British Art - History and Concepts
Some of the earliest examples of British art come from sumptuous metalwork of the Anglo-Saxon period and the stone churches, abbeys and castles belonging to the early medieval period. Very rare, early decorative works, including the famous Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 690-750 AD) with their intricately patterned lacework, were also to be found in churches throughout Saxon England. While little remains of their original interiors, buildings such as Exeter Cathedral (the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter) still stand today as an examples of early Gothic architecture. The cathedral's Norman Towers were completed by 1133, while the west front image screen is considered one of the great architectural features of Medieval England. The cathedral also houses the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England as well as an early set of misericords and an astronomical clock.
According to art historian E. H. Gombrich it was not until the thirteenth century that artists (or rather artisans as they would have been then regarded) began to create pictures "copied and rearranged from old books," of the apostles and the Holy Virgin. Yet much of the decorative and religious art produced during the middle ages (c. 410-1485 AD) was destroyed during the century of iconoclasm that begun in 1536 when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries under the English Reformation. In setting up the Protestant Church (and thereby breaking away from the rule of Roman Catholicism) the monarch sanctioned the destruction of art housed in churches and cathedrals and many thousands of sculptures, paintings, carvings and stained glass windows were smashed and burned.
The English Renaissance
The period of the English Renaissance (c. 1520 to 1620) differed from the earlier Italian Renaissance in that playwrights and poets were awarded higher societal status than visual artists. In the visual arts, however, religious painting, which was widely demonized as a relic of the Catholic church, was overtaken by portraiture which took on a dominant role in promoting the Tudor dynasty (1485-1603). But it was in fact a German painter working in England who became one of the greatest artists of the English Renaissance. Hans Holbein the Younger, court painter to Henry VIII, was the artist who did most to bring the Tudor age to life which he did by idealizing the king; lengthening his squat legs and transforming his conspicuous folds of fat into muscle.
Elizabethan Portraiture and Beyond
The transition to Elizabethan rule (daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I was crowned in 1558) brought with it a period of great social upheaval though this was not reflected through its portraiture. Indeed, while portrait painting grew in popularity, artists who had previously found themselves employed by the church, brought with them the tranquil hieratic quality of religious painting. There are numerous portraits of the British ruling classes dating from this period though relatively little is known about the men (or women) who painted them. A small number of portraits have been attributed to George Gower, the first Englishman to be appointed Serjeant Painter of the Queen in 1581. Though infused with all the courtly and refined qualities of the best portraits, Gower's work, often singled out as representative of British portraiture as a whole, still lacked the penetrating depth of space that had come to distinguish the work of painters from the continent at the time.
Elizabethan architecture had tended to reflect a time when post-Reformation Britain sought glory and legacy. Stately homes, known as "prodigy houses," were built for the English ruling classes with decorative estates such as Burghley House, Hardwick Hall, Longleat and Wollaton Hall conceived of as architectural works of art. Personally responsible for introducing the architecture of the Roman Renaissance to Britain, Inigo Jones designed England's first neo-classical building: the Royal Palace at Banqueting House, in London's Whitehall (completed in 1622).
English Art Before and After the Civil War
Despite the success of artists such as Gower, William Dobson, Peter Lely, Nicholas Hilliard, Isaac Oliver and Robert Walker, Europeans were held in higher esteem than British artists and the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck arrived from Antwerp in 1632 to be employed by the court of Charles I. Influenced by the Baroque period and the High Renaissance, van Dyck's work, according to art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, brought a new "openness and freedom, a new opulence, a new brightness of color, a new sensuality and a new sense of drama to British painting." Indeed, Charles I was captivated by Renaissance and Baroque art, and he became a collector, buying works by Raphael and Titian and bringing them back to England. To showcase Stuart power, meanwhile, Charles I employed van Dyck's erstwhile tutor and mentor Peter Paul Rubens to create a vast painted ceiling within the Royal Palace (the three main canvases, depicting the peaceful reign of Charles, were installed in 1636). Historians have surmised that Rubens's ceiling would have been the last thing the King would have seen before his beheading at the Royal Palace in 1649.
The period between 1650-1730 saw considerable social and political upheaval. The monarchy was restored in England in 1660 as Charles II returned to the throne following the English civil war and the period of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth (1642-59). There was the plague, the Great Fire of London and the creation of the United Kingdom in 1707. Landscape painting, still lifes and "the conversation piece" became recognized genres of painting and the period saw the first female professional painter, Mary Beale. The era also saw a classical revival as architects looked to northern Europe for inspiration in buildings such as Hardwick Hall, Wollaton Hall, Hatfield House, and Burghley House.
