Artists in the London Landscape

By Crow, Charlotte | History Today, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Artists in the London Landscape


Crow, Charlotte, History Today


THESE DAYS, as soon as an area becomes known as `arty', estate agents rub their hands in glee, house prices go up, and artists are often forced to move on. But this was not always the pattern. Why artists have congregated in certain areas, and what they have contributed to them, is the subject of a new exhibition, `Creative Quarters' the art world in London 1700 to 2000', which opens at the end of the month at the Museum of London. Curated by Lucy Peltz and Cathy Ross, the exhibition examines the relationship between artists and the capital over 300 years, revealing the ways artists and Londoners have interacted, and the broader impact of the art world on the geography of the capital.

Divided into geographical sections, each looking at a different chronological period, the earlier sections of the exhibition chart the growth of the arts as a profession, the relationship between art and trade, continental competition, changing tastes and types of patronage and the collaboration of artists with a supporting cast of clients, auctioneers, suppliers, colourmen, framers, engravers, printsellers and fellow practitioners.

In the mid-sixteenth century the City-based Painter-Stainers' Company controlled a range of artistic practices within the City Walls, from `face painters' (portraitists), to `Serjeant painters' (responsible for the interior and exterior painting of the royal palaces) to ordinary `house painters'.

The Company's insistence that only Liverymen could work as painters, and its exclusion of certain artists -- and all foreign ones -- from membership led to alternative communities of immigrant artists and nonmembers establishing themselves in `free' parishes to the west of the City, around Blackfriars, Fleet Street and Holborn. These areas were more practical in any case, as they were less crowded and closer to Westminster, the royal court and a crucial source of patronage.

The exhibition takes Covent Garden in the early eighteenth century as its first artists' quarter. Created as a smart suburb for the nobility in the 1630s, the area really came into its own for artists following the Restoration. The growth of the professional classes and their westward expansion of the capital in a period of economic growth, created a new type of patron with wealth and status to display, and streets of new town houses to be decorated and filled accordingly.

Among the early artists to capitalise on this boom were Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), and Sir James Thornhill (1675/6-1734) both, successful enough to be able to take properties on the fashionable Covent Garden Piazza. Paintings in this period were often collaborative affairs, with different artists contributing their area of expertise: for example, the face painter, his drapery man, and often someone else whose specialism would be filling in the background. This was one reason why it made sense for artists to live close to each other. …

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