sweeping the continent and referred to as ‘the renaissance’ or re-birth. This was due to a renewed interest in ancient Greek philosophy and classical forms.
1514 AD: English art becomes secular
Whilst royalty chose foreign artists to depict themselves and their families in regal splendour, the newly rich English gentry sought a new breed of indigenous artist and craftsman. Hampton Court was begun in this time and Cardinal Wolsey employed James Nedham and Richard Ridge to create the renaissance details.
This was a great age of building in a new era of prosperity and relative peace that had never before been seen in England and was in marked contrast with the hundred years of dynastic wars that had preceded it.
Up and down the country land owning gentlemen were having houses built in order to show off their new found wealth and status in a spate of Tudor Gothic and classical invention.
The German painter Hans Holbein whose portraits continued the English linear tradition had admirers and accomplished followers such as John Bettes who produced some outstanding portraits in the northern tradition. An interest in portraying character can be seen not just the outward trappings of titled sitters, but in ordinary personage of new wealth.
1549-1550 Thomas Wentworth
1st Baron Wentworth
1545 Man in a cap
Both Hans Holbein and John Bettes favoured the use of hidden symbol and pictorial allegory.
1558 – 1603 AD: The Elizabethan Golden Age
No age in English history conjures up such images of expansion, optimism, innovation, bravery and adventurousness as this.
For the first time a clutch of famous English faces such as writers Shakespeare and Marlowe, sea-going heroes such as Drake and Raleigh, dramatic,’ larger than life’ courtiers such as Lord Leicester, Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Essex, Lord Dudley and the great Queen Elizabeth I herself seem as familiar to us as people from our own age, perhaps more so. All of them remain to us as images painted by native, mostly unknown artists.
In contrast to the large ‘Ditchley’ portrait of the ‘Virgin Queen’ and other numerous pictures painted of the queen at different ages by talented court painters, at the same time the art of the miniature was now fashionable.
Nicholas Hilliard, son of a goldsmith endowed his tiny masterpieces with a jewel like brilliance and clarity not seen since the golden age of King Alfred had produced gold illuminations alongside sacred texts.
In particular his paintings of a young Queen Elizabeth I and ‘Young man among roses’ epitomises the spirit of the age.
|English Queen Elizabeth I – The Virgin Queen.|
Below, a young man, clearly in love leans languidly against a tree next to a bush of pure white roses. If one painting crystallises the spirit of the time this is it. Ardour, longing, romance, valour, it is “the very age and body of the time” to quote the great English Bard himself – Shakespeare.
|1585 AD: ‘Young Man Amongst Roses’ – Nicholas Hilliard|
1590-95 AD: Isaac Oliver – Allegorical scene
Isaac Oliver worked in similar manner and like the great Hilliard, his exquisite portraits were fashionable and favoured by those wishing to court their lovers as well as to display their wealth and taste. In a period renowned for its remarkably talented men and women in every sphere of activity George Gower stands out as a celebrated court painter who in 1581 became ‘Serjeant Painter to the Queen’. His talent for portraiture was in the native tradition with emphasis on line, pattern and decorative detail that give it a delicacy and lightness so often lacking in the work of the many Flemish artists at court at this time.
|Isaac Oliver – Allegorical scene|
|1581AD: George Gower – ‘Lady Kytson’|
The Jacobean period
1603 – 1700 AD: A century of change
Queen Elizabeth I died on 24th March 1603 and left a stunned court with a Scottish King, James I on the throne. The heroic age of ‘Good Queen Bess’ was over and James, more interested in horses than the arts did little to deserve the artistic triumphs of his reign.
1605 AD: Robert Peake
Robert Peake was an artist with a distinctive style, his use of colouring and light mark him as an original painter. His strong linear quality is seen in this powerful image which is almost cut diagonally by the line of the sword and scabbard. This line is echoed by that of the tree and the deer’s back
|Henry, Prince of Wales (1594-1612) and Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex (1591-1646)|
1616 AD: Isaac Oliver
Portrait of Richard Sackville, 3rd Earl of Dorset. An artist outside his own time yet still able to impress with his brilliance of colour and stunning detail.
|Portrait of Richard Sackville|
|1620-5 Nathaniel Bacon. Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit. Landscape, portrait and still life with Dutch influence|
Although surrounded by court sculptors from Holland and Italy, Nicholas Stone was able to distinguish himself as a leading artist in this relatively new naturalistic style. His work was in demand for monumental statuary ennobling the newly rich aristocracy and giving it ‘substance’ and respectability.
|1640 AD. William Dobson. Portrait of Endymion Porter.|
The 17th century saw English painting overwhelmed by foreign artists who were favoured by the King, 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.
There were however native artists of great merit too. 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.
