Britain has a distinguished artistic tradition along with a set of museums that house many of the world’s greatest visual masterpieces. Examine the lives and works of some of the great painters and sculptors, including William Hogarth, Joseph Turner, Thomas Gainsborough, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth.
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British Artists of the 18th Century
Let’s begin with William Hogarth, an engraver, painter, social commentator, and satirist. His sequences of illustrations like A Rake’s Progress, showing how a degenerate young man wasted his fortune and came to ruin, prefigured the development of cartoon strips and graphic novels.
Hogarth lived partly in the center of London but partly in Chiswick, a village west of the capital that has now been absorbed by it. His home is a museum of Hogarth’s life and work. He lived there from 1749, moving in when the house was about 30 years old and residing there almost until his death. Restored by a retired army officer in the early 20th century, it now contains a large collection of Hogarth’s prints and engravings, along with replicas of period furniture.
Another notable 18th-century artist, Joshua Reynolds, thrived as a society portraitist, charming and flattering his clients. He was one of the founders of the Royal Academy, in 1768, and served as its first president. The Academy’s intended role was to raise the level of artistic training in Britain, encourage patronage, and arbitrate questions of taste.
Reynolds’s great rival as a society portraitist was Thomas Gainsborough. He was born in Sudbury, Suffolk, in a house that is now dedicated to commemorating his life and work. His London home, Schomberg House on Pall Mall, whose façade is preserved, was grand enough by the last decades of his life that he could hold exhibitions of his own works there instead.
The Gainsborough House in Sudbury was already 200 years old when the future artist was born. His family modified it, adding a new façade, before going bankrupt when Thomas was age nine. In the house today is a fine collection of his prints and drawings; several portraits; many letters; his artist’s equipment, including a set of bladders used for storing paint; and his library of books on artistic taste and technique.
Landscape and Portrait Artists of the 19th Century
The greatest landscape painter of southern England was John Constable. He was not particularly interested in historical, religious, or mythological themes. His best-known works are landscapes: notably, Dedham Vale, Boat-Building near Flatford Mill, The Hay Wain, and The Lock. They caught on more quickly in France than England; Constable’s reputation gained ground only slowly at home, and he became a member of the Royal Academy only at the age of 52.
Flatford remains today a rustic village in Dedham Vale. The National Trust, which manages several of the principal buildings, is exaggerating only slightly when it claims: “Wandering beside the River Stour or looking at Flatford Mill … you can feel as if you are actually walking through one of [Constable’s] paintings.” The mill that Constable’s father operated is still there, now a protected building. The house visible on the left in The Hay Wain is also still there, albeit, looking smarter now than it did in 1821.
An important development of the early 19th century in Britain was the vogue for landscapes in watercolor. Constable’s contemporary Thomas Girtin was among the first specialist watercolorists of the landscape. His painting Jedburgh Abbey from the South East conforms closely to Gilpin’s ideas about the picturesque, featuring a dark foreground and a grand ruin at its center.
One of Girtin’s friends as a teenager was Joseph Turner, his exact contemporary, who later remarked that he would never have made his own reputation if Girtin had not died young. The recently opened Turner Contemporary art gallery in Margate, Kent, stands on the site of a boarding house where he used to visit the landlady, Mrs. Sophie Booth, who was also his mistress. It’s a vast space, inside a series of angular white concrete boxes, designed by David Chipperfield. Turner originals are too expensive for the museum to possess any, but traveling exhibitions often feature them, and the gallery has become the centerpiece of an attempt to revitalize a seaside town in decline.
Moving into the second half of the 19th century, I would like to turn now to William Morris—the central figure in the Arts and Crafts movement.
In 1871, he and the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti moved into Kelmscott Manor, at Lechlade in the Cotswolds. A seventeenth-century house, previously occupied by a prosperous farming family, they turned it into a treasure house of their paintings, drawings, tapestries, ceramics, carpets, metalwork, wallpapers, furniture, and glass. It is now a museum, equally impressive as a building and as a space for the collections.
The 20th Century: Sculpture Parks and Monuments in Britain
In the 1970s, the idea of sculpture parks caught on. Two good examples are Grizedale in the Lake District, and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park near Wakefield. In 1977, the Grizedale Society began to site sculptures along the paths of a forest area near to Coniston Water. By now, there are 90 of them. To see them, hike or ride a mountain bike through the woods, where you will come upon them blended into the landscape.
The 500 acres of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park are in less-rugged country, and here the sculptures sit on lawns rather than in a forest. The park is situated on the estate of an 18th-century mansion, Bretton Hall, and still includes follies commissioned by the original owner.
Monumental objects often become shorthand ways to identify places, as with the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the statue of Christ the Redeemer that overlooks Rio de Janeiro. An example in Britain is the Angel of the North, a steel sculpture on a hilltop in the town of Gateshead, near Newcastle upon Tyne. Designed by Antony Gormley, it is 65 feet high, has a wingspan of 175 feet, and is anchored by hundreds of tons of reinforced concrete to withstand high winds. It was placed there in 1998 amid controversy, with some local people loving it, others deploring it. Twenty years later, it has withstood the critics and is becoming iconic.
Judgments of what is good and what is bad in modern art are certain to continue. Let me put in a sympathetic word for one of the oddest recent works of sculpture, which I know about because I’m a railway enthusiast. This is a larger-than-life-size sculpture of the steam locomotive “Mallard,” the fastest steam train in world history, which was clocked at 126 mph in 1938. The city of Darlington, site of the world’s first public steam railway, commissioned the Scottish sculptor David Mach to build it in 1997. It is made of red brick—a team of 34 bricklayers labored for nearly six months to finish it. It even includes billows of smoke pouring from the locomotive’s chimney, which have also been captured in undulating brickwork. It appears to be rushing out of a tunnel in the form of a grassy bank, on top of which stands a viewing platform.
One of the many pleasures of wandering through provincial Britain is to encounter, unexpectedly, inventive works of contemporary art or landscape sculpture. They vary in quality just as contemporary audiences’ tastes vary. I try to be open-minded and to admit that the bafflement I sometimes feel might well be a sign of my limitations rather than the limitations of the works themselves.
Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture
Suggested Online Reading About Art in Britain
Introducing William Morris
Outside Art: Great Sculpture Parks and Trials
The Essentials of Understanding British Landscape Painting
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