The Seventeenth Century and Enlightenment
The second half of the seventeenth century saw advancements in science and (led to a large extent by Christopher Wren) artists and thinkers started to look to the natural world as the source of all knowledge. Wren himself produced drawings of magnified creatures, including a flea and a louse, while Peter Lely shocked the public with his sensual nudes. Following the Great Fire, Wren became the prime architect of London, and he started rebuilding St Paul's Cathedral with a cupola (placed atop the second largest dome in the world after that of St. Peters in Rome) a structure that had never before been seen in Britain before the cathedral was constructed (1675-11). Meanwhile, aristocratic houses of the eighteenth century tended to evoke ancient Greek and Roman architecture, as seen in Buckinghamshire's Blenheim Palace, inspired by Alexander Pope's writing and designed in part by Capability Brown.
Coinciding with the dawning of the age of "scientific reason" - better known perhaps as the age of "Enlightenment" - 1690s London became the biggest metropolis in the Western world, and travelers from all over the country came to live in the city whose changing fortunes were documented by portraitist and satirist William Hogarth. Hogarth has been credited with being the first to create a British School of Art. His "modern moral subjects" were groundbreaking, not just in their frank subject matter, but in the role of the artist himself. Indeed, Hogarth was the first artist to support himself financially (independently of wealthy patronage) and his role set a precedent for many of the artists that succeeded him. The philosophy of Enlightenment could also be seen in George Stubbs' anatomically exact paintings of horses.
Away from the capital meanwhile, the themes of the Enlightenment were explored explicitly by Joseph Wright of Derby who aligned his art, albeit rather theatrically, with the scientists, industrialists and inventors of the Industrial Revolution. Wright became known in fact for his industrial scenes and for his use of lighting for dramatic affect. (It was rumored that Wright had aspired to become a portrait artist but was deterred having seen Thomas Gainsborough's work.)
The Royal Academy
The idea of an Academy dates back to the fourth century BC when Plato established a school to teach philosophy. Raphael followed suit in 1509 with the School of Athens. Based on the teachings of ancient Greek philosophy, Raphael painted four stanzas representing different fields of knowledge but with a self-portrait on the right of the picture, as an assertion of Renaissance artists' claim to be deserving of a new and higher education. The most influential European academy was arguably the Académie Royale de Peintre et de Sculpture which was founded in Paris in 1648.
Soon after its establishment, the important connection between centralized academies and the state was presumed and their popularity spread throughout Europe during the 18th century. Academies were vital in fostering national schools of painting and sculpture and remained pinnacles of aspiration for most artists. In addition to practical skills, artists learned academic subjects such as history, since history painting - which borrowed subjects from literature, mythology and the Bible - was widely regarded as the most demanding genre, although academies also produced skilled portraitists and still life painters. A further, and most important, function of the academy was to provide artists with a regular exhibition venue. Since the authority of the academies lent considerable authority to these juried shows, they often became the most important event in the exhibition calendar. This in turn lent further weight to the academies as arbiters of popular taste.
In 1768 a group of 36 artists and architects - including four Italians, a Frenchman, a Swiss and two women - signed a petition which was presented to King George III seeking his permission to "establish a society for promoting the Arts of Design." Having received his approval, the Royal Academy of Arts - or the RA as it was to become known - emerged as an independent institution ran by artists with an elected President. It became, in effect, the first British school of art. The RA provided an exhibition space, public lectures, an Art School and a School of Design. The aim of the RA was to elevate artists to the stature enjoyed by poets, dramatists and philosophers. Housed initially in Pall Mall in central London, its founder and first president was Joshua Reynolds, the leading English portraitist of the 18th century and Royal Academicians have included Angelica Kauffman, Mary Moser, Thomas Gainsborough, and John Everett Millais.
Like other academies, the RA placed history painting as the highest of the genres and required that the RA member show all his (or her) talents; not only the skill of eye and hand co-ordination, but also his (or her) mastery of the often complex and philosophical subject matter. The style considered appropriate for history painting was classical and idealized; what was commonly referred to as the Grand Manner was considered the epitome of High Art. The RA's second president was the American ex-patriot Benjamin West, and the King's personal "History Painter." An accomplished painter in his own right, he also possessed an "eye for talent" and is said to have consoled a young John Constable after one of his landscapes had been rejected by the Academy: "Don't be disheartened young man," he said, "we shall hear more of you again [for] you must have loved nature before you could have painted this."
With the dawning of Romanticism, many artists began to question the centralized authority of the Academy. Indeed, by the late-18th century, many artists were rejecting authority entirely. Modernists formed an opposition to "academic" art which was dismissed by them as old-fashioned and moribund. In this respect, one could argue that Romanticism carried the earliest seeds of 19th and 20th century Modern Art.
The Welshman Richard Wilson is considered a pioneer amongst Romantic landscapists. A close acquaintance of the French painter Joseph Vernet, Wilson was influenced by the landscapes of Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet and he interpreted the English and Welsh (and Italian) landscapes in a style that in fact earned him the nickname "The English Claude" (sic). Wilson exhibited at the Society of Artists from 1760 and was in fact a founder member of the Royal Academy (though he sadly died in poverty in 1782).
