History of British Painting

It may be premised in a general way, that the British painters have never possessed the pictorial cast of mind in the sense that the Italians, the French, or the Dutch have possessed it. Painting, as a purely pictorial arrangement of line and color, has been somewhat foreign to their conception. Whether this failure to appreciate painting as painting is the result of geographical position, isolation, race temperament, or mental disposition, would be hard to determine. It is quite certain that from time immemorable the English people have not been lacking in the appreciation of beauty ; but beauty has appealed to them, not so much through the eye in painting and sculpture, as through the ear, in poetry and literature. They have been thinkers, reasoners, moralists, rather than observers and artists in color. Images have been brought to their minds by words rather than by forms. English poetry has existed since the days of Arthur and the Round Table, but English painting is of comparatively modern origin, and it is not wonderful that the original leaning of the people toward literature and its sentiment should find its way into pictorial representation. As a result one may say in a very general way that English painting is more illustrative than creative. It endeavors to record things that might be more pertinently and completely told in poetry, romance, or history. The conception of large art—creative work of the Rubens-Titian type—has not been given to the English painters, save in exceptional cases. Their success has been in portraiture and landscape, and this largely by reason of following the model.

EARLY PAINTING: The earliest decorative art appeared in Ireland. It was probably first planted there by missionaries from Italy, and it reached its height in the seventh century. In the ninth and tenth centuries missal illumination of a Byzantine cast, with local modifications, began to show. This lasted, in a feeble way, until the fifteenth century, when work of a Flemish and French nature took its place. In the Middle Ages there were wall paintings and church decorations in England, as elsewhere in Europe, but these have now perished, except some fragments in Kempley Church, Gloucestershire, and Chaldon Church, Surrey. These are supposed to date back to the twelfth century, and there are some remains of painting in Westminster Abbey that are said to be of thirteenth- and fourteenth-century origin. From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century the English people depended largely upon foreign painters who came and lived in England. Mabuse, Moro, Holbein, Rubens, Van Dyck, Lely, Kneller—all were there at different times, in the service of royalty, and influencing such local English painters as then lived. The outcome of missal illumination and Holbein’s example produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a local school of miniature-painters of much interest, but painting proper did not begin to rise in England until the beginning of the eighteenth century—that century so dead in art over all the rest of Europe.

FIGURE AND PORTRAIT PAINTERS: Aside from a few inconsequential precursors the first English artist of note was Hogarth (1697-1764). He was more of an illustrator, a moralist, a satirist, than a painter. To point a moral upon canvas by depicting the vices of his time seems to have been more of an aim with him than the portrayal of beauty. It does not appear in his work that he possessed much artistic feeling. The decorative sense in line, the eye for beauty of color, the painter’s (taste in adjustment and handling, were not predominant qualities with him. His brush was rather dry, his color hot and not too harmonious, his drawing sharp and often faulty. An early man, a rigid stickler for the representation, a keen observer of physiognomy, a satirist with a sense of the absurd, he produced an at that taught a lesson, but a lesson that could have been as well taught in black – and – white as in color. In fact, it was reproduced very largely in engraving, and with quite as satisfactory results as in color. However, Hogarth was the first of the English School, and for his time held rank, and did much to promote the art of painting.

The next man to of the most considerable of all the English school, is Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792). He was a pupil of Hudson, but owed his art to many sources. Besides the influence of Van Dyck he was for some years in Italy, a diligent student of the great Italians, especially the Venetians, Correggio, and the Bolognese Eclectics. Sir Joshua was inclined to be eclectic himself, and from Italy he brought back a formula of art which, modified by his own individuality, answered him for the rest of his life. He was not a man of very lofty imagination or great invention. A few figure-pieces, after the Titian initiative, came from his studio, but his reputation rests upon his many portraits. In portraiture he was often beyond criticism, giving the realistic representation with dignity, an elevated spirit, and a suave brush. Even here he was more impressive by his broad truth of facts than by his artistic feeling. He was not a painter who could do things enthusiastically or excite enthusiasm in the spectator. There was too much of rule and precedent, too much regard for the traditions, for him to do anything strikingly original. His brush work and composition were more learned than individual, and his color, though usually good, was oftentimes conventional in contrasts. Taking him for all in all he was a very cultivated painter, a man to be respected and admired, but he had not quite the original spirit that we meet with in Gainsborough.