The English Civil War
Once again the country was thrown into turmoil as it sought to destroy itself in the terrible way only a civil war can, with father against son and brother against brother. The artists of the time also divided themselves, some painting scenes exalting Cromwell others hoping for favours at court created images of the King- God’s anointed.
|1649 AD: Robert Walker: Portrait of the English Parliamentarian General Oliver Cromwell – without warts!!|
This century was marked by a cataclysm which changed the country almost as deeply as the reformation. The war between the parliamentarian roundheads and the royalist cavaliers closed the theatres, killed the poetic drama and removed court patronage of painting and sculpture. Musicians suffered too, for many relied totally on royal patronage.
Many beautiful mediaeval stained glass windows, painted rood screens, sculptures and other ‘popish’ objects of art were destroyed in an orgy of hatred against idolatry. Even the church organ was removed from many chapels on the orders of Cromwell.
Folk art and traditions marking Christmas were frowned upon and fairs and open air entertainments such as mummers plays were banned. In addition, the whole of the City caught fire in 1665 AD destroying most of the mediaeval architecture including St. Paul’s church.
Two great English architects Sir Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor stepped forward with plans to resurrect the charred city. The poetry of Marvell, Dryden and writings of Milton, vivid descriptions of 17th century life by Samuel Pepys the diarist and John Bunyan’s allegories as well the birth of opera as a new art form allowed this birthplace of the age of ‘enlightenment’ to see out the century in a blaze of glory.
|James Thornhill: Ceiling of the painted Hall, Greenwich Naval Hospital|
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. Those few English painters of the period to put beside Lely are John Riley (1646–91) whose fine paintings would have secured him the post of King’s court had he not been an English artist.
|17th Century George Ravenscroft. English Lead crystal – a new invention. Glassware design was refined and imports from Venice ceased.|
|1685 AD. John Riley. A nonagenarian Housemaid Bridget Holmes.|
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. and monuments, and Grinling Gibbons, a sculptor whose parents were English but whose youth had been spent in Holland, decorated many interiors with woodcarvings, such as panels for St Paul’s Cathedral and ornamental pieces at Hampton Court His work on the St Paul’s choir stalls is outstanding, including as it does the Bishop’s two thrones, and the seat of the Lord Mayor.
|c1674 AD. Grinling Gibbons.: Detail from seat of The Lord Mayor of London|
1675-1695 AD. In music the last years of the 17th century were graced by the music of John Blow, organist composer and the exquisite Henry Purcell who was his successor at the Chapel Royal. Purcell’s melancholy strains mark the closing chapter to an age of wars both civil and against the Irish and Dutch, the great fire of London 1665, savage winters with great Thames ice fairs (the little ice age) and plague which killed one in three of London’s population.
18th Century Art – The Age Of Reason
English art at last became robustly independent, with great achievements in portraiture and landscape, caricature and narrative painting…
The marriage settlement.
The tete a tete.
Cynicism and boredom overcome the young couple
|1745 AD. William Hogarth. Marriage a la mode|
A new social realism was creeping into some of the art of the time as seen in William Hogarth’s original and striking narrative paintings which lampooned the pretentions of the upper classes, exposing their materialistic attitudes and lack of feeling. His expressive portraits earned him an international reputation. On the other hand portraits of the landed gentry were catered for by an artist from rural Suffolk in the person of Thomas Gainsborough who showed a class of Yeoman turned genteel as they benefitted from the great strides forward in farming thanks to the agricultural revolution which increased yields as never before.
|1750 AD. Thomas Gainsborough. Mr and Mrs Andrews.|
This quintessentially English painting follows the fashionable convention of the conversation piece, usually a small-scale portrait showing two or more people, often out of doors. The emphasis on the landscape here allows Gainsborough to display his skills as a painter of convincingly changing weather and naturalistic scenery, still a novelty at this time.
George Stubbs was a simple man whose work appealed to the sporting and hunting country gentry. Stubbs made a name for himself as he took commissions for paintings of expensive racehorses from his sporting and racing patrons included many of the noblemen who founded the Jockey Club. Like Gainsborough, he later painted scenes of peasant life, as well as studies of wild and exotic animals. He also became known as a printmaker and for his paintings in enamel on Wedgwood earthenware plaques.
His anatomical studies of horses show his devotion for this animal which he reveals in the exquisite detail of their individual features which make every picture of each thoroughbred an animal portrait.
Joseph Wright of Derby was a painter from the English Midlands whose interest in the scientific discoveries of the age were captured in paintings using the dramatic lighting given by artificial light, the flames of foundries and blast furnaces.
|1764-1766 AD. Joseph Wright: A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery|
His handling of artificial and intense lighting made him stand out from the other artists around him who tended to favour less ‘modern‘ subjects.
Joseph Wright on the contrary, was fascinated by the scenes around him in which the future was being built in front of his eyes.
