English art

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One of the Marriage a la Mode series by William Hogarth
A distinctively English image of the Resurrection of Jesus, with Christ stepping on a soldier, in a 14th-century Nottingham alabaster relief

English art is the body of visual arts made in England. Following historical surveys such as Creative Art In England by William Johnstone (1936 and 1950), Nikolaus Pevsner attempted a definition in his 1956 book The Englishness of English Art, as did Sir Roy Strong in his 2000 book The Spirit of Britain: A narrative history of the arts, and Peter Ackroyd in his 2002 book The Origins of the English Imagination.

Although medieval English painting, mostly religious, had a strong national tradition and was at times influential on the rest of Europe, it was in decline from the 15th century. The Protestant Reformation, which was especially destructive of art in England, not only brought the tradition to an abrupt stop but resulted in the destruction of almost all wall-paintings. Only illuminated manuscripts now survive in good numbers.

Earliest art

The oldest art in England can be dated to the Neolithic period, including the large ritual landscapes such as Stonehenge from c. 2600 BC. From around 2150 BC, the Beaker people learned how to make bronze, and use both tin and gold. They became skilled in metal refining and works of art placed in graves or sacrificial pits have survived. In the Iron Age, a new art style arrived as Celtic culture spread across the British isles. Though metalwork, especially gold ornaments, was still important, stone and most likely wood was also used. This style continued into the Roman period, beginning in the 1st century BC, and would find a renaissance in the Medieval period. The arrival of the Romans brought the Classical style of which many monuments have survived, especially funerary monuments, statues and busts. They also brought glasswork and mosaics. In the 4th century, a new element was introduced as the first Christian art was made in Britain. Several mosaics with Christian symbols and pictures have been preserved. The style of Romano-British art follows that of the continent, there are some local specialities, influenced by Celtic art; the Staffordshire Moorlands Pan is one example.


After Roman rule, the Anglo-Saxons brought Germanic traditions, seen in the metalwork of Sutton Hoo. Anglo-Saxon sculpture was outstanding for its time, at least in the small works in ivory or bone that are almost all that have survived.[1] Especially in Northumbria, the Insular art style shared across the British Isles produced much of the finest work being produced in Europe until the Viking raids and invasions largely suppressed the movement; the Book of Lindisfarne is one example certainly produced in Northumbria. The carved stone high crosses, such as the Ruthwell Cross, were a distinctive Insular form, probably related to the Pictish stones of Scotland. Anglo-Saxon art developed a very sophisticated variety of contemporary Continental styles, seen especially in metalwork and illuminated manuscripts such as the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold. Effectively none of the large-scale paintings and sculptures that we know existed have survived. By the first half of the 11th century, English art was being lavishly patronized by the wealthy Anglo-Saxon elite, who valued above all works in precious metals, but the Norman Conquest in 1066 brought a sudden halt to this art boom, and instead works were melted down or removed to Normandy. After a pause of some decades, manuscript painting in England soon became again the equal of any in Europe, in Romanesque works like the Winchester Bible and the St Albans Psalter, and then early Gothic ones like the Tickhill Psalter. English illumination fell away in the final phase of the Gothic period as elite patrons began instead to commission works from Paris or Flanders. Some of the extremely rare survivals of English medieval panel paintings, like the Westminster Retable and Wilton Diptych (the artist's nationality here is uncertain) are of the highest quality. Another art form introduced through the church was stained glass, which was also adopted for secular uses. There was a considerable industry producing Nottingham alabaster reliefs for mid-market altarpieces and small statues, which were exported across Northern Europe.

16th and 17th centuries

Portrait of a Lady, Called Elizabeth, Lady Tanfield. British School from 17th century- 1615[2]

The artists of the Tudor court in the Renaissance and their successors until the early 18th century were mostly imported talents, often from Flanders. These included Hans Holbein the Younger, Van Dyck, Rubens, Orazio Gentileschi and his daughter Artemisia, Sir Peter Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller. An exception must be made for the portrait miniature, where a strong English tradition began with the Elizabethan Nicholas Hilliard, who had learnt from Continental artists, and continued with Isaac Oliver and many other artists. By the following century a number of significant English painters of full-size portraits began to emerge, and towards the end of the century the other great English specialism, of landscape painting, also began to be practiced by natives. Both were heavily influenced by Anthony van Dyck in particular, although he does not seem to have trained any English painters himself, he was a powerful influence in promoting the baroque style. One of the most important native painters of this period was William Dobson. During the 17th century the English nobility also became important collectors of European art, led by King Charles I and Thomas Howard, 21st Earl of Arundel in the first half of the century. By the end of the century, the Grand Tour had become established for wealthy young Englishmen.

18th and 19th centuries

George K. H. Coussmaker (1782) by Joshua Reynolds, continuing the tradition of Van Dyck

In the 18th century, English painting finally developed a distinct style and tradition again, still concentrating on portraits and landscapes, but also attempting, without much success, to find an approach to history painting, regarded as the highest of the hierarchy of genres. Sir James Thornhill's paintings were executed in the Baroque style of the European Continent and William Hogarth reflected the new English middle-class temperament — English in habits, disposition, and temperament, as well as by birth. His satirical works, full of black humour, point out to contemporary society the deformities, weaknesses and vices of London life.

