Art of an Island Nation

What is British art? It is an exceedingly difficult question to answer; perhaps in part because any definition of what it is to be “British” is so complex. Should we consider only artwork by British-born artists? Then we exclude famous works like Hans Holbein’s lost portrait of Henry VIII. Should we consider only works depicting British scenes? Then we exclude many works by famed British artists such as J.M.W. Turner.

Early British Art

Perhaps the earliest work of British art that is widely known today is the Book of Kells. Illustrated by Irish monks, it is thought to have been begun on the Scottish island of Iona, then moved to Kells in Ireland, from whence it takes its name.

However, this seems to have been a spectacular but brief flowering of British artwork; whilst British artists made considerable contributions to both Romanesque and Gothic art, developments in painting from the 15th century and onwards were pioneered on the continent.

Thus it is that the Tudor courts largely imported continental painters like Holbein and Van Dyck, rather than employing home grown talent, setting a trend that would continue until the 18th century.

The 18th Century

It came to be recognised that there was a need to train artistic talent, and in the eighteenth century academies were established in order to achieve this, leading up to the establishment of the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768. Sir James Thornhill, the first native painter to be knighted, and his son-in-law the more prominent William Hogarth, came to the fore in the early eighteenth century, and the trend moved away from Baroque glorification to a more realistic style.

The latter eighteenth century, of course, is widely regarded as the classic age of British art; this is the era of Sir Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy, George Stubbs who is best known for his depictions of horses, and of course Thomas Gainsborough.

The 19th Century and Onwards

The end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century were characterised by the rise of the Romantic movement, which brought British artists like John Constable, William Blake and J.M.W. Turner to the fore; today, Constable and Turner are often regarded as the most influential British artists on the international scene. Turner’s influence in particular is important; where history painting was held in the highest regard, his work helped to elevate the regard in which both landscape and seascape paintings were held.

Another prominent English movement was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; artists including Dante Gabriel Rossetti and John Everett Millais looked for a return to abundant detail, intense colour and complex compositions of Quattrocentro Italian art.

British artists would go on to stand as part of many artistic movements. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was the main British proponent of the Art Nouveau movement; Walter Sickert became an important figure in the transition from Impressionism to Modernism. Post-war artists like L.S. Lowry, Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon used very different techniques and styles, yet all represent British points of view.

As we move into the contemporary era, increasing globalisation meant that artistic movements moved quicker than ever; British artists and thus British art became ever more diverse. As to our original question, the answer can only be; “What is British art to you?”

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