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HISTORY OF BRITISH_ART
 
 


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Skilled immigrants

England is exceptionally late, among the wealthier regions of western Europe, in developing a native school of artists of sufficient distinction for their names to survive. The exquisite Wilton Diptych, dating from the 1390s, may have been painted in England (its origin is uncertain), but it has no national characteristics (being classed in the International Style) and it is anonymous. From the period when the great Renaissance masters are at work in Italy, the Netherlands or Germany, there is no English artist whose name survives. When English kings and nobles want their portrait painted, they look to continental Europe for someone with the necessary skills.

By far the most distinguished painter to fulfil this function is Hans Holbein, who spends thirteen years in England between 1526 and 1543.
 









Holbein provides the images by which we know members of the Tudor court, and in particular Henry VIII himself. He also profoundly influences John Bettes, the first English portrait painter whose name has come down to us. Bettes' name survives by a single lucky accident. A painting known simply as A Man in a Black Cap, now in Tate Britain, bears the inscription faict par Johan Bettes Anglois (made by John Bettes Englishman). It is significant that his English origin is considered worthy of mention.

Bettes' portrait, dating from 1545 (two years before the death of Henry VIII), is very closely in the forthright Holbein style. But in the subsequent Tudor reigns a different kind of portraiture is more in demand.
 







English aristocrats now like to be depicted in sumptuous clothes and jewellery, often half- or full-length (thus showing more of a spectacular costume) and frequently with pale faces and distant, reserved expressions. One of the first exponents of this style is Hans Eworth, who comes to England from Antwerp in about 1545 and remains until his death in 1573.

Later in the century a second John Bettes, son of the first, also paints in the new style. But the most fashionable painter now is Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, who arrives as a child in 1568 with his Protestant family, fleeing from religious persecution in Bruges. His painting of Elizabeth I, painted probably in 1592 and now in the National Portrait Gallery, is an outstanding example of this ornate school of portraiture.
 







Another splendid example, dating from some twenty years earlier, is an oil painting of the queen by Nicholas Hilliard (now in Tate Britain). With Hilliard the story of British painting reaches its first native-born artist of international reputation, but this almost life-size portrait is entirely unchacteristic of his work - in terms of size rather than style.

Holbein, while working in and around the English court in the 1530s, had developed a new interest. He tried his hand at painting miniatures, tiny images on vellum or ivory of a kind which were being produced at the time by Flemish artists illuminating manuscripts for Henry VIII's library. In doing so he unwittingly encourages the emergence later in the century of the first identiable school of English art, with Hilliard as its founder.
 






Hilliard and Oliver: 16th - 17th century

The first important English painter, Nicholas Hilliard, is born in 1547, four years after Holbein's death in London. When he writes his Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning, late in life, he says that his model in painting miniatures was always Holbein.

From the 1570s Hilliard is a prolific painter of the queen, of the nobility and of anyone else willing to commission him. More than 200 of his exquisite little portraits survive (as opposed to only a dozen by Holbein). They are the first English view of the English. In addition to the usual tiny head-and-shoulder portraits (in precious settings, often worn as a jewel), Hilliard pioneers a new tradition - that of the full-length miniature.
 









One of Hilliard's earliest full-length miniatures is the Young Man among Roses of about 1587. It has the dreamy quality characteristic of these larger miniatures, both by Hilliard himself and by his pupil Isaac Oliver (son of a Huguenot goldsmith, who brings his family to London in 1568) . The same mood pervades Oliver's miniature of the 1590s, now bewitchingly entitled Unknown Melancholy Young Man.

Isaac Oliver dies in 1617 and is followed as painter to the English court by his son Peter. During Peter's career a foreign portrait painter arrives who easily outshines all English competition. But this foreigner makes such an enormous contribution, and has such influence on the English portrait tradition, that he must be considered as part of British art. He is Anthony van Dyck.
 






Van Dyck: 1618-1641

Van Dyck works in Rubens' studio in Antwerp between 1618 and 1620 and then spends most of the 1620s in Italy. In Genoa he makes an extremely successful career as a portrait painter, providing elegant and darkly dramatic full-length portraits of the city's aristocracy.