Reynolds was well-grounded in Venetian color, Bolognese composition, Parmese light-and-shade, and paid them the homage of assimilation; but if Gainsborough (1727–1788) had such school knowledge he positively disregarded it. He disliked all conventionalities and formulas. With a natural taste for form and color, and with a large decorative sense, he went directly to nature, and took from her the materials which he fashioned into art after his own peculiar manner. His celebrated Blue Boy was his protest against the conventional rule of Reynolds that a composition should be warm in color and light. All through his work we meet with departures from academic ways. By dint of native force and grace he made rules unto himself.

Some of them were not entirely successful, and in drawing he might have profited by school training ; but he was of a peculiar poetic temperament, with a dash of melancholy

about him, and preferred to work in his own way. In portraiture his color was rather cold ; in landscape much warmer. His brush-work was as odd as himself, but usually effective, and his accessories in figure-painting were little more than decorative after-thoughts. Both in portraiture and landscape he was one of the most original and most English of all the English painters—a man not yet entirely appreciated, though from the first ranked among the fore-most in English art.

Romney (1734-1802), a pupil of Steele, was often quite as masterful a portrait-painter as either Reynolds or Gainsborough. He was never an artist elaborate in composition, and his best works are bust-portraits with a plain background. These he did with much dash and vivacity of manner. His women, particularly, are fine in life-like pose and winsomeness of mood. He was a very cunning observer, and knew how to arrange for grace of line and charm of color.

After Romney came Beechey (1753-1839), Raeburn (1756-1823), Opie (1761-1807), none of them a remarkable painter.

Then followed Lawrence (1769–1830), a mixture of vivacious style and rather meretricious method. He was the most celebrated painter of his time, largely because he painted nobility to look more noble and grace to look more gracious. Fond of fine types, garments, draperies, colors, he was always seeking the sparkling rather than the true, and forcing artificial effects for the sake of startling one rather than stating facts simply and frankly. He was facile with the brush, clever in line and color, brilliant to the last degree, but lacking in that simplicity of view and method which marks the great mind. His composition was rather fine in its decorative effect, and, though his lights were often faulty when compared with nature, they were no less telling from the stand-point of picture-making. He is much admired by artists today, and, as a technician, he certainly had more than average ability. He was not a great artist like Reynolds or Gainsborough, but among the mediocre painters of his day he shone like a star. It is not worth while to say much about his contemporaries. Etty (1787–1849) was one of the best of the figure men, but his Greek types and classic aspirations grow wearisome on acquaintance ; and Sir Charles Eastlake (1793-1865), though a learned man in art and doing great service to painting as a writer, never was a painter of importance.

GENRE-PAINTERS: William Blake (1757–1827) was hardly a painter at all, though he drew and colored the strange figures of his fancy and cannot be passed over in any history of English art. He was perhaps the most imaginative artist of English birth, though that imagination was often disordered and almost incoherent. He was not a correct draughtsman, a man with no great color-sense, and a work-man without technical training ; and yet, in spite of all this, he drew some figures that are almost sublime in their sweep of power. His decorative sense in filling space with lines is well shown in his illustrations to the Book of Job In grace of form and feeling of motion he was excellent. Weird and uncanny in thought, delving into the unknown, he opened a world of mystery, peopled with a strange Apocalyptic race, whose writhing, flowing bodies are the epitome of graceful grandeur.

