Art in Britain

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Art in Britain

During the Renaissance a wave of new ideas about art swept across Europe. Many of these ideas were adopted in Britain in the 1500s, and by 1600 Britain had become an center for the development of Renaissance styles in art and architecture.

British Art to 1600. During the 1500s some British artists—particularly portrait painters—began to move away from the stylistic traditions of the Middle Ages. Artists such as Hans Holbein the Younger, who painted many individuals in the court of Henry VIII of England, experimented with new approaches and techniques. However, in architecture and other fields the people of Britain were less enthusiastic about Renaissance ideas. They hesitated to adopt the all'antica (antique) style, which used classical forms based on ancient Greek and Roman models. The English associated this style with Italy, where it had emerged. Because Italy was a Catholic country and Britain was largely Protestant, some people in the British Isles were reluctant to accept this approach to design.

By the mid-1500s, however, British writers on architecture were promoting the use of the all'antica style. Designers began to incorporate more classical forms in official buildings and private residences. The English architect Inigo Jones used elements such as columns, triangular ornaments over windows, and carved foliage in the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace in London (completed 1622).

Some writers also highlighted new artistic theories and techniques and emphasized the cultural value of art. In 1570 the English author John Dee introduced to Britain the Renaissance concept of applying mathematical principles such as proportion and perspective* to works of art. Dee challenged the traditional view of artists as members of a low social class. Moreover, he and other writers declared that well-educated people should have a basic knowledge and appreciation of art.

British Art after 1600. In 1603 James I became king of England, marking the beginning of the Stuart dynasty and a period of great achievement in British art. James's son Henry helped make Renaissance art popular in Britain. After Henry's death in 1612, English nobles continued to follow his example. Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, traveled to Italy between 1613 and 1615 and brought back to England many antique and Renaissance works of art. These pieces provided models for artists to study.

The English court employed several famous artists, including the Flemish* masters Peter Paul Rubens and Anthony Van Dyck. Artists at the court were expected to create works glorifying the English monarchs and reinforcing the idea that they ruled by divine right*. Rubens painted a series of ceiling panels that showed James I as a Christ-like figure bringing a new golden age to Britain. Other works depicting monarchs compared them with the great leaders of history. A bronze statue of Charles I (ruled 1625–1649) echoed images of the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

The English court masque, a type of play, brought together many Renaissance ideas. The masques were based on performances held at the courts of Italian nobles. For a number of productions, Inigo Jones created costumes decorated with popular Renaissance symbols. He also designed stage sets that used techniques such as perspective to create a scenic illusion. Yet the scenery often depicted a traditional English scene. Like other court artists, Jones used images drawn from British history and culture to create a uniquely English form of Renaissance art.

(See alsoArt; Art in Italy; England; Holbeins, The; Ireland; Scotland. )

* perspective

artistic technique for creating the illusion of three-dimensional space on a flat surface

* Flemish

relating to Flanders, a region along the coasts of present-day Belgium, France, and the Netherlands

* divine right

idea that a monarch receives the right to rule directly from God