It is this same elegance, in a slightly gentler vein and with a lighter palette, which later makes van Dyck the favourite portrait painter in English court circles. He moves to London in 1632 and is immediately encouraged by Charles I, a most enthusiastic and knowledgeable collector of paintings. Within weeks of Van Dyck's arrival the king and queen are sitting for him. That same summer he is knighted.
 









There are to be many more such portraits of the royal pair. The charming but weak face of Charles I, with the delicately trimmed beard, and the fragile beauty of Henrietta Maria are the most familiar images of British monarchs, in the entire long span between the queens Elizabeth and Victoria, entirely thanks to the skill of van Dyck.

Other members of the aristocracy are as eager to use his services. They glow in his canvases, handsome and arrogant Cavaliers in fine fabrics (John and Bernard Stuart in London's National Gallery are a perfect example). Nemesis awaits them when civil war breaks out in 1642. But the painter who gives them immortality has died in the previous year.
 







Unexpectedly, there is a talented English portraitist on hand to record the Cavaliers during the difficult years (1642-6) when the king establishes his court in exile at Oxford. Relatively little is known about Dobson until he succeeds Van Dyck in 1641 as chief painter to the court, and he dies in his mid-thirties in 1646. But in his four years at Oxford he produces some fifty portraits, closer in style to Titian and the Venetian school than to the refined elegance of Van Dyck.

Most notable of all among Dobson's works is the strongly characterized portrait of the Cavalier collector and connoisseur of art, Endymion Porter (now in Tate Britain).
 






Foreign sculptors: 17th - 18th century

There is a rich tradition of tomb sculpture in British cathedrals and parish churches, from the middle ages through to the 18th century, and most of these effigies are carved by local artists. But once fashionable sculptors become part of the scene, in the late 17th century, the story is the same as with painting. Almost without exception they come from the northern regions of continental Europe.

Even the most famous and the most English-seeming of them is born and trained in Holland. Grinling Gibbons, son of an English father, comes to London in his late teens and rapidly establishes a reputation for his still lives of fruit, foliage, dead birds and musical instruments, carved with astonishing realism in limewood.
 









Gibbons' older contemporary, the Danish sculptor Cauis Gabriel Cibber, has already been in London for a few years when Gibbons arrives in about 1667. Cibber works in stone and on a more monumental scale. Indeed his first important commission is a scene for the pedestal of Wren's Monument to the Great Fire. His panel in relief (1673-5) shows Charles II, in Roman costume, offering comfort and protection to the inhabitants of the desolated city.

Antwerp is the home town of the next two distinguished continental sculptors to make their careers in England. They arrive in the early 18th century, by which time the peak of sculptural success is to carve lavish baroque monuments to famous Britons in Westminster Abbey.
 







John Michael Rysbrack, who arrives in about 1720, succeeds in this field with his tribute of 1731 to Isaac Newton, mourned by two plump cherubs as he reclines at ease in a Roman toga, resting an elbow on four of his great folio volumes.

Peter Scheemakers moves from Antwerp to London at the same period as Rysbrack. He shows his paces in Westminster Abbey with a monument to another British worthy, carving in 1740 a full-length standing version of Shakespeare. The bard leans an elbow on a pile of three folio volumes and points languidly to an unfurling manuscript version of a famous speech from The Tempest.
 







Some ten or fifteen years after the arrival of Rysbrack and Scheemakers, a French sculptor moves to London and soon outshines his Flemish predecessors. Born in Lyons, he is Louis François Roubiliac (also spelt Roubillac). More informal in style than the older pair, Roubiliac has an immediate and early success with a delightfully natural statue of Handel commissioned in 1735 for Vauxhall Gardens.

But he prevails also in the less frivolous surroundings of Westminster Abbey, where he provides no fewer than seven major monunents. In the most famous of them a shrouded figure of Death emerges from a tomb to aim his lance at Elizabeth Nightingale.
 






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