From Blake to Morland (1763–1804) is a step across space from heaven to earth. Morland was a realist of English country life, horses at tavern-doors, cattle, pigs. His life was not the most correct, but his art in truthfulness of representation, excellence of painting, richness of color and light, was all that could be desired. As a skilful technician he stood quite alone in his time, and seemed to show more affinity with the Dutch genre-painters than his own country-men. His works are much prized today, and were so during the painter’s life.

Sir David Wilkie (1785–1841) was also somewhat like the Dutch in subject, a genre-painter, fond of the village fete and depicting it with careful detail, a limpid brush, and good textural effects. In 1825 he travelled abroad, was gone some years, was impressed by Velasquez, Correggio, and Rembrandt, and completely changed his style. He then became a portrait and historical painter. He never outlived the nervous constraint that shows in all his pictures, and his brush, though facile within limits, was never free or bold as compared with a Dutchman like Steen. In technical methods Landseer (1802–1873), the painter of animals, was somewhat like him. That is to say, they both had a method of painting surfaces and rendering textures that was more ” smart ” than powerful. There is little solidity or depth to the brush-work of either, though both are impressive to the spectator at first sight. Landseer knew the habits and the anatomy of animals very well, but he never had an appreciation of the brute in the animal, such as we see in the pictures of Velasquez or the bronzes of Barye. The Landseer animal has too much sentiment about it. The dogs, for instance, are generally given those emotions pertinent to humanity, and which are only exceptionally true of the canine race. This very feature—the tendency to humanize the brute and make it tell a story—accounts in large measure for the popularity of Landseer’s art. The work is perhaps correct enough, but the aim of it is somewhat afield from pure painting. It illustrates the literary rather than the pictorial. Following Wilkie the most distinguished painter was Mulready (1786–1863), whose pictures of village boys are well known through engravings.

THE LANDSCAPE PAINTERS: In landscape the English have had something to say peculiarly their own. It has not always been well said, the coloring is often hot, the brush-work brittle, the attention to detail inconsistent with the large view of nature, yet such as it is it shows the English point of view and is valuable on that account. Richard Wilson (1713-1782) was the first landscapist of importance, though he was not so English in view as some others to follow. In fact, Wilson was nurtured on Claude Lorrain and Joseph Vernet and instead of painting the realistic English landscape he painted the pseudo-Italian landscape. He began working in portraiture under the tutorship of Wright, and achieved some success in this department ; but in 1 749 he went to Italy and devoted himself wholly to landscapes. These were of the classic type and somewhat conventional. The composition was usually a dark foreground with trees or buildings to right and left, an opening in the middle distance leading into the background, and a broad expanse of sunset sky. In the foreground he usually introduced a few figures for romantic or classic association. Considerable elevation of theme and spirit marks most of his pictures. There was good workmanship about the skies and the light, and an attentive study of nature was shown throughout. His canvases did not meet with much success at the time they were painted. In more modern days Wilson has been ranked as the true founder of landscape in England, and one of the most sincere of English painters.

THE NORWICH SCHOOL: Old Crome (1769–1821), though influenced to some extent by Hobbema and the Dutch painters, was an original talent, painting English scenery with much simplicity and considerable power. He was hard and rasping with his brush, and had a petty method of recording details combined with mannerisms of drawing and composition, and yet gave an out-of-doors feeling in light and air that was refreshing. His large trees have truth of mass and accuracy of drawing, and his foregrounds are painted with solidity. He was a keen student of nature, and drew about him a number of landscape painters at Norwich, who formed the Norwich School. Crome was its leader, and the school made its influence felt upon English landscape painting. Cotman (1782– 1842) was the best painter of the group after Crome, a man who depicted landscape and harbor scenes in a style that recalls the Dutch marine painters.

