British Art

English art and architecture

English art and architecture, the distinctive national art and architecture that art may be said to have evolved in the 12th cent. with the Norman style. Building before that time was in what is commonly called the Saxon or Anglo-Saxon style, which combined Roman and Celtic features; it is represented by sparse remains of monasteries, churches, and cathedral crypts, notable for the use of long-and-short ashlar stonework. These churches were small, relatively simple structures, having one or more towers and one or three aisles, with wooden or stone roofing.

See also articles on individual artists and architects, e.g., J. M. W. Turner; and styles, e.g., Decorated style; and the minor arts, e.g., Doulton ware.

Norman and Gothic Styles

The great impact of the Norman Conquest was manifested in the 12th-century Anglo-Norman churches, closely related to the Romanesque. They were built with extremely long naves, often with a rectangular east end, in contrast with the Gallic surge toward lofty, aspiring structures with a curved chevet. The cathedral at Durham (begun 1093) employs a complete system of ribbed vaulting, together with the pointed arch and concealed flying buttresses, which are thought to antedate these Gothic features in France.

England made a significant contribution in Gothic decorative styles. In phases known as the Decorated style (14th cent.; e.g., the cathedrals of Lincoln and Wells) and the Perpendicular style (late 14th–middle 16th cent.; e.g., Sherbourne Abbey and York Minster), exuberant and complicated networks of bar tracery and multiple ribbed vaults were devised, influencing the flamboyant style in France. In addition, a flourishing religious art of painting, sculpture, monumental brasses, stained glass, and embroidery enriched the medieval church in England. The splendid and unique Anglo-Saxon embroidery, known as the Bayeux tapestry (c.1066–77), attests to the English interest in dramatic narrative. It is thought to be one of the rare secular works of the period.

Enough architectural and memorial sculpture has survived to provide evidence of centuries of achievement, from the Anglican crosses of Cumberland (7th cent.) to the 15th-century figures of Henry V's chantry in Westminster Abbey. A similar long tradition can be traced in stained-glass windows still adorning many churches. Very little church painting has survived, but there are many superb examples of illuminated manuscripts, which by the 10th cent. show a considerable skill in the French Carolingian fashion (see illumination). The high development of this art form influenced the growth of English sculpture, which abounds in fantasies and grotesqueries of the medieval period. Early reliefs at Chichester (c.1140), Lincoln (c.1145), and Malmesbury (c.1160–70) are particularly noteworthy sculptural works.

The Renaissance

The transition from Gothic to a classic Renaissance style was slow in England. Religious art of every kind had declined drastically by 1540, with the dissolution of the monasteries and the break with Rome. John Thynne and Robert Smythson were major builders of the 16th cent. at a time when secular art and architecture began to assume greater importance. Manor houses and palaces were designed for greater comfort than in previous eras and were often arranged according to a symmetrical plan, facing outward toward a splendid garden. Attention was paid to the paneling and stucco adornment of interiors. English builders inconsistently adapted Italian designs, particularly the published works of Sebastiano Serlio.

From the Renaissance onward numerous foreign artists were imported by the nobility, largely for portraiture. From Holbein to Rubens and Van Dyck, these men found few worthy followers in England and no rivals. Such painters as William Dobson and Robert Walker could hardly compete with the Dutch Lely or the German Kneller. However, with the Elizabethan portrait miniaturists Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac and Peter Oliver, an English art of exquisite delicacy came into being.

The Seventeenth Century

From the first quarter of the 17th cent., masterly interpretations of classical architecture were being produced in England. Initiated by Inigo Jones, who modeled his buildings directly after antique structures and designs by Andrea Palladio, the Palladian style spread throughout England. After the great fire of 1666 much of London had to be rebuilt. Influenced by Italian Renaissance architecture, Sir Christopher Wren, drawing upon diverse sources, created an English baroque through his original and grandiose plans for the rebuilding of St. Paul's Cathedral and through the variety and ingenuity of his designs for 51 of the City churches. His successors were Nicholas Hawksmoor and Sir John Vanbrugh, whose massive country houses were the crowning expression of the English baroque.

