English Art – The Reformation to Pre-Raphaelitism

A series of 10 lectures examining English art and artists, from the 16th to the 19th century, tracing the journey from relative European artistic obscurity to one of its dominant cultural forces. We begin with the rather primitive style of English painting in the 16th century, based on a ‘loose’ understanding of Dutch art, and end in the mid nineteenth century with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of avant-garde artists who sought to challenge the hegemony of the Royal Academy.

The Transformation of English Art: From Tudor to Baroque

The break by England from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s had a profound effect on painting, and in particular court paintings’ from the natural realism of, for example, Hans Holbein to a rather primitive and naive style in the late Tudor period. By the 1620s artists such as Rubens and Van Dyke were being commissioned to paint royal portraits, creating a style that nurtured a new era, later known as the ‘Golden Age of British Art’ in which artists such as Peter Lely, Godfrey Kneller and Mary Beale shone.

William Hogarth and the Rise of English National Identity – 

William Hogarth is one of the major 18 artists representing the Golden Age of British Art. He was not a man to flatter his sitters, so he was never too successful at portrait painting and instead turned to what became very popular paintings and prints exploring political and social issues, in which he criticised and poked fun at anyone and everyone. He was also a major promoter of British artists which helped a younger generation of English artists achieve greater successes than had been seen before.

The Struggle of History Painting: Politics, Propaganda and Revolution in the 18th Century 

In the 1700s history painting was considered the highest, most noble and most intellectual form of art because the paintings dealt with stories from history, the Bible or literature, so they were not only compositionally more complex but they also dealt with political and/or philosophical issues. Among the number of history painters in England were Charles Landseer and Benjamin West, a president of the Royal Academy.

The profitable Art of Flattery: Reynolds, Gainsborough and Portraiture In the 18th Century –

By the latter half of the 1700s English artists were becoming successful and relatively wealthy portrait painters. The two most successful portrait painters of the day were Sir Joshua Reynolds and Thomas Gainsborough. Both worked in very different styles, which relfected different modes of flattery as well as fashionable aspects of 18th century society and culture.

The British Romantics – A brush with the sublime

The Romantic Movement was a trans European phenomenon in art that found its apogee in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century, partly as a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. It manifested itself in paintings that emphasised the enormity of nature and its wilful power, set against man’s struggle to contain it, in many ways the antithesis of the classical, order and reason. The most notable of these artists were William Blake, Samuel Palmer and John Martin.

Genre painting: Depicting the everyday.

The counterpart of grande genre history painting was the so-called petit genre art that depicted the everyday, often domestic scenes that became known as simply genre art. It had its genesis in the Netherlands in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries with artists such as Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Jan Steen. In the late eighteenth century artists, such as George Morland and William Collins, began portraying everyday rural life; succeeded by Luke Fildes and Augustus Mulready who developed genre painting to include the less fortunate in 19th century urban society.


Transforming Nature: Turner, Constable and the Rise of British Landscape Painting

Landscape painting had long been regarded as one of the lowest forms of art, seen to lack the drama, narrative, complexity and intellectual content of history painting. In the early 1800s however two young Romantic British artists challenged many of the ideas around what a landscape painting could be about. J.M.W Turner made his landscapes dramatic and lifted them to the level of history painting, while John Constable’s landscapes were idyllic with a strong focus on the observation of nature. One was successful, the other less-so, but both radically transformed the possibilities of landscape painting, each influencing other European artists.

Watercolour – A particularly English Tradition

Watercolour has been in use for at least 1,000 years in European Culture as a medium for illuminated manuscripts, but it was in England that it was used more extensively after the late eighteenth century, most notably by artists such as Paul Sandby, Thomas Girtin and of course Turner. The status of watercolour artists was enhanced in 1804 with the founding of the Society of Watercolour Painters (later the Royal Watercolour Society).

Marine painting in Britain

Britain is an island and as such is proud of its maritime heritage. A large number of artists have sought to convey that pride in paintings highlighting our past naval supremacy, intercontinental trading, and yacht racing. Artists such as Turner have also depicted some of the perils of the sea, both natural and man-made.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood: Art World Rebels.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were a group of young artists who came together in 1848 to shake up an art world they considered stultified and untruthful, because artists were encouraged to copy only the Old Masters, especially the art of Raphael. So the Pre-Raphaelites looked for inspiration from artists that came before Raphael (hence Pre-Raphaelite) and looked for more truthful and honest subject matter. Seen in their day as art world rebels, their paintings enjoy great popularity today.