The story of British art in seven paragraphs

British art covered only six pages in a book on the history of art published in the 1940s that Andrew Graham-Dixon read when young, he told an audience at the London Library yesterday. The chapter was written by Kenneth Clarke, who concluded “The British are not a visual people.” That’s not the right conclusion, insisted Graham Dixon.

British art suffered, he said, suffered from an act of cultural vandalism equalled only by Mao Tse Tung in the Cultural Revolution in China. (That, I’m sure, is a disputable statement.) In the Reformation the Church of England destroyed 99.5% of all British art—because art in those days was always religious. Wooden statues of Christ were piled high in Charterhouse Square and burnt. When Queen Mary came to the throne Catholicism was again tolerated and some art reappeared, only for that to be destroyed when Elizabeth became Queen. Cromwell finished the job, and, said Graham-Dixon, the Church of England has blamed him although it was the main offender.

No art meant that there were no artists. There was nobody to learn from, which is why when aristocrats wanted their pictures painted they imported foreign artists like Holbein and Van Dyck.

The British aristocracy came to value art through the Grand Tour, which was in many ways a Grand Shopping Trip, buying paintings by all the Italian and foreign masters. This was art, but if the British aristocrats wanted their wife, children, horse, or house painted they had to resort to British artists, whom they saw as tradesmen. They were not like the Old Masters.

Joshua Reynolds led the charge against this attitude, founding the Royal Academy of Arts in 1768 with the aims of raising the prestige of British artists and providing training. Reynolds gave lectures in which he imagined a time when there would be British artists as great as Michelangelo, his hero, and a British creation as great as the Sistine Chapel, the zenith of art for Reynolds.

Graham-Dixon believes that within the constraints of having to paint wives, horses, and houses British artists began to express themselves as artists with something to say not just tradesmen fulfilling a contract. Reynolds painted society beauties as classical goddesses. Stubbs painted horses in an exact and loving way that through intense study of horse anatomy looked forward to Darwin’s theory of evolution, claimed Graham-Dixon in another bold statement. Constable painted not the landscapes of the aristocrats but his landscapes, filled with working people and injected with the sublime. And Turner, achieved the miraculous (see next blog).

The British are a visual people but missed some three centuries while the Italians, Spanish, French, and Dutch moved forward in painting and sculpture.

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