In painting, the achievements of the 16th-century Elizabethan portraitists were followed in the next century by the delicate accomplishments of such miniaturists as Samuel Cooper and Richard Cosway. Late in the 17th cent. English sculpture was dominated by the celebrated artist Grinling Gibbons, who decorated parts of Westminster Abbey and other churches and palaces.

The Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

During the 18th cent. a more restrained architectural style was developed and made popular in the works of Lord Burlington, Colin Campbell, James Gibbs, and William Kent. The Georgian style in architecture (see Georgian architecture), decoration, furniture, silver, and the minor arts was developed during the reigns of the Hanoverian kings (1714–1820). An outstanding architectural fantasy employing Chinese decor was manifested in the Regency style, of which George IV's Royal Pavilion at Brighton (1815–22) is an example.

Early in the 18th cent., after two centuries of foreign domination in the arts, the English school of painting was revitalized by William Hogarth's brilliant and biting pictorial satires. The graphic art of social commentary that he began has flourished in England ever since. It was superbly expressed in Rowlandson's drawings at the close of the century, a time when an opposite trend, toward the poetic and mystical in the graphic arts, also reached its height in the work of William Blake and his followers, notably Samuel Palmer and Edward Calvert.

In portraiture the 18th cent. produced a number of outstanding artists. Sir Joshua Reynolds, who helped found the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 and was the first Englishman to assert successfully the dignity of his profession, shares with Thomas Gainsborough the place of honor in English portraiture. Other major artists in this field include George Romney, Sir Henry Raeburn, and Sir Thomas Lawrence. Gainsborough is distinguished, too, for his landscape painting, a genre in which England has made contributions of the first order. Notable 18th-century landscape painters were Richard Wilson, George Morland, John Robert Cozens, and Thomas Girtin. A type of painting that enjoyed great popularity in the 18th and 19th cent. was the sporting picture depicting hunting and racing scenes, a particularly English form of art. George Stubbs was the outstanding painter and engraver of this genre.

From the 18th cent. on, considerable advances were made in city planning, with the schemes of John Wood I and John Wood II at Bath, and, in the 19th cent., with the efforts of John Nash in London. In the latter half of the 18th cent. England was engulfed by a wave of neoclassicism, characterized by the greater availability of and greater stress on archaeological finds than during the Palladian trend. The principal exponents of neoclassicism were Robert Adam, Sir William Chambers, George Dance II, and Sir John Soane, all of whom developed tasteful variations of the style. In the late 18th cent. a search for the picturesque led to the resurgence of earlier modes, including Gothic, Renaissance, and Greek styles. Among the architects who exploited several styles were Robert Smirke and Sir Charles Barry.

By the Victorian period, the Gothic revival predominated and was developed to great effect by A. W. N. Pugin, who worked under Barry in the design of the Houses of Parliament. Other imaginative variations of the Gothic style were conceived by William Butterfield, W. E. Nesfield, and R. N. Shaw. The latter two and Philip Webb also created remarkable plans for domestic architecture, as did C. F. A. Voysey and Sir Edwin Lutyens toward the end of the 19th cent. Coinciding with the mid-19th cent. Gothic revival, new structural and spatial possibilities were being explored with the use of such materials as iron and glass. Sir Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace for the exposition of 1851 was a landmark in the direction of modern architecture.

Among the most gifted landscape painters of the early 19th cent. were R. P. Bonington and the leaders of the Norwich school (1803–34), John Crome and J. S. Cotman, who also excelled in the medium of watercolor. Their achievement was dwarfed by the two great landscape artists John Constable and J. M. W. Turner; developing totally different styles, they both created rich coloristic effects and worked with a spontaneity that had a strong influence on subsequent French painting. The English romantic period, of which they were the greatest exponents in painting, was followed by the rise of the Pre-Raphaelite school of D. G. Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Sculpture did not parallel the development of English painting, although John Flaxman, Sir Richard Westmacott, Sir Francis Chantrey, John Bacon, and Alfred Stevens worked effectively in a classicizing manner.

