Britain, Art in

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BRITAIN, ART IN. In the period between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the visual arts in Britain underwent a significant change in status, closely connected to Britain's rising mercantile power and prosperity. Although the focus of patronage shifted from the court of the Tudor and Stuart dynasties to the bourgeois market of the eighteenth century, painters in Britain continued to find their main source of income in the field of portraiture. With the first public exhibitions of art in 1760 at the Society of Artists and the founding of the Royal Academy in 1768, artists in Britain achieved the professional organization necessary to foster the training of native-born talent.

Throughout this period, Britain was host to numerous foreign-born painters and craftsmen, many of whom had immigrated there to escape the religious and political turmoil of the Continent and to take advantage of the increasing wealth of Britons. The German Hans Holbein the Younger (1497?1543) is the artist most closely associated with the reign of Henry VIII (15091547). After an initial visit from 1526 to 1528, during which he painted the portraits of Sir Thomas More (Frick Collection, New York) and his family, Holbein returned to London in 1532. Henry's break with the Catholic Church in Rome in 1533 necessitated the creation of a new royal imagery, and Holbein's life-size portrayal of the king in 1536 emphasized his role as head of both church and state.

Another consequence of the founding of the Church of England was the necessary move away from religious imagery in sculpture. Inventories show that before the break with Rome, households owned more sculptural objects than paintings; however, these were mostly religious in function. From the 1530s onward, the staple of sculptural production was funerary monuments, which were protected by a 1560 proclamation of Elizabeth I.

With the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558, following the five-year reign of her Catholic half-sister Mary I, royal portraiture took on a new function: to bolster visually her decision to remain unmarried. Portraits of Elizabeth, dating from the 1570s, employ symbols tying her virtue to her country. For example, in William Seger's portrait (c. 1597; Hatfield House, Hertfordshire) she appears with an ermine, a symbol of chastity, and in the famous "Ditchley" portrait (c. 1592; National Portrait Gallery, London), Elizabeth stands on a map of England.

Although the Ditchley portrait is full-length and life-size, the most significant contribution to the visual arts in Britain at this time was the miniature painting of Nicholas Hilliard (15471619). Called limning, miniature painting was related to manuscript illumination and often painted on vellum. The practice had been brought to England by the Flemish artist Lucas Hornebolte (c. 1490/951544), who had taught the method to Holbein. Hilliard praised Holbein and advanced his theories in a treatise entitled A Treatise Concerning the Art of Limning, advocating that miniature painting be limited to gentlemen and that the technique be kept secret. With images such as Young Man among Roses, probably Robert Devereux, second earl of Essex (c. 1587; Victoria and Albert Museum, London), Hilliard painted the visual equivalent of Elizabethan sonnets. Hilliard trained his son, Laurence, as well as his most successful follower, Isaac Oliver.

The succession in 1603 of James I, and with him the Stuart dynasty, saw a move away from the emblematic emphasis of Elizabethan royal portraiture. However, foreign artists such as Paul van Somer of Flanders continued to dominate. Among the artists who came to England from the Netherlands was Daniel Mytens the Elder (c. 15901647), who was granted an annual life pension of £50 by James I and appointed by Charles I to the position of "picture-drawer."

The sculpture-lined hallways in Mytens's portraits of Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, and his wife (c. 1616; Arundel Castle) point to an important aspect of the arts during the reign of James I: the establishment of significant collections by courtiers such as Howard and George Villiers, the first and second dukes of Buckingham. Charles I's decision to accumulate a great collection of Old Masters was formed on his 1623 trip to the court of Philip IV of Spain, where he was impressed by the prestige with which the great works of Titian (born Tiziano Vecelli), Veronese (born Guarino da Verona), and other Italian masters endowed the Spanish monarch. Charles's most significant purchase was part of the collection of the Gonzaga family of Mantua, whereby he acquired some of the master works of Andrea Mantegna, Titian, Caravaggio (born Michelangelo Merisi), and Raphael (born Raffaello Sanzio), among others.