In a reaction against the dispassionate objectivity of science, and the restrictive rules of the RA, Romanticism flourished. By the end of the 18th century artists began to turn inward - calling on the senses and emotions - for their inspiration. William Blake was one of the leading Romantic "insurgents" and his highly impassioned explorations in art and poetry paved the way for a new generation of artists amongst whom were John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, arguably the two greatest painters in British history. Turner took classical scenes and infused them with a new dynamic in painting in a way that had a profound influence on Claude Monet, the father of Impressionism, while Constable's ability to capture nature in vibrant color and fluid brush strokes had a deep impact on Eugène Delacroix and future generations of European and American landscapists, namely the French Barbizon School and the American Hudson River School.
The rise in British Romanticism was to coincide with the new Regency Period in British sovereign history. Though there is some disagreement on when it started and finished - the introduction to the Regency galleries in the National Portrait Gallery however describes "a distinctive period in Britain's social and cultural life [spanning] the four decades from the start of the French Revolution in 1789 to the passing of Britain's great Reform Act in 1832" - the Regency "spirit" was personified by the figure of George, Prince of Wales. In 1811 Prince George (the future King George IV) began his nine-year tenure as Prince Regent, replacing his father who was stricken with mental illness and deemed unfit to reign. The Prince - referred to by some as "the first gentleman of England" but ridiculed by others - brought with him a flamboyant feel for decadence and self-abandon. This image did not sit well with large portions of the public and political classes who thought Prince George had defiled the role of the monarchy, and duly treated him as a figure of derision. However, his vigorous spirit and general joie de vie was reflected in fine art, in literature, in architecture and in fashion.
The Romantic spirit was well-established by the time of the Regency and it continued to infuse the visual arts in the paintings but also in literature with poets of the stature of Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and Shelley and novelists Walter Scott and Jane Austen. In the field of architecture, meanwhile, John Nash, known for his highly picturesque style and his ability to combine past and present styles, became a personal friend of the Prince Regent who accordingly appointed him architect to the Surveyor General of Woods, Forests, Parks and Chases. In addition to re-modelling Buckingham Palace, The Royal Pavilion at Brighton and the Royal Mews, Nash was commissioned to develop large areas of central London and is associated with the Gothic Revival, an architectural style that drew its inspiration from medieval architecture. The Gothic Revival, associated also with the likes of James Wyatt (Fonthill Abbey), and Charles Barry and A. W. N. Pugin (Palace of Westminster), favored picturesque and romantic qualities over practical structural and functional factors.
Formed in 1824, and lasting roughly a decade, Samuel Palmer was, with Edward Calvert and George Richmond, a founder member of The Ancients. Thought by some to be the first British manifestation of an artistic "brotherhood;" they pre-dated, though lacked the impact of, the Pre-Raphelites. The Ancients were deeply influenced by William Blake with whom Palmer became personally acquainted (albeit that the men were separated in age by two generations). Like Blake, the group railed against "stuffy" academic painting, but also the incessant march of industrialization. Unlike, say, Hogarth, or the novelist Charles Dickens, however, The Ancients looked back towards a "better" (ancient) age through its faith in gnosis and its mythical pastoral visions.
It is worthy of note that in the march of a progressive British art, individuals like Alfred Stevens, a sculptor, draughtsman and designer who only "knew but one art" and who was roundly dismissed as being a mere imitator of the past, remained steadfast in his reverence for Classical Art. While acknowledging his preoccupation with the masters of the past, in his history of the Tate Gallery, Rothenstein reserved this glowing praise for Stevens: "Looking at King Alfred and his Mother (1848), so bold in the sweep of its composition, so masterly in drawing, so masterly, too, in the variety and richness of effect obtained from the manipulation of a narrow range of tones and a few subdued colors, and so elevated in feeling, it is difficult to believe that this was not the work of a master wholly dedicated to painting". One can add the name of George Frederic Watts, an artist known for his monumental religious and ethical works, to the field of important English decorative painter who failed to find critical favor. Both men have, however, come under the scrutiny of historical revisionists who acknowledge their significant contributions to the canon of nineteenth century British art.
The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement
Founded in 1848, by John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood offered a more forceful challenge than the Ancients to the "official" art in British history. Opposed to the dominance of the British Royal Academy and its narrow preference for Victorian subjects and styles, which owed a debt to the early Italian Renaissance and Classical Art, the Pre-Raphaelites looked back to an earlier (before Raphael) period. The group believed painters before the Renaissance provided a better template for depicting nature and the human body realistically and that medieval craftspeople/artists offered an alternative vision to the austere and idealistic mid-19th-century academic approaches.