The most complete, full-rounded landscapist in England was John Constable (1776-1837). His foreign bias, such as it was, came from a study of the Dutch masters. There were two sources from which the English landscapists drew. Those who were inclined to the ideal, men like Wilson, Calcott (1779-1844), and Turner, drew from the Italian of Poussin and Claude ; those who were content to do nature in her real dress, men like Crome and Constable, drew from the Dutch of Hobbema and his contemporaries. A certain sombreness of color and manner of composition show in Constable that may be attributed to Holland ; but these were slight features as compared with the originality of the man. He was a close student of nature who painted what he saw in English country life, especially about Hampstead, and painted it with a knowledge and an artistic sensitiveness never surpassed in England. The rural feeling was strong with him, and his evident pleasure in simple scenes is readily communicated to the spectator. There is no at-tempt at the grand or the heroic. He never cared much for mountains or water, but was fond of cultivated uplands, trees, bowling clouds, and torn skies. Bursts of sunlight, storms, atmospheres, all pleased him. With detail he was little concerned. He saw landscape in large patches of form and color, and so painted it. His handling was broad and solid, and at times a little heavy. His light was often forced by sharp contrast with shadows, and often his pictures appear spotty from isolated glitters of light strewn here and there. In color he helped eliminate the brown landscape and substituted in its place the green and blue of nature. In atmosphere he was excellent. His influence upon English art was impressive, and in 1824 the exhibition at Paris of his Hay Wain, together with some work by Bonington and Fielding had a decided effect upon the then rising landscape school of France. The French realized that nature lay at the bottom of Constable’s art, and they profited, not by imitating Constable, but by studying his nature model.

Bonington (1801-1828) died young, and though of English parents his training was essentially French, and he really belonged to the French school, an associate of Delacroix. His study of the Venetians turned his talent toward warm coloring, in which he excelled. In landscape his broad handling was somewhat related to that of Constable, and from the fact of their works appearing together in the Salon of 1824 they are often spoken of as influencers of the modern French landscape painters.

Turner (1775—185 I) is the best known name in English art. His celebrity is somewhat disproportionate to his real merits, though it is impossible to deny his great ability. He was a man learned in all the forms of nature and schooled in all the formulas of art ; yet he was not a profound lover of nature nor a faithful recorder of what things he saw in nature, except in his early days. In the bulk of his work he shows the traditions of Claude, with additions of his own. His taste was classic (he possessed all the knowledge and the belongings of the historical landscape), and he delighted in great stretches of country broken by sea-shores, rivers, high mountains, fine buildings, and illumined by blazing sunlight and gorgeous skies. His composition was at times grotesque in imagination ; his light was usually bewildering in intensity and often unrelieved by shadows of sufficient depth ; his tone was sometimes faulty ; and in color he was not always harmonious, but inclined to be capricious, uneven, showing fondness for colors more than for color. The object of his work seems to have been to dazzle, to impress with a wilderness of lines and hues, to overawe by imposing scale and grandeur. That his paintings are impressive can-not be denied, but they often smack of the stage, and are more frequently grandiloquent than grand. His early works, especially in water-colors, where he shows himself a follower of Wilson, are much better than his later canvases in oil, many of which have changed color. The water-colors are carefully done, subdued in color, and true in light. From 1802, or thereabouts, to 1830 was his second period, in which Italian composition and much color were used. The last twenty years of his life he inclined to the bizarre, and turned his canvases into almost incoherent color masses. He had an artistic feeling for composition, linear perspective, and the sweep of horizon lines ; skies and hills he knew and drew with power ; color he hardly comprehended in its breadth ; and light he distorted for effect. Yet with all his shortcomings Turner was an artist to be respected and admired. He knew his craft, in fact, knew it so well that he relied too much on artificial effects, drew away from the model of nature, and finally passed into the extravagant.