The Twentieth Century

England played a minor part in initiating experimental and intellectual movements in art and architecture during the 20th cent. but was profoundly affected by them. In 1933, 11 painters, sculptors, and architects formed a short-lived group known as Unit One, which aimed at furthering the contemporary spirit in the arts. Among those who attained international fame were the sculptors Henry Moore and Dame Barbara Hepworth and the painters Ben Nicholson and Paul Nash. A touch of macabre fantasy can be seen in the works of three noted 20th-century painters, Sir Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland, and Francis Bacon. In 1954 the pop art movement originated in England in response to commercial culture. Well-known contemporary painters include Lucian Freud, David Hockney, Michael Andrews, Bridget Riley, and Christopher Wood; among notable sculptors are Reginald Butler, Lynn Chadwick, and Kenneth Armitage.

British art in the last two decades of the 20th cent., often called neoconceptual, has been quite eclectic and employed a variety of often mixed and sometimes surprising media. Much of the art deals with life's big questions, has a certain shock value, and shares a preoccupation with mortality and bodily decay. Probably the best known of England's post-Thatcher artists is Damien Hirst, whose images have included dot paintings, cabinets of pharmaceuticals, and, most famously, animals, sliced or whole, pickled in formaldehyde and displayed in glass vitrines. A wide range of other contemporary English works and artists include Chris Ofili's sparkling elephant dung–encrusted semiabstract paintings; Richard Billingham's deadpan photographic images; Rachel Whiteread's plaster casts and rubber sculpture of domestic objects; Jenny Savile's fleshy and disturbing nudes; Gary Hume's cool and brilliantly colored abstracts; Fiona Rae's jazzed-up abstractions; and Marc Quinn's controversial works, notably a cast of his head made with his own blood. Other notable English contemporaries include Ian Davenport, Gillian Wearing, Gavin Turk, Abigail Lane, Mona Hatoum, Marcus Harvey, and Sarah Lucas.

After World War II, there was an attempt to rebuild England in the modern spirit, and many urban buildings were influenced by the International Style. In addition, architects of the school dubbed "new brutalism" were inspired by Le Corbusier to search for new forms and textures. The cathedral at Coventry (consecrated 1962) is the setting for a synthesis of the arts, with a sculpture of St. Michael by Sir Jacob Epstein, a tapestry designed by Sutherland, and engraved glass walls; the new cathedral, designed by Sir Basil Spence, provides an effective contrast to the adjacent ruins of its Gothic predecessor. In more recent times, postmodernism has influenced a number of English architects. Among Britain's best-known contemporary architects are Lord Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Sir James Stirling.

The Decorative Arts

In the minor arts, English pottery became justly famous, and such wares as Chelsea, Derby, Doulton, Staffordshire, and the pottery of Josiah Wedgwood continue to be highly prized. The same can be said of furniture prior to the Victorian era and of the work of such famous designers and artisans as Chippendale, Sheraton, Hepplewhite, and the Adam brothers. William Morris did much to raise English standards in the applied arts, particularly in book design and interior decoration.


See T. S. Boase, ed., The Oxford History of English Art (Vol. II–V, VII, VIII, X, 1949–62); E. Waterhouse, Painting in Britain: 1530–1790 (1953); W. Gaunt, A Concise History of English Painting (1964); J. Summerson, Architecture in Britain: 1530–1830 (3d ed. 1958, repr. 1969); M. Foss, The Age of Patronage (1972); J. S. Curl, Victorian Architecture (1974); D. Waldman, British Art Now (1980); D. Watkin, English Architecture (1997).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

British Art: Selected full-text books and articles

British Art since 1900: An Anthology By John Rothenstein Phaidon Publishers, 1962
English Art, 871-1100 By D. Talbot Rice Clarendon Press, 1952
English Art, 1100-1216 By T. S. R. Boase Clarendon Press, 1953
English Art,1307-1461 By Joan G. Evans Clarendon Press, 1949
English Art, 1553-1625 By Eric Mercer Clarendon Press, 1962
English Art, 1800-1870 By T. S. R. Boase Clarendon Press, 1959
A Century of British Painters By Richard Redgrave; Samuel Redgrave Phaidon Press, 1947
British Art and the Mediterranean By F. Saxl; R. Wittkower Oxford Univ. Press, 1948
Art in Roman Britain By J. M. C. Toynbee; Otto Fein Phaidon Press, 1962
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