A second aspect of Charles's accumulation of art was his patronage of contemporary artists. On Peter Paul Rubens's diplomatic trip to England between June 1629 and March 1630, Charles commissioned the Flemish painter to decorate the ceiling of Inigo Jones's Italianate Banqueting Hall, Whitehall. The resulting Apotheosis of James I (16301634), a visual depiction of the Stuarts' allegiance to the notion of the divine right of kings, is considered the one full-fledged example of baroque painted decoration in England.

Rubens's star pupil, Anthony Van Dyck (15991641), made a brief trip to London in the winter of 16201621, probably on the recommendation of Arundel, who introduced him to James I. Van Dyck returned there permanently in 1632 and through his portraits gave Charles I and his court an image of natural authority. Charles anticipated the visual impact Van Dyck would have on the image of his reign; upon Van Dyck's return, the king knighted him, appointing him "principalle paynter in ordinary to their Majesties."

In such full-length works as Charles I on Horseback (c. 1637; National Gallery, London) and William Feilding, 1st Earl of Denbigh (16331634; National Gallery, London), Van Dyck takes his subjects out of the confines of the rigid costume pieces that conveyed static permanence and into the lush natural environment. He infuses his sitters with movement, accentuated by the rich coloring he learned from Titian and Rubens. Van Dyck's role in the development of portraiture in Britain continued to endure long after his death in 1641.

Even during the unsettled years of the Civil War, the royal family and royalist officers continued to commission portraits. Between 1642 and 1646, English-born William Dobson (16111646) served the court, painting with a naturalism similar to that of Van Dyck, but with a less refined tenor suitable to the martial times.

One of the most significant events in the art world during the commonwealth's interregnum was the sale of Charles I's collection. Charles's vast expenditure on art works from the Catholic Continent had been a source of widespread suspicion and discontent during his reign, seen as symbolic of his authoritarian tendencies. Its dispersal, however, severely set back the development of a royal or central art collection in Britain. The sale began in October 1649. In addition, the collections of Buckingham, Arundel, and Hamilton were contemporaneously sold.

Although the interregnum may seem a bleak period for painting in Britain, it was during this time that Sir Peter Lely (16181680) established a prosperous career in London after having received his training in Haarlem. Lely arrived in England in the early 1640s and his earliest known portrait of this period, from 1647, is of Charles I and the duke of York (duke of Northumberland, Syon House). Nevertheless, Lely quickly adapted to the political climate of the commonwealth. His adaptability is seen once again during the Restoration with his appointment as principal painter.

In the 1660s Anne Hyde, duchess of York, commissioned Lely to create a series of the most beautiful women at court, now called the Windsor Beauties. It and his series of "Flagmen" at Greenwich exemplify his facility for different poses. Lely's vast output was facilitated by studio assistants who would paint the backgrounds and draperies of his works, as well as copies of them. Lely dominated this period of British painting and was knighted in 1680.

The crown was also the most significant patron of the virtuoso wood-carver Grinling Gibbons (16481721). The best examples of his naturalistic depictions of flora, fauna, and textiles may be found in the Royal Apartments at Windsor Castle, where he worked between 1677 and 1682.

With Lely's death at the end of 1680, Dutch-born Godfrey Kneller (16461723) dominated the portrait market. Kneller had trained with Ferdinand Bol in Amsterdam and, before his arrival in London in 1676, had traveled to Rome and Venice. By 1679 he was painting the portrait of Charles II. With the Glorious Revolution and the arrival of William III and Mary II in 1688, Kneller shared the position of principal painter with native-born portraitist John Riley. He was knighted in 1692 and made a baronet in 1715.

Kneller is best known for his series of portraits of the members of the Kit-Cat Club (painted 17001720). The format of these portraits, in which the sitter's head, shoulders, and one or both hands were shown, was innovative, and the size was thereafter termed a "Kit-Cat." Kneller's popularity, like Lely's, necessitated a large studio; the sometimes mediocre quality of its work did unfortunately undermine Kneller's posthumous reputation. Kneller was also the first governor of an academy for painting and drawing, which opened in 1711.

