With the arrival of the London Art Fair (21-25 January), we thought it was a good opportunity to look at art in Britain and how it has reflected our history. It is a long history, so we will look at it in two parts, with this article covering the period up to the Victorian era.
The history of British art begins with one of the most iconic structures in the world, Stonehenge, built in Wiltshire around 2600 BC with enormous stones from Wales. No one knows exactly how these early peoples moved the stones such a vast distance. Next followed the tin and gold art of the “Beaker People” from 2150 BC. Celtic art arrived around 400 BC, which was filled with intricate bronze works, such as the backs of mirrors. This style of art even survived through the Roman occupation of the British Isles, indicating that the Mediterranean soldiers and generals must have enjoyed the art to allow it to exist. The islands’ art then flowed through influences from the Anglo-Saxons, as well Germanic and Gothic styles.
From 1485 until 1603 was the era of the Tudor artists, who focussed heavily on depicting royalty and religion in the form of iconography, thus illustrating the powers that dominated British society during those times. A particularly fine example is the ‘Rainbow Portrait’ of Queen Elizabeth I, by Isaac Oliver c.1600 (see photo right). The first recognised community of artists was also formed during this period, and among them was Hans Holbein the Younger.
The middle of the 17th century saw conflict across the nation in the form of a civil war, which generated it’s own form of art. The country was rife with religious and political tension up to the end of the 17th century, and the nation’s denomination was swinging backwards and forwards between Protestant and Catholic depending on the religious persuasion of the reigning monarch.
The modern history of British art begins at the start of the 18th century with the dawn of a new age of prosperity. In 1754, the Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures & Commerce was founded to provide a location for exhibiting. Since this time, Britain has been strong on portraiture and landscape, and still leads the way with its wonderful National Portrait Gallery in central London and the Portrait Artist of the Year competition.
One of the best known portraits was “Mr and Mrs Andrews” by Thomas Gainsborough c. 1750 (see photo left), which was so steeped in social and political commentary that whole essays have been written on this painting alone. Even though it was a commissioned piece, the artist managed to poke fun at the sitters. In this it lead the way in using art to tell a story, put across a point of view or make fun of someone.
The Romantic Period, the first half of the 19th century, saw the flourishing of great artists such as Turner and Constable. This was followed by the Victorian era, in which another economic boom triggered by the industrial revolution brought forth a wide array of artists and styles. This also meant a dramatic increase in museums and public exhibitions and thus the promotion, celebration and promulgation of art. Prior to this, most forms of art were owned by the wealthiest class and were kept in private residences.
In the next article we will look further into Victorian art and the contemporary art that followed.