The aim of the Oxford History of English Art is to set out chronologically the development of the visual arts as part of the general history of England. It is a scheme that, on this scale, has not hitherto been attempted, and in several periods the subject-matter presents problems as yet very partially explored. Art history, a clumsy but useful term, does not hold in this country the position that has been given to Kunstgeschichte on the Continent, and an academic discipline that in Europe and America is fully recognized has here few professorial chairs or university departments assigned to it. Our tradition of connoisseurship, the detailed study of works of art and objects of antiquity in order to decide their date and provenance, is, it is true, well established. Nineteenth-century enthusiasm for Gothic architecture produced notable handbooks on medieval structural methods and classifications of medieval ornament, while avoiding discussions of continental influences and explanations of changes in treatment. This resolute objectivity has been the complete antithesis of the exuberance of Stilkritik. We still suspect the wider speculations by which analysis of styles provides not only a precise instrument of attribution but also an indication of phases of emotional temperament. Yet our knowledge of the past is incomplete without some investigation of the use men made of visual images and the reasons that guided them in their selection of particular forms.
A work of art is primarily an object that gives aesthetic satisfaction: it is also a piece of historical evidence. The two functions need not exactly coincide, for some feeble piece made for easy popular consumption, some rough woodcut or over-sentimental print, may in some contexts be more historically significant than a great masterpiece produced for some élite circle. Visual formulas have often been tellingly used for propaganda purposes. But the vitality which endows such formulas, even when crudely handled, with an enduring power to please comes from earlier and memorable uses made of them by artists of genius. The lower reaches of . . .