English Painting


“Britain had one century of painting.”
Elie Faure’s statement summarizes best what critics, art researchers and collectors haven’t had the space, the heart or the inspiration to say in their restless attempts to present English Art.
WHY? To answer this question we must take into account more than history and documents, we must evaluate the essence, the soul of the creator, of the English man.
Andrew Crawley describes in his book (“England”), the English people as being profoundly conservative.The English men feel, instinctively, that the present is not only the creation of the contemporaries, but also the result of the work of many past generations. For them, everything is related to the past, which, thus, becomes the origin of the present. The English man’s being conservative is only a habit, derived from his deep understanding of reality. His practical sense, which has been widely acknowledged, must be attributed to this perception he has on reality. This leads to his native ability of adapting and assimilating the “new”. The English man is closely related to history and he permanently gains practical advice from it.
This kind of peaceful bonding between a people and its history, during these stormy centuries of fight and rebellion (the XVIIIth and the XIXth centuries), which singles out the British people from the other European nations, creates an equilibrium which is incompatible with such artistic manifestations as painting. The practical Puritan spirit refuse painting and, when it finally emerges this mentality makes it lose her way. The English soul subordinates the highest aspirations to material necessities. It extends over the Universe the power of reason; Bacon gives an immediate and practical purpose to knowledge; the merchants organize their own materialistic Republic; “the Round Heads impose on the Republic their own strict rules. In this world there is no place for painting; the imaginary world of Shakespeare is enough to satisfy and relax its entire soul.
It is not until Charles II brings about from France a new less strict moral code of values, a new kind of literature, a new type of politics, that painting could assert itself as one of the mechanisms of the new system, but long before it could be acknowledged as a basic need of the English soul.

The Hierarchy of Categories in Painting in 1714-1768

The changes underwent by this hierarchy in this period were undoubtedly the ones that allowed the creation of the “Royal Academy of London” in 1768. This secured the official theoretical background absolutely necessary for the future development of painting in Britain.

“We are now arrived at the period in which the arts were sunk to the lowest ebb in Britain”, with this memorable statement Walpole opened his account of the painters in the reign of George I. The continued ascendancy of the portrait painters who were the favourites of Queen Anne and her Court, the withdrawal of the Venetian history painters, and the extravagant praise bestowed by national prejudice on Charles Jervas and William Kent in the uncritical search for an English Raphael seem to support the general charge against Georgian painting on the first half of the XVIIIth century. But Walpole’s verdict was coloured by his dislike of the latest phase of the English baroque. At least a few of the finest portraits were painted after the accession of George I, and the same may be said of Michael Dahl. For the first time in the history of English art a native-born painter, Sir James Thornhill, was almost wholly occupied with history painting comparable for splendour of architectural setting and thematic grandeur with the undertakings of the Old Masters. The minor categories were enriched by immigrant artists that excelled in “fêtes champêtres”, informal portraiture animal and flower painting and still life. The first Academies of Painting were launched to train a native school of history painters. Finally there was a remarkable growth of aesthetic criticism, particularly in the branch addressed to conoisseurs and artists, and this was to have a profound influence on taste and the practice of painters. What Walpole mistook for an ebb-tide was an incoming one.
According to a tradition inherited from the Italian Renaissance, the highest of all categories of painting was “istoria”, the term originally used for narrative pictures of state,