Above all, Pre-Raphaelitism championed the detailed study of nature and a true fidelity to its appearance, even if this risked showing ugliness. The Brotherhood also promoted a preference for natural forms as the basis for patterns and decoration that offered an antidote to the industrial designs of the machine age. As part of their reaction to the negative impact of industrialization, Pre-Raphaelites turned to the medieval period as an ideal for the synthesis of art and life in the applied arts. Their revival of medieval styles, stories, and methods of production had a profound influence on the development of the Arts and Crafts Movement which revived handicrafts in design. Their ethos was driven by the writer and critic John Ruskin and the textile designer, poet and novelist William Morris who designed elaborate decorative wallpapers that proved especially popular with the educated middle-classes. Ruskin and Morris deplored mass-production and were joined by noted craftsmen C. R. Ashbee, Walter Crane, and A. H. Mackmurdo, whose collective works proved precursors to Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements.
Women Artists Emerge
Emily Mary Osborn was the most important artist associated with the campaign for women's rights in the arts and arts education during the Victorian era. She trained as an artist at Dickinson's academy in Maddox Street and became an established figurative genre painter of "unpretending characters" during the 1850s. She was associated with Barbara Bodichon's Langham Place circle and the Society of Female Artists both of which campaigned vigorously for women's rights. In 1859 Osborn was one of the signatories of the women's petition to the Royal Academy of Arts to open its doors to female students and to the Declaration in Favour of Woman's Suffrage in 1889. As Alison Smith of Tate Britain recorded, Osborn enjoyed the support of important female patrons including Queen Victoria.
Known for her pioneering photographic portraits, Julia Margaret Cameron's images were considered (by non-conformists at least) to be highly innovative. Her portraits were often intentionally out-of-focus; surfaces often left scarred with scratches and other blemishes - a style now classified as Pictorialism. She was simultaneously criticised and revered for her unconventional compositions and her insistence that photography, still in its infancy in the mid-to-late 19th century, was already a legitimate art form. The daughter of Indian and French aristocracy, Julia Margaret Pattle married Charles Hay Cameron, a reformer of Indian law and education, in 1838. She became a prominent colonial hostess before the family relocated to southern England a decade later. Cameron, by now aged 48, took up photography as a career and within two years she had sold and gifted her photographs to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum), which, from 1868, granted her the use of two rooms as a portrait studio, effectively making her the museum's first ever artist-in-residence.
The British Museum
Offering free admission to all "studious and curious persons," The British Museum, housed in a seventeenth mansion called Montagu House at Bloomsbury, was the first public museum in the world. Opened in 1759, the museum's origins owe a debt to the physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane. Having collected some 70,000 artefacts in his lifetime, on his death he bequeathed his collection to King George II and the state with the proviso that £20,000 would be paid to his surviving family. Parliament accepted his proposal and the British Museum was duly established. The original collection consisted of books, manuscripts, specimens from the natural world and an assortment of coins, medals, prints and drawings.
Moving into the mid-nineteenth century, the museum expanded with Sir Robert Smirke's new quadrangular building and the round reading room housing high profile acquisitions including the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon Sculptures, and the King's Library. To make room for its expanding collection, the museum's natural history collection was moved to a new site in South Kensington (what was to become the Natural History Museum). A key figure during the mid-century expansion was Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks who expanded the collection further to include medieval antiquities, prehistoric, ethnographic and archaeological artefacts.
In Smirke's original design, the museum's courtyard was envisioned as a garden it became the museum's Reading Room and its library department. In 1997 the library department was relocated to the new British Library in St. Pancras and an architectural competition was launched to re-design the courtyard as an open public space. The competition was won by Britain's greatest living architect, Norman Foster. The design of the Great Court was loosely based on Foster's own concept for the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin whereby every step in the Great Court revealed a new view on the visitors' surroundings.
The National Galleries
Complementing the British Museum, the nineteenth century saw the establishment of three of Britain's most important national art institutions, The National Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery and The National Gallery of British Art, all of which were based in London.
In April 1824 the House of Commons agreed to buy John Julius Angerstein's picture collection at a cost to the State of £57,000. This acquisition, which comprised of just 38 pictures, was to form the core of a new national collection that would be put on public display for the purposes of "enjoyment and education of all." The collection remained in Angerstein's house (in Pall Mall) but this setting was manifestly inadequate when compared to other national art galleries - notably the Louvre in Paris - and was derided in the press. In 1831 Parliament agreed to the construction of a purpose-built gallery with Trafalgar Square eventually chosen for its prime location.
Meanwhile, the idea of a dedicated British Historical Portrait Gallery (as it was first named) was introduced to the House of Commons in 1846 by Fourth Earl Phillip Henry Stanhope. It would be another decade before the House came around to the idea, however, with Stanhope first gaining the support of the House of Lords and Queen Victoria. The National Portrait Gallery was formally established in December of the same year with the so-called "Chandos portrait" (named after its previous owner) of Shakespeare being the first portrait to grace the Gallery. Lastly, with the National Gallery now firmly established, there was a growing feeling amongst the art establishment that the it deserved a "sister" gallery dedicated to British art. Run (until 1955) under the directorship of the National Gallery, the National Gallery of British Art (renamed Tate Gallery in 1932), designed by Sidney R. J. Smith, and built on the site of a former prison on Millbank on the banks of the River Thames, opened to the public in 1897.