THE WATERCOLORISTS: About the beginning of this century a school of water-colorists, founded originally by Cozens (1752—1799) and Girtin (1775-180z), came into prominence and developed English art in a new direction. It began to show with a new force the transparency of skies, the luminosity of shadows, the delicacy and grace of clouds, the brilliancy of light and color. Cozens and Blake were primitives in the use of the medium, but Stothard (1755–1834) employed it with much sentiment, charm, and plein-air effect. Turner was quite a master of it, and his most permanent work was done with it. Later on, when he rather abandoned form to follow color, he also abandoned water-color for oils. Fielding (1787—1849) used water-color effectively in giving large feeling for space and air, and also for fogs and mists ; Prout (1783-1852) employed it in architectural drawings of the principal cathedrals of Europe ; and Cox (1783—1859), Dewint (1784—1849), Hunt (1790—1864), Cattermole (1800—1868), Lewis (1805—1876), men whose names only can be mentioned, all won recognition with this medium. Water-color drawing is to-day said to be a department of art that expresses the English pictorial feeling better than any other, though this is not an undisputed statement.

Perhaps the most important movement in English painting of recent times was that which took the name of PRE-RAPHAELITISM: It was started about 1847, primarily by Rossetti (1828-1882), Holman Hunt (1827-), and Sir John Millais (1829-), associated with several sculptors and poets, seven in all. It was an emulation of the sincerity, the loving care, and the scrupulous exactness in truth that characterized the Italian painters before Raphael. Its advocates, including Mr. Ruskin the critic, maintained that after Raphael came that fatal facility in art which seeking grace of composition lost truth of fact, and that the proper course for modern painters was to return to the sincerity and veracity of the early masters. Hence the name pre-Raphaelitism, and the signatures on their early pictures, P. R. B., pre-Raphaelite Brother. To this attempt to gain the true regardless of the sensuous, was added a morbidity of thought mingled with mysticism, a moral and religious pose, and a studied simplicity. Some of the painters of the Brotherhood went even so far as following the habits of the early Italians, seeking retirement from the world and carrying with them a Gothic earnestness of air. There is no doubt about the sincerity that entered into this movement. It was an honest effort to gain the true, the good, and as a result, the beautiful ; but it was no less a striven-after honesty and an imitated earnestness. The Brotherhood did not last for long, the members drifted from each other and began to paint each after his own style, and pre-Raphaelitism passed away as it had arisen, though not without leaving a powerful stamp on English art, especially in decoration.

Rossetti, an Italian by birth though English by adoption, was the type of the Brotherhood. He was more of a poet than a painter, took most of his subjects from Dante, and painted as he wrote, in a mystical romantic spirit. He was always of a retiring disposition and never exhibited publicly after he was twenty-eight years of age. As a draughtsman he was awkward in line and not always true in modelling. In color he was superior to his associates and had considerable decorative feeling. The shortcoming of his art, as with that of the others of the Brotherhood, was that in seeking truth of detail he lost truth of ensemble. This is perhaps better exemplified in the works of Holman Hunt. He has spent infinite pains in getting the truth of detail in his pictures, has travelled in the East and painted types, costumes, and scenery in Palestine to gain the historic truths of his Scriptural scenes ; but all that he has produced has been little more than a survey, a report, a record of the facts: He has not made a picture. The insistence upon every de-tail has isolated all the facts and left them isolated in the picture. In seeking the minute truths he has overlooked the great truths of light, air, and setting. His color has always been crude, his values or relations not well pre-served, and his brush-work hard and tortured.

Millais showed some of this disjointed effect in his early work when he was a member of the Brotherhood. He did not hold to his early convictions however, and soon abandoned the pre-Raphaelite methods for a more conventional style. He has painted some remarkable portraits and some excellent figure pieces, and to-day holds high rank in English art ; but he is an uneven painter, often doing weak, harshly-colored work. Moreover, the English tendency to tell stories with the paint-brush finds in Millais a faithful upholder. At his best he is a strong painter.