Contemporaneous with Kneller's career was the vogue for decorative schemes in the great houses of Europe. Practitioners of this late baroque form came from Italy (for example, Antonio Verrio, Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, and Sebastiano and Marco Ricci) and France (Louis Laguerre). Verrio's illusionistic, decorative work can be seen at the duke of Devonshire's Chatsworth, where he painted various rooms and ceilings during the 1690s. However, the emergence of a nationalistic impulse can be seen in the competition for the decoration of St. Paul's Cathedral. English-born James Thornhill (16761734) vigorously lobbied for this prestigious commission and worked on it from 1715 to 1717.

Thornhill's nationalistic mantel was taken up by his son-in-law William Hogarth (16971764). Although Hogarth's style showed a clear knowledge of French painting, he was vociferous in his antagonism toward English patronage of foreign artists, especially in the area of historical painting. His Sigismunda (1759; Tate Gallery, London) was an attempt to demonstrate the superiority of English historical painting after a supposed Correggio on the same subject was bought for over £400 at auction; however, his work was met with ridicule.

By then it had become customary for well-born Englishmen to finish their education by undertaking a grand tour of Europe. An important aspect of these travels was the purchase of works of art commemorating their visit. The Venetian view painter Canaletto (born Giovanni Antonio Canal; 16971768) was so popular with his English patrons that he came to London in 1746, staying until 1755. Landscape painting in Britain had been characterized by topographical accuracy used to detail the house and grounds of estates. Under the influence of seventeenth-century landscape painters Claude Lorrain (born Claude Gellée), Nicolas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa, Richard Wilson instead gave the English landscape a classical, idealized expression. Nevertheless, Wilson died in poverty, and Thomas Gainsborough famously complained that he could only support a family through the practice of portraiture.

Hogarth was instrumental in popularizing the small-scale group portrait called the conversation piece, a format that had been brought to England by Watteau's follower Philippe Mercier. Hogarth's own innovation of the "modern moral subject" was itself influential on the Continent, and his promotion of the Engravers' Copyright Act of 1734 to protect artists' engravings secured him an important source of income.

Hogarth's full-length portrait of Captain Thomas Coram (1740, Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, London) epitomizes the shifting sources of patronage in mid-eighteenth-century England. The increasingly prosperous merchant classes adopted the forms of aristocratic portraiture. Moreover, Coram had established the Foundling Hospital. Hogarth and other artists donated works to this charitable institution for orphans, and it became the first venue for the public display of paintings in England.

Although Hogarth had lobbied for a democratically structured academy for training artists, the official academy that was founded in 1768 was given a royal charter and had a strict hierarchy. Sir Joshua Reynolds's centrality in the art world of the eighteenth century was confirmed by his election as its first president. In his renowned fifteen Discourses on Art, presented to the students and members of the academy during his tenure, he articulated his concern for raising the intellectual status of the artist in society. With its schools and annual exhibitions, the Royal Academy dominated the course British art was to follow for the next hundred years.

See also Academies of Art ; Britain, Architecture in ; England ; Gainsborough, Thomas ; Hogarth, William ; Holbein, Hans, the Younger ; Jones, Inigo ; London ; Portrait Miniatures ; Reynolds, Joshua ; Van Dyck, Anthony ; Wren, Christopher.


Primary Source

Hilliard, Nicholas. A Treatise Concerning the Art of Limning. Reprint, transcribed by Arthur F. Kinney. Boston, 1983.

Secondary Sources

Brown, Jonathan. Kings and Connoisseurs: Collecting Art in Seventeenth-Century Europe. Princeton, 1995.

Gent, Lucy, ed. Albion's Classicism: The Visual Arts in Britain, 15501660. New Haven and London, 1995.

Llewellyn, Nigel. Funerary Monuments in Post-Reformation England. Cambridge, U.K., 2000.

Solkin, David H. Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England. New Haven and London, 1993.

Waterhouse, Ellis. Painting in Britain, 15301790. 5th ed. New Haven and London, 1994.

Whinney, Margaret. Sculpture in Britain, 15301830. 2nd ed., revised by John Physick. Harmondsworth, U.K., 1988.

Elizabeth A. Pergam