Though both Americans, John Singer Sargent and James Whistler can be credited with inspiring a British Impressionist movement. Whistler, who arrived in London 1863, tutored the artists Walter Richard Sickert and Wilson Steer and between them they founded the New English Art Club (NEAC) in 1886. Three years later, Sickert (who would become a founder member of the post-impressionist Camden Town Group) and Wilson organized an exhibition of London Impressionists with other members of the NEAC. In 1885, meanwhile, Singer Sargent arrived from Paris where he had met the great Claude Monet. Over the next few years, Singer Sargent made a major contribution to Impressionism in Britain with paintings such as Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6), arguably his most famous painting.
Fin de Siècle, Art Nouveau and Art Deco
Fin de Siècle, a French term used to describe Symbolism, Decadent movement and related styles, most notably Art Nouveau, reached its peak of popularity in the 1890s. The term expressed a sense of apocalyptic dread as the century drew to a close (though at that time commenters had not predicted WW1). Minded artists expressed a sense of the end of a phase of civilization, and Oscar Wilde's writing led the charge for a new fashionable sense of pessimism. Aubrey Beardsley's artistic career was short but ground-breaking and his easily-reproduced block print work led the Art Nouveau movement. The architecture and design of Charles Rennie Mackintosh meanwhile brought Art Nouveau into people's homes and he has become known as a father of British Modernist architecture. Art Nouveau would later give rise to Art Deco which was incorporated into the design of the iconic London Underground system.
The Bloomsbury Group
The Bloomsbury Group was a group (rather than a movement) of English writers, philosophers and artists who would meet in the Bloomsbury district of London, close to the site of the British Museum. Writers and artists would meet for drinks and conversation at the home of artist Vanessa Bell and her writer sister Virginia Stephen (the famous Virginia Woolf). The core group, which formed in 1905, was made up of artists Duncan Grant, John Nash, Henry Lamb, Edward Wadsworth, art critic Roger Fry, literary critic Lowes Dickinson and philosophers Henry Sidgwick, J.M.E. McTaggart, A.N. Whitehead and G.E. Moore, and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Group discussions tended to focus on issues of aesthetics and philosophical questions and were deeply influenced by Moore's treatise on twentieth-century ethics, Principia Ethica (1903) and by Whitehead's and Bertrand Russell's three-volume tome on symbolic logic, Principia Mathematica (1910-13). The Bloomsbury Group would survive for a further thirty years and future attendees would include such luminaries as Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley and T.S. Eliot.
The Camden Town Group
Formed out of the anti-establishment Allied Artists Association, The Camden Town Group was named after the cosmopolitan and vibrant area of north London where its members resided. Notwithstanding the fact that they produced some notable Post-Impressionist landscapes (such as Spencer Gore's The Cinder Path (1912)), the Group, made up of artists including Gore, Harold Gilman and Walter Sickert, aimed to reflect the realities of modern urban life and would meet regularly at Sickert's Camden studio. Following an exhibition of English and French Post-Impressionism at the Royal Albert Hall in 1911, the Camden fraternity sponsored three successful exhibitions at the Carfax Gallery between 1911-12 (they disbanded in 1914).
The Group's own works explored issues including social class, sexuality, modernity and the urban environment while the exhibition also introduced early Fauve and Cubist paintings to the British public. As art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon noted, the Group "for all its drabness, does get to the heart of a distinctively British twentieth century aesthetic. The mood of the unswept street, the spirit of the abandoned car park at night, the milieu of the overflowing urinal or the uncomfortable, unmodernized football stadium through which a cold wind blows - the British have taken a grim, stoical, self-flagellatory pride in such things." Though there was no direct association between them, one of Britain's most popular 20th century painters, L. S. Lowry, produced his famous "matchstick" Northern industrial landscapes with the same post-impressionistic spirit as the Camden Group.
The Vorticists - named by the English painter, satirist, critic and philosopher Wyndham Lewis, and the American poet Ezra Pound - became Britain's first radical avant-gardist group. Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein celebrated the energy and dynamism of the modern machine age and in so doing declared an assault on staid British traditions. Given their reverence for the "machine age" the Vorticists were often likened to the Italian Futurists. But the life of the movement was cut short with the onset of World War I.
The movement is perhaps best remembered, however, for its journal-cum-manifesto BLAST, edited by Wyndham Lewis. With its bright pink cover, and the title BLAST written in bold, black letters against a bright pink background, the first section of the journal presented a sequence of twenty-plus pages in the form of a manifesto. Each page featured a dramatic piece of graphic design, in which the contributors would "Blast" (hate) or "Bless" (love) different things; often at once: "Blast France, Blast England, Blast Humour, Blast the years 1837 to 1900" and then "Bless England, Bless England for its ships which switchback on blue, green and red seas." BLAST also published Lewis's play, Enemy and the Stars, which was largely unintelligible and positively unperformable.