Madox Brown (1821–1893) never joined the Brotherhood, though his leaning was toward its principles. He had considerable dramatic power, with which he illustrated historic scenes, and among contemporary artists stood well. The most decided influence of pre-Raphaelitism shows in Burne-Jones (1833–), a pupil of Rossetti, and perhaps the most original painter now living of the English school. From Rossetti he got mysticism, sentiment, poetry, and from association with Swinburne and William Morris, the poets, something of the literary in art, which he has put forth with artistic effect. He has not followed the Brotherhood in its pursuit of absolute truth of fact, but has used facts for-decorative effect in line and color. His ability to fill a given space gracefully, shows with fine results in his pictures, as in his stained-glass designs. He is a good draughtsman and a rather rich colorist, but in brush-work somewhat labored, stippled, and unique in dryness. He is a man of much imagination, and his conceptions, though illustrative of literature, do not suffer thereby, because his treatment does not sacrifice the artistic. He has been the butt of considerable shallow laughter from time to time, like many another man of power. Albert Moore (1840—), a graceful painter of a decorative ideal type, rather follows the Rossetti-Burne-Jones example, and is an illustration of the influence of pre-Raphaelitism.

OTHER FIGURE AND PORTRAIT PAINTERS : Among the con-temporary painters Sir Frederick Leighton (1830—), President of the Royal Academy, is ranked as a fine academic draughts-man, but not a man with the color-sense or the brushman’s quality in his work. Watts (1818—) is perhaps an inferior technician, and in color is often sombre and dirty ; but he is a man of much imagination, occasionally rises to grandeur in conception, and has painted some superb portraits, notably the one of Walter Crane. Orchardson (1835—) is more of a painter, pure and simple, than any of his con-temporaries, and is a knowing if somewhat mannered colorist. The other living men who may be generally mentioned are Erskine Nicol (1825—), Faed (1826—), Calderon (1833–), Boughton (1834–). In portraiture Holl (1845—1890) and Herkomer (1849—), have both won recognition.

LANDSCAPE AND MARINE PAINTERS: In the department of landscape there are many painters in England of contemporary importance. Vicat Cole (1833–1893) had considerable exaggerated reputation as a depicter of sunsets and twilights ; Cecil Lawson (1851–1882) gave promise of great accomplishment, and lived long enough to do some excellent work in the style of the French Rousseau, mingled with an influence from Gainsborough ; Alfred Parsons is a little hard and precise in his work, but one of the best of the living men ; and W. L. Wyllie is a painter of more than average merit. In marines Hook (1819—) belongs to the older school, and is not entirely satisfactory. The most modern and the best sea-painter in England is Henry Moore (1831 –), a man who paints well and gives the large feeling of the ocean with fine color qualities.

MODERN SCOTCH SCHOOL: There is at the present time a school of art in Scotland that seems to have little or no affinity with the contemporary school of England. Its painters are more akin to the Dutch and the French, and in their coloring resemble, in depth and quality, the work of Delacroix. Much of their art is far enough removed from the actual appearance of nature, but it is strong in the sentiment of color and in decorative effect. The school is represented by such men as James Guthrie, E. A. Walton, James Hamilton, George Henry, E. A. Hornell, Lavery, Melville, Crawhall, Roche, Lawson, McBride, Morton, Reid-Murray, Spence.

PRINCIPAL WORKS : English art cannot be seen to advantage out-side of England. In the Metropolitan Museum, N. Y., and in private collections like that of Mr. William H. Fuller in New York, there are some good examples of the older men—Reynolds, Constable, Gains-borough, and their contemporaries. In the Louvre there are some indifferent Constables and some good Boningtons. In England the best collection is in the National Gallery. Next to this the South Kensington Museum for Constable sketches. Elsewhere the Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Windsor galleries, and the private collections of the late Sir Richard Wallace, the Duke of Westminster, and others. Turner is well represented in the National Gallery, though his oils have suffered through time and the use of fugitive pigments. For the living men, their work may be seen in the yearly exhibitions at the Royal Academy and elsewhere. There are comparatively few English pictures in America.