The potteries were producing new manufacturing methods at Josiah Wedgewood’s workshop using the artist John Flaxman’s designs, new ideas for iron constructions were being developed, glass furnaces were turning out the recently invented flint and lead glass products for the homes of the middle classes. The ‘cottage’ industries were becoming manufactories. All of this Joseph Wright captured in paintings as the most important witness to the drama of the industrial revolution.
He also showed the various experiments being popularised by the scientists of the age.
At the other end of the creative spectrum, George Stubbs was painting sporting and racing pictures which show a simplicity which belies his delicate colouring and strong linear composition.
1774 George Stubbs. “Euston” the dappled grey racehorse.
David Garrick 1775 AD. Sir Joshua Reynolds.
With the greater interest in revealing the character of the subject, portraiture was transformed by two outstanding figures, Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua 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 promoted a fashionable neo-classicism based on art of the Italian High Renaissance. Other important portraitists were Thomas Lawrence, George Romney, and John Hoppner. Who were painters of portraits and ‘conversation pieces’. 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.
|1794 AD. William Blake: The ancient of days. Line, illumination, narrative, symbology. The quintessence of the English style|
|1795 AD. William Blake. Abel Egg Tempera on paper|
Once again we witness the importance of line, the narrative to the painting and its complex imagery. Here we have modernity yet a strong connection to the earliest illuminated manuscripts.
William Blake holds a special place of affection in the hearts of many as a poet and outspoken nationalist who believed in an England where the world of the spirit would oust the materialism offered by the image of the ‘dark Satanic mills’ and industrialisation. His poem ‘Jerusalem’ appeals to the spiritual side of the English nation and is often used as its national anthem.
Caricature a new English invention flourished in the second half of the century, its leading practitioners, sometimes earthy, erotic or 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.
|Thomas Rowlandson. Portsmouth Point – social commentary.|
Here Rowlandson’s relaxed pen work describes a lively scene of ships crews on shore leave entertaining themselves in one of the town’s more dubious areas.
At the very end of the century John Flaxman became the leading exponent of neoclassical sculpture.
|1808 AD. John Flaxman. Lord Nelson. St Paul’s Cathedral London.|
19th Century, Consolidation of Empire
The sacrifices made on land and sea by the fighting men of Wellington’s army and Nelson’s navy had ensured peace and security at the beginning of the century. There was great rejoicing in the nation as once again England had resisted and overcome a foreign invasion force. Paintings of the victors of Waterloo and Trafalgar were made and a state funeral of great magnificence was given to honour Lord Nelson. The statue above was completed ten years after its beginning, by which time Trafalgar Square was being built.
|1821 AD John Constable: The Haywain A Suffolk idyll.|
Possibly the most famous and iconic of all English landscape paintings.
|1822 AD. John Constable: Salisbury Cathedral.|
Two views of churches. Contrast the elevated scene above by John Constable with its feeling of soaring skies and space to Samuel Palmer’s (below) more intimate, shrouded parish church set deep in a Kentish valley.
|1830 AD. Samuel Plamer. Coming from evening church. Tempera on canvas.|
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 Cozens, Thomas Girtin, and David Cox.
19th Century: Light and colour, line and design.
From the middle part of the century whilst the impressionists began to explore painting ‘out of doors’ for the first time, English art reverted to type once again. Exploring the great literature of the Bible, Milton and Shakespeare the pre-Raphaelites were redefining their links to a pre- industrial and pre –camera era which heralded the nationalistic arts and crafts movement.
|1838 AD JMW Turner. The ‘Fighting Temeraire’ towed to her last berth.|
Contrasting views of nature-The ‘impressionism’ of Turner with his open stretches of sky and the intimacy of Holman Hunt.
|1851 AD. William Holman Hunt: Our English coasts|
William Holman Hunt’s contribution to English art is one of the highest merit showing a delight in light and colour as well as narrative content.
The Pre-Raphaelites believed in a return to the purity of style of Raphael. This 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 everyday subjects, using the bible and Shakespeare as favourite sources to display their style which was colourful and minutely detailed.
1851 Two vsions of Shakespeare’s Ophelia
|John William Waterhouse – Ophelia|
|John Everett Millais – Ophelia|
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.
|1894 AD. Aubrey Beardsley. The peacock skirt from the book ‘Salome’|
|1894 AD. A William Morris design.|
Arts and Crafts Movement.
With its inspiration drawn from nature and with a strong similarity to early English stylisation of form, the Arts and Crafts Movement produced freshly conceived, well designed articles in reaction to mechanised production. Domestic furniture, wall coverings, tapestries and book illustrations were made with the flavour of the country craftsmen behind them. Art workshops were set up by William Morris and between them the group transformed the artistic outlook of the nation.