The emergence of fascism across Europe during the 1930s turned the contemporary art world on its head. As Tate curator Chris Stephens noted, debates arose "not only between the avant-garde and the academy, but also between modern artists, about the appropriate response to the rise of fascism. Abstract artists, Surrealists and Social Realists all interpreted that political imperative in different ways." British Surrealism emerged within this period of uncertainty, limited mostly to two groups; one in London; the other in Birmingham. The English poet David Gascoyne had been drawn to Paris in the early 1930s having been inspired by the French Surrealists, and following a chance meeting with English artist and historian Roland Penrose and poet Paul Éluard, he set out to create tangible links between British and French Surrealists. In fact, Gascoyne wrote the "First English Surrealist Manifesto" in 1935 in Paris (and in French), and it was first published in the French review Cahiers d'art.
The International Surrealist Exhibition took place in the June 1936 at the New Burlington Galleries in London. It was attended by speakers including Éluard, André Breton, Salvador Dalí, and English poet and critic Herbert Read. Members of the Birmingham group - including Conroy Maddox, John Melville, Emmy Bridgwater, Oscar Mellor, and Desmond Morris (better known as an anthropologist) - refused to exhibit, however, claiming that the London group - including the likes of Paul Nash, Eileen Agar, Ithell Colquhoun, E. L. T. Esens, Herbert Read, John Tunnard - lived "anti-Surrealist lifestyles." Some of the Birmingham group did attend, however, hoping to make the acquaintance of their hero, Breton. Though not a formal member, sculptor Henry Moore became an associate of the British Surrealist group, showing seven pieces at the International Surrealist exhibition of 1936. It is an interesting detail too, that, though never formally affiliated with the group, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas also attended, performing in his own "Surrealist happening" which involved offering attendees cups of boiled string! The London group dissolved in 1951 though the Birmingham group continued into the 1950s on a rather informal basis.
The Euston Road School
Founded by William Coldstream, Victor Pasmore and Claude Rogers in 1937, and existing as a group for roughly two years (when its members joined the war effort), the so-called Euston Road School are worthy of mention in the context of early-to-mid-twentieth century British modernism. The School was opposed to the rise of avant-gardism; their goal, born of a clear leftist political position that promoted naturalism and socially relevant art, being to treat traditional subject matter (such as portraiture, nudes, landscapes) in a realist style while stopping some way short of the dogma of Social Realism.
St Ives School
Cornwall, in the South West of England, was (or is) renowned for the unique quality of its natural light. As such it has been a place of pilgrimage for many painters; especially so since the Great Western railway line opened in 1877, putting the county within easy reach. In 1928 Ben Nicholson and Christopher "Kit" Wood visited St Ives where they made the acquaintance of Alfred Wallis. Wallis's painting was to have a profound impact on the future direction of Nicholson's work and later, in 1939, he and his wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, relocated to St Ives where they were joined by the Russian Constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo.
After the war, and with Hepworth and Nicholson as its avant-gardist mascots (Gabo had moved on by 1946), St Ives became the centre for modern and abstract developments in British art and many younger abstract artists were drawn to the area giving rise to the name St Ives School, though in point of fact they were never a formal group in the strict sense. However, the "group" were generally inspired by the West Cornwall landscape, using its shapes, forms and colors to inform their work. The St Ives School had run its course by the 1960s but in 1976 the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculptural Gardens opened in her previous studio, while in 1993, Tate St Ives (which had already taken over the running of the Hepworth museum in 1980) helped preserve and promote the county's proud modern heritage.
Chaired by Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery under the administration of the Government Ministry of Information, the British War Advisory Scheme was set up in 1939. At their monthly meetings, the committee would select artists whose primary goal was to create imagery for propaganda purposes but on the proviso that their work would do more than merely illustrate posters and pamphlets. By the end of the war the official war collection was comprised of more than 5000 works. War art was produced by the likes of brothers John and Paul Nash who depicted soul-less images of trench warfare, war-torn landscapes and the horror of conflict, Henry Tonks, mean-while, produced harrowing portraits of injured soldiers. On the home front, Evelyn Dunbar was the only woman to be salaried as an official war artist and she produced paintings and sketches of the manual work undertaken by the Women's Land Army who, amongst other duties, took on agricultural roles vacated by conscripted soldiers.
Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson and Vogue
In March 1951, Vogue carried a three-page spread entitled American Fashion: The New Soft Look. Cecil Beaton had taken the photographs for designers Irene and Henri Bendel using Jackson Pollock's Action Paintings as a decorative backdrop for the Bendels' haute couture. The images represent a tension between the muscular and intense character of Pollock's art, and the soft, feminine nature of the fashion models. The élan for which Beaton had become well known asked one to question in fact the qualitative difference between the high art and commercial fashion.
