English art  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

English art is the body of visual arts made in England. Prehistoric art in England generally followed trends in the whole of Britain, but with early medieval Anglo-Saxon art a very distinct English style began, also an Anglo-Saxon England that included much of modern Scotland. English art continued to have an individual character thereafter, though after 1707 it is covered under the art of the United Kingdom.

Although medieval English painting, mostly religious, had a strong national tradition and was at times influential on the rest of Europe, it was in decline from the 15th century. The English Reformation, which was especially destructive of art, not only brought the tradition to an abrupt stop but resulted in the destruction of almost all wall-paintings. Only illuminated manuscripts now survive in good numbers.

The art of the English Renaissance lagged behind that of other European countries, but there is already a strong interest in portraiture, which was the main form of painting for which there was a market, and the portrait miniature was more popular in England than anywhere else. Sculpture was mostly architectural and for monumental tombs. By the time of the Act of Union, the English taste for landscape painting was developing. In all these areas, reliance on imported artists was high, which remained the case until at least the 18th century.

Following historical surveys such as Creative Art In England by William Johnstone (1936 and 1950), Nikolaus Pevsner attempted a definition in his 1956 book The Englishness of English Art, as did Sir Roy Strong in his 2000 book The Spirit of Britain: A narrative history of the arts, and Peter Ackroyd in his 2002 book The Origins of the English Imagination.


Early development

Its earliest known developed form, one that continues to the present-day, is arguably the decorative surface pattern work exemplified by the Lindisfarne Gospels and the exterior carving of Anglo-Saxon churches and monuments. Ackroyd argues that the concern for a light and delicate outline, for surface pattern for its own sake, and for patterns and borders that threaten to overwhelm the portrayal of figures, have all been long-standing characteristics of a continuous English art. Other elements Ackroyd sees as inherited from the early Celtic church are a concern to portray the essence of animals, a tendency to understatement, and a concern for repeating structures that extends from Celtic knotwork to church organ music to Staffordshire ceramic-ware to stained glass windows and to the wallpapers of William Morris. Strong agrees with Ackroyd on all these points.

The English anti-intellectualism has led them to easily mingle fiction with observed facts, in order to invent 'traditions', but this has often given fresh life to traditions that would otherwise have gone stale. Pevsner noted, in the context of a consummate arts professionalism, a detachment and self-effacement among artists that often led them to belittle the act of creation, and to be willing to give away their ideas to be re-used by other artists.


Oil painting for portraits came comparatively late to England. Hans Holbein, an imported talent, is generally credited with founding an English school of portrait painting — although he too became influenced by the 'surface' nature of much English art. The rich ecclesiastical decoration of English churches was, to an extent, lost or scattered during the iconoclasm of the Reformation.

Present day portraiture is a rich and varied field, with artists such as Stuart Pearson Wright, Chris Ofili and Will Teather.

Royal collection

Charles I of England built up a great royal collection of art. This was largely saved for the nation, due to a combination of Cromwell's own inventory of the royal collection and the English Commonwealth's bureaucratic interia. So little had been sold by the time that Charles II was restored, that Charles was able to restore his late father's collection with no difficulty.

Cultural influence

England's art has long been considered to be lower than that of other countries where, among other things, the Renaissance, wiith its explosion of art, had more effect. However, England has exhibited a more quiet and leisurely form of art than that on the continent. This can especially be seen in the work of J.M.W. Turner. His beautiful landscapes are slightly impressionistic, but with more emotion. This is especially evident in The Fighting Temeraire.Perhaps as a reaction to Puritanism, England has long had an open acceptance of ribald or 'blue' humour, nonsense, and double-entendre in the popular arts, and also a general understanding that popular forms of culture are 'allowed' to influence the national self-conception just as much as high culture is.


It is popularly considered that English landscape painting typifies English art, inspired largely from the love of the pastoral arising from the poetry of Edmund Spenser, and mirroring as it does the development of larger country houses set in a pastoral rural landscape. Although it should be noted that English art lies equally in the tendency toward melancholia, often expressed as a love of the continuity of the past with the present, and a love of ghosts, and marvelous or gothic ruins.

As the population of England grew during the industrial revolution, a concern for privacy and smaller gardens becomes more notable in English art. There was also a new found appreciation of the open landscapes of romantic wilderness, and a concern for the ancient folk arts. William Morris is particularly associated with this latter trend, as were the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Another important influence, from about 1890 until 1926, was the growing knowledge about the visual art of Japan.

Being a coastal and sea-faring island nation, English art has often portrayed the coast and the sea. Being a nation of four distinct seasons, and changeable weather, weather effects have often been portrayed in English art. Weather and light effects on the English landscape have been a pre-eminent aspect of modern British landscape photography.

See also

Art of the United Kingdom*English school of painting

Museums exhibiting English art

Noted artists of the English style

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "English art" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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