Portraits were, as elsewhere in Europe, much the most easiest and most profitable way for an artist to make a living, and the English tradition continued to draw of the relaxed elegance of the portrait style developed in England by Van Dyck, although there was little actual transmission from his work via his workshop. Leading portraitists were Thomas Gainsborough; Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder of the Royal Academy of Arts; George Romney; and Sir Thomas Lawrence. Joseph Wright of Derby was well known for his candlelight pictures, George Stubbs for his animal paintings. By the end of the century, the English swagger portrait was much admired abroad, and had largely ceased to look for inspiration abroad.

The early 19th century also saw the emergence of the Norwich school of painters. Influenced by Dutch landscape painting and the landscape of Norfolk, the Norwich School were the first provincial art-movement outside London. Short-lived due to sparse patronage and internal faction prominent members include 'founding father' John Crome, John Sell Cotman notable for his water-colours in particular and the promising but short-lived maritime painter Joseph Stannard.

Paul Sandby was called the father of English watercolour painting. Other notable 18th and 19th-century landscape painters include Richard Wilson (born in Wales); George Morland; John Robert Cozens; Thomas Girtin; John Constable; J. M. W. Turner; and John Linnell.

The Pre-Raphaelite movement, established in the 1840s, dominated English art in the second half of the 19th century. Its members — William Holman Hunt; Dante Gabriel Rossetti; John Everett Millais and others — concentrated on religious, literary, and genre works executed in a colorful and minutely detailed almost photographic style.


Its earliest known developed form, one that continues to the present-day, is arguably the decorative surface pattern work exemplified by the Lindisfarne Gospels and the exterior carving of Anglo-Saxon churches and monuments. Ackroyd argues that the concern for a light and delicate outline, for surface pattern for its own sake, and for patterns and borders that threaten to overwhelm the portrayal of figures, have all been long-standing characteristics of a continuous English art. Other elements Ackroyd sees as inherited from the early Celtic church are a concern to portray the essence of animals, a tendency to understatement, and a concern for repeating structures that extends from Celtic knotwork to church organ music to Staffordshire ceramic-ware to stained glass windows and to the wallpapers of William Morris. Strong agrees with Ackroyd on all these points.

English anti-intellectualism has led them to easily mingle fiction with observed facts, in order to invent 'traditions', but this has often given fresh life to traditions that would otherwise have gone stale. Pevsner noted, in the context of a consummate arts professionalism, a detachment and self-effacement among artists that often led them to belittle the act of creation, and to be willing to give away their ideas to be re-used by other artists.

Royal collection

Relatively few pieces survive from before the 16th century, partly because of fires such as that which destroyed Whitehall Palace in 1698. Charles I of England built up a great royal collection of art. This was mostly sold by the English Commonwealth, but Charles II was able to recover much of it, by judicious pressure on English purchasers, although many of the finest works had been sold abroad and were lost.[3] There were later major additions by George III, Queen Victoria and others, so that today the Royal Collection is one of the largest in the world, despite many gifts to museums. Much of it is on display in Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, Hampton Court Palace and other sites. The Queen's Gallery attached to Buckingham Palace and the Queen's Gallery, Edinburgh host temporary exhibitions from the collection.

Salisbury cathedral by John Constable
Crossing the Brook by J. M. W. Turner


In the popular imagination English landscape painting from the 18th century onwards typifies English art, inspired largely from the love of the pastoral and mirroring as it does the development of larger country houses set in a pastoral rural landscape. It was developed initially by Dutch and Flemish artists, from the late 17th century onwards.

As the population of England grew during the industrial revolution, a concern for privacy and smaller gardens becomes more notable in English art. There was also a new-found appreciation of the open landscapes of romantic wilderness, and a concern for the ancient folk arts. William Morris is particularly associated with this latter trend, as were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Another important influence, from about 1890 until 1926, was the growing knowledge about the visual art of Japan.

Being a coastal and seafaring island nation, English art has often portrayed the coast and the sea. Being a nation of four distinct seasons, and changeable weather, weather effects have often been portrayed in English art. Weather and light effects on the English landscape have been a pre-eminent aspect of modern British landscape photography.

See also

Museums exhibiting English art

Noted artists of the English school

Further reading

  • Ellis Waterhouse, "Painting in Britain, 1530-1790", 4th Edn, 1978, Penguin Books (now Yale History of Art series)
  • Nikolaus Pevsner, The Englishness of English Art (London, 1956)
  • William Gaunt, The Great Century of British Painting: Hogarth to Turner (London, 1971)
  • Joseph Burke, English Art, 1714–1800 (Oxford, 1976)
  • David Bindman (ed.), The Thames and Hudson Encyclopaedia of British Art (London, 1985)
  • William Vaughan, British Painting: The Golden Age from Hogarth to Turner (London, 1999)


  1. BBC History
  2. "portrait-of-a-lady-called-elizabeth-lady-tanfield". www.artfund.org. Retrieved 2015. Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Brotton, Jerry. The Sale of the Late King's Goods: Charles I and His Art Collection

External links