Like Beaton, Norman Parkinson worked through several decades in the fashion industry. Before he joined British Vogue in the early 1940s - an association that would last nearly four decades - the magazine, then in the infancy of color photography, had relied on photographs borrowed from its American sister publication. Out of sheer necessity, this situation would continue during the war years but Parkinson's English pastoralism gave British Vogue a very distinctive identity and his first Vogue photographs were taken in the English countryside in 1941. As his career developed, many of Parkinson's shoots were set abroad, often in Africa or the Caribbean. This lent his work an exotic, jet-set appeal that proved very popular in Britain during the austere years of the 1950s.
British Pop Art
One usually associates Pop Art with a group of American artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, working in New York during the 1960s. Yet Pop Art emerged first in Britain during the 1950s. Led by Richard Hamilton, British Pop Art was inspired, in the midst of post-war recession and rationing, by the glittering promise of the abundance of consumer culture - anything from kitchen accessories, televisions, comic books to beauty products - taking hold across the Atlantic. Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and Peter Blake rejected existing norms and subject matter by turning to the marketing language of post-War Americana, producing new and irreverent images using collage and screen printing.
There was a pronounced ironic element to Pop Art as artists looked on the US as the land of excess. Many critics have cited British Pop Art, and especially Hamilton's iconic collage as the birth of post-modernism that, through its celebration of kitsch, ephemera and disposable objects, rejected the high modernism of Abstract Expressionism and the virtues of abstraction - and its detestation of everything kitsch - as espoused by Clement Greenberg. Indeed, Hamilton described Pop Art thus: "Popular. Transient. Expendable. Low cost. Mass produced. Young. Witty. Gimmicky. Glamorous, Big business."
As British Pop Art moved into the sixties it became inextricably linked with pop music and the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Indeed, Blake's cover for Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is arguably the most famous album cover of all time. Featuring a collage of 88 celebrities and figures from history, Blake and his wife Jann Haworth constructed a set around life-size cut-outs which was then photographed with the band at the center of the frame.
The Swinging Sixties and the “Black Trinity”
In the 1960s fashion became youth orientated as "hip" Sixties style exploited new materials and bold colors that emphasized the age of sexual liberation. In London, three working class photographers, David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy - dubbed the "Black Trinity" by Norman Parkinson - helped to define the "Swinging London" look. The three men became the first fashion and celebrity portrait photographers. In particular, the "Swinging London" look took on international significance when Bailey's photographic feature "New York: Young Idea goes West," starring the then unknown model Jean Shrimpton, appeared in Vogue in 1962. Thanks to Bailey's photography, Shrimpton became the first "supermodel," followed soon thereafter by Twiggy, Veruschka, and Penelope Tree.
In 1964 Bailey released a box of 36 prints, "Box of Pin-Ups", including portraits of Mick Jagger, The Beatles, Andy Warhol, Jean Shrimpton, Terence Stamp and Rudolf Nureyev. His sitters were not always models, pop stars, actors and artists, however, and his personal acquaintance with the feared London gangsters, the Kray twins, revealed his fondness for the double portrait (including one of John Lennon and Paul McCartney). When questioned about the morality of eulogizing murderers, Baily said "I did everyone a favour by making them famous [but] if you are a real gangster nobody knows who you are, so their big mistake was posing for me." In a forward to a recent anthology of his work, Damien Hirst said of Baily's portraits that they "make you feel like there is nothing between you and the picture, nothing between you and the person."
Running parallel to '60s Pop Art was Op Art (an abbreviation of "optical art"). Op Artists were invested in the idea of pure geometric forms that could give the impression of movement and/or color. The effects of the artworks ranged from the subtle to the disorientating. Op Artists drew on color theory and the physiology and psychology of perception. As part of a bigger international community, including Venezuelan Jesus Rafael Soto, and French/Hungarian Victor Vasarely, British artist Bridget Riley was at the forefront of Op Art, often working with black and white, undulating lines and repetitive forms to create the illusion of color or movement.
Though Op Art was greeted with a degree of scepticism by art critics, the movement had a considerable impact on '60s fashion. The monochrome geometric prints perfectly complemented the bold shapes of the mod look while Op Art patterns started to appear on everything from clothes to advertisements, stationery and soft furnishings.
The birth of British Conceptual Art is associated firstly with the Art & Language group, founded at Coventry College of Art by Michael Baldwin, David Bainbridge, Terry Atkinson and Harold Hurrell in 1967. The group questioned the hierarchies of modern art practices and criticism which they debated in their journal Art-Language, the first issue dated May 1969. The group also made original works, their "concept" driven by the belief that art should be as much - or more - about the words and ideas as/than aesthetics. British Conceptualism came fully to the fore, meanwhile, following two exhibitions: "When Attitudes Become Form" at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1969 and "Seven Exhibitions" at the Tate Gallery in 1972. Emerging out of this context, Gilbert and George became the best-known British Performance Artists. Using film, photography, painting, performance and living-portraiture, at core, their art questioned intellectual elitism in art.