The period in which the Pre-Raphaelite ‘brotherhood’ flourished was relatively short spanning the middle decades of the 19th century but their recognition continued to grow influencing the symbolist movement and inspiring Casper David Freidrich in Germany and Edvard Munck in Norway amongst others, whilst the Arts and Crafts Movement was joined in spirit by other artists across Europe in protest against mass production which they felt was destroying the livelihood of the artisan.
|1865 AD. John Ballantyne’s portrait of Edwin Landseer at work creating the Trafalgar Square lions which were later cast in bronze..|
|1886 AD. George Watts.: ‘Hope’- Symbolism’s pioneer.|
Alongside 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 who made his reputation with lavish recreations of ancient Greek and Roman life.
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 (an American working in England), Walter Sickert, and Augustus John.and James McNeil Whistler
The century ended in the full expectation that the Empire created by the 16th century English adventurers would “last a thousand years”, -after all was not Victoria queen of a vast territory on which the sun quite literally never set?
But all that was to change. The Empress of India died in 1901 and much of her extended family in Germany and Russia was no longer under the guidance of this departed ‘mother of Europe’.
Prussia had its own ambitions and Europe once again became a bed of intrigue and division. France and Germany were contesting divided territory…
20th Century Art
England would never again enjoy the peace it now knew. It’s long and valiant history and fighting spirit would be tested in this enormous effort to defeat it’s enemies. Generations of fine young artists and writers would perish with the flower of England’s manhood .Surviving artists before and after the conflagration responded through their art.
For the English people the twentieth century began with the funeral of the grandmother figure of Victoria who presided over the greatest empire the world has seen. The tragic wars with Germany depleted her people, and austerity following the second world war changing the face of the bombed out land forever along with the old certainties. In the devastated mediaeval towns a hasty, disjointed rebuilding programme went ahead transforming a landscape with a conservative native building tradition into one of townscapes with giant modern tower blocks.
The new society automated, industrial, dehumanised, alienated from its roots and socialist was written about by DH Lawrence in 1928 in his provocative book ‘Lady Chatterley’s lover’ in 1949 by George Orwell in his unnervingly prophetic ‘1984’, whilst Aldous Huxley wrote ‘A brave new world’ in the same vein. In 1932. What confronted artists and writers throughout the century was an ever escalating cycle of state authorised warfare in which the individual was forced to participate although at the same time it denied him his individuality and freedom.
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, a specifically English art movement with a harsh, mechanistic and de-personalised style appeared echoing the spirit of the time. This 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 ‘stick’ form.
|1934 AD. Eric Gill The burial of Christ.|
In a series of woodcuts harking back to the mediaeval illuminator Eric Gill’s linear designs connect us to our earliest art forms.
|1947 AD. LS Lowry A river bank. The harsh industrial landscape made into a poetic statement. Line, subtle light and muted colour convey emptiness.|
Using a finely detailed realism, Stanley Spencer sought to express a visionary apprehension of everyday life derived from his childhood days.
|1947 AD. Stanley Spencer. The Resurrection|
Artists were still coming to terms with the aftermath of the 2nd World war and it’s huge cost in human life. It was therefore quite natural for painters like Stanley Spencer to meditate on the resurrection.
|1941 AD. Paul Nash. Battle of Britain. A dogfight drama played out in the Blue skies over the English Channel forms a vivid abstract design.|
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 (see below)
After World War II English art became increasingly divided. 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)
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)
|1953 AD. Francis Bacon: Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X Nightmarish vision of the future, based on past images.|
|1979 AD. Henry Moore: Reclining Figure: Angles (Bronze)|
A massive brooding presence, semi abstract yet still recognisably human, Henry Moore is regarded as the most significant sculptor of the 20th century.
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).Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, John Bratby, Keith Vaughan (1912–1976), Carel (all in varying degrees associated with pop art) and Richard Hamilton, Peter Blake and David Hockney, England’s greatest living artist.
|1961 AD. Bridget Riley ‘Movement in squares’ Op Art|
Bridget Riley showed the artworld something quite new which affected the design of clothes, posters and even furniture in the heady atmosphere of the 1960’s when the phrase “England swings!“ was on everyone’s lips..
David Hockney returns us to the art of the icon. His paintings are absolutely modern and yet his use of colour translates the ordinary into something quite magical. He exhibits an ambiguity of purpose in his intimate portraits such as Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy. His characterisation of the sitters in front of him is immediate and shows real insight. And once again line makes the design.
|1970 – 71 AD. David Hockney Mr. and Mrs. Clark and Percy|
Link/cite this page
If you use any of the content on this page in your own work, please use the code below to cite this page as the source of the content.
Link will appear as Hanson, Marilee. "History of English Art" https://englishhistory.net/history-of-english-art/, February 17, 2022