By the mid-to-late 1970s Conceptualism became more politicized and attracted the interest of artists such as Margaret Harrison whose ironic collages, such as 1977's Houseworkers, featured glossy magazines, sewing materials, and rubber gloves. Her art was borne of the political conviction that the "personal" had become the "political," a view that was mirrored in the work of Conrad Atkinson, whose Northern Ireland 1968-May Day 1975 featured a collage of photographs and slogans from warring Loyalist, Republican, and British army factions.
The School of London
Just as, say, the Euston Road School positioned themselves in opposition to the avant-garde, so too did the School of London sit in defiance of the rise of Conceptualism. In 1976, the American R. B. Kitaj curated the "Human Clay" exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery in which he revived interest in figurative art. The exhibition was noteworthy not least for a catalogue that featured an influential essay by Kitaj in which he coined the term School of London. That definition referred to a cadre of London-based artists - amongst them Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff, and Kitaj himself - who, counter to the fashion for Conceptualism and abstraction, helped reinvigorate the critical fortunes of figurate art.
New British Sculpture
The term New British Sculpture refers to the work of a group of British artists of the 1980s who, not unlike the School of London, reacted against the fashion for Conceptualism and Minimalism. They adopted a more traditional approach to sculpture using established materials and techniques (such as carving in stone or marble) and more poetic or evocative subject matter. The principal artists associated with New British Sculpture were Stephen Cox, Tony Cragg, Barry Flanagan, Antony Gormley, Richard Deacon, Shirazeh Houshiary, Anish Kapoor, Alison Wilding and Bill Woodrow.
Two areas of public exhibition warrant special mention in the context of New British Sculpture: the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in London, and a hill in Northern England near Gateshead. Since 1999, the plinth has been used as a means of democratizing and modernizing the historical landmark that features military statutes of King George IV, General Sir Charles James Napier, and Major General Sir Henry Havelock. Many artists, including Marc Quinn, David Shrigley, and Yinka Shonibare have all been invited to display their sculptures for an 18-month period. Some 300-miles north of the capital, meanwhile, Antony Gormley's Angel of the North, a copper, concrete and steel sculpture, 20 meters tall and 54 meters across, and weighing in excess of 200 tons stands, sits proudly as tribute to the Northern England's industrial heritage.
The Young British Artists (YBAs)
Also emerging during the late-80s, a group of students from London's Goldsmith's College of Art began to exhibit together. Individuals including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst and Michael Landy formed the foundations of a loose movement that would soon become known as The Young British Artists (YBAs). The artists involved had been encouraged (Michael Craig-Martin being one of their most charismatic tutors) to think in new ways about creativity and to abolish the traditional separation of media into discreet domains of painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and so on. Indeed, one of the defining features of the YBAs was that there was no unified approach to their work, though their art attracted controversy.
Sensation proved to be the most controversial exhibitions in modern British history (it caused similar controversy when it travelled to Berlin and New York) but what it brought to light was the YBAs entrepreneurial awareness that saw the like of Hirst and Emin become active participants - celebrities even - in promoting and publicising their own art.
British Art in the 21st century
Arguably the most famous of contemporary British painters is the satirical urban artist who goes by the pseudonym Banksy. Banksy started as a graffiti artist in Bristol in the early 1990s and his stencil art, combined with social and political commentary, has brought him worldwide recognition. With a talent for self-publicity to match even the YBAs; his Street Art appears, typically unannounced, across the public sphere on the sides of buildings and other manmade structures. In 2015 Banksy moved into the domain of Installation Art with Dismaland, a "theme park like no other" (though clearly modelled on Disneyland) based at a British coastal resort. Dismaland was bleak and inhospitable and drew much of its inspiration from the work of painter Jeff Gillette who produced ironic Disney images to critique the failings of the western world.
In 2017 Artnet published a list of the 10 most relevant living British artists according to their worldwide commercial value. Making the list were Damien Hirst (1st), Jenny Saville (3rd), Antony Gormley (6th), Chris Ofili (8th) and Tracey Emin (9th). Going by this measure, the contemporary British art scene has come to be defined, not so much by the likes of rising stars like Perry and Banksy, but rather by those individuals attached to the meteoric rise of the YBAs and New British Sculpture in the 1990s.
The contemporary art field is over-crowded so it is remains difficult to form consensus on outstanding individual talent. A reliable gauge of the contemporary art scene in the United Kingdom, and possibly across the international contemporary art scene, however, is the Turner Prize, named after Britain's most esteemed modern painter, and one of the most prestigious awards in visual arts today. The competition is open to British artists - that is, artists either born and/or working primarily in Britain - under the age of 50 and has been awarded to the likes of Gilbert and George (1986) Rachel Whiteread (1993) and Anish Kapoor (1991).