The Development of British Art and Painting

The earliest account of the practice of painting in this country is that afforded by Cwsar, who describes the mode in which the primeval inhabitants were wont to adorn their persons by painting on their skins representations of the sun moon and stars, and other devices, for which they used the juices of different plants. As living human flesh is by no means a favourable or an inviting material on which to exercise pictorial skill, we may infer that certain other substances were used as well, and that the art was generally cultivated, whatever might be the amount of manual dexterity in its pursuit which was then attained. We possess, however, at the present no remains of paintings of this early period, although of the achievements of the Anglo-Saxons in this respect, several remains are preserved in the missals of that era. And whatever improvement the Anglo-Saxons may have derived from an acquaintance with Greek art, or the instructions of foreign artists, an independent school for the illumination of manuscripts appears to have existed in Ireland as early as the sixth century; and the perfection to which the Anglo-Saxons had arrived in this branch of painting at the beginning of the eighth, is sufficiently proved by many existing manuscripts, particularly Cuthbert’s gospels, the work of Eadfrid, Bishop of Lindisfarne, who came to that See in 698.* Although we cannot distinctly trace the progress of this art, it may be inferred from various circumstances that it continued in a flourishing and improving state from the eighth to the tenth and eleventh centuries, which were very prolific in Anglo-Saxon works of calligraphy and illumination. t The drawing in some of these missals displays no little proficiency; the draperies especially are full of grace and intelligence, and the decorations, which are in a style altogether peculiar to the Anglo-Saxon school, exhibit bold and rich masses of foliage not to be surpassed either in composition or execution by any contemporary productions of the same class. The expression, too, is often very forcible. Stubbs in the ‘ Actus Pontificum Eboracensium’ speaks of a magnificent “heaven ” executed in gold and colours under Archbishop Aldred shortly before the Conquest. And the Saxon ladies were reputed eminently skilful in the art of embroidery, and executed patterns and designs of various kinds in drapery.

In Alfred’s reign, before York and Canterbury were adorned with pictures and tapestry, in the tenth century, Etherilda adorned Ely Cathedral with a series of historical pictures in memory of her husband Birthwood.

The famous Bayeux tapestry, representing the different events in the Norman invasion and the death of Harold, may be also referred to as a graphic production of this time, and is still to be seen, in an excellent state of preservation in the Hôtel de Ville at Bayeux.

Before the middle of the thirteenth century historical painting appears to have been practised in England among the higher classes. All the king’s rooms as well as his chapel were thus decorated.

In 1350 were commenced the pictures and designs in St. Stephen’s Chapel; and it is curious to see in all the accounts, observes our celebrated historical painter Haydon, the continual allusions to oil painting. The artists employed, he remarks, must certainly have been men of distinguished talent, who had the power of ordering inferior artists to assist them. The most celebrated of their number appears to have been Hugh de St. Alban’s, who was appointed by the king as his principal painter.

The compositions, principally in fresco, with which our cathedrals and churches of this early period were adorned, were, however, in general; very rudely executed. The figures were incorrectly drawn, and no attention to composition was displayed. Indeed, it must be acknowledged that, in many in-stances they possessed but a very distant, and in no respect flattering resemblance to the objects they were intended to represent. The faces of the persons portrayed were altogether destitute of expression, the limbs were without proportion or symmetry, and the drapery was stiff and unnatural. Even portraits in the early stages of the art, were very rude grim grotesque and deathlike in their appearance, and the draperies were generally stiff and unnatural.

The illustration of missals and of books of chivalry, was, however, at an early period a favourite pursuit among many of the higher ranks in this country, as well as with the monks, and served to advance the art of painting in this line. Some of these performances were very beautifully executed, with brilliant colours, excellence in which is at least one important branch of pictorial art. Constant attention to and exercise in these de-signs, would necessarily produce mechanical skill. Several of these works are preserved in the British Museum.

During the reign of Henry III. the embellishment of our cathedrals and palaces was promoted, and foreign artists were employed for this purpose. Saints and legends and historical compositions were, as it were, manufactured in a rude style, the figures being misshapen and out of proportion, and altogether destitute of grace and beauty. War and civil dissension seem to have had their due share of influence in England in retarding the progress of art, even in its rude and infant state. During the reigns of Edward I. and Edward II. the arts appear to have been neglected, and no account of their progress is pre-served. But in the reign of Edward III. painting and sculpture, and also poetry and architecture, received encouragement and advanced. Representations and descriptions in them, however, of this period, imbibed something of the warlike spirit of the age. A composition in painting on wood, in part historical and in part allegorical, representing Henry V. and certain of his relatives, was produced during the reign of that Sovereign.

In the 25th of Edward III. in the rolls of the Exchequer, 26th September, 1351, there is a charge to ” William of Padyngton, for making twenty angels to stand in the tabernacles, by task work at 6s. 8d. for each image, £6. 13s. 4d.”

In the early stages of painting, and, indeed, as late as the time of Henry VIII. an artist of even first-rate powers in his day was looked upon as a mere mechanic. Works of art were bargained for and measured out like commercial articles ; pictures were done by contract, and paid for by the square yard. Very curious documents are now extant relative to agreements made for the execution of works of this description. In the fifteenth century we are informed of a contract which the Earl of Warwick made with his tailor for the painter’s work to be displayed in the pageantry of his embassy to France. Among the items in this artist’s bill is one ” for a grete streamer for the ship of xi yerdes length and viii yerdes of brede, with a grete bere and gryfon holding a ragged staffe, poudred fuie of ragged staves, and for a grete crosse of St. George ; for the lymning and portraying E1. 6s. 8d.”* This age, indeed, produced little beyond mere decorative painting. To this period, however, be-longs a famous painting of the ‘Dance of Death,’ which was executed in the cloister of St. Paul’s, and which is supposed to have furnished the prototype of Holbein’s celebrated design.

The art of painting, but more especially that of portrait painting, rose during the reign of Henry VIII. Holbein, who particularly excelled in this branch, came over to England at that time, and was the principal painter employed by the court. Many of his productions remain among us at this day. The paintings of Holbein correspond in their character and quality with contemporaneous performances in the other arts. They are stiff and formal and motionless ; but they are at the same time intensely expressive and forcible, full of character and feeling, and wonderfully true to nature. In some of his historical compositions he displays great power of invention and imagination. Allusion has already been made to his `Dead Christ’ at Basle. t Efforts in sculpture poetry and eloquence, and in costume also of the same period, will be found to be correspondingly characterized. With the grace and refinement of a more advanced era of civilization, we have lost much of the vigour and energy and striking effect which distinguished these earlier performances in each of the arts. As regards the paintings of the period now under consideration, it would appear, however, that from foreigners art of each kind in this country received an impetus, independent of the natural taste and skill of the nation. Allegorical pictures were also much admired at that time ; and the execution of designs on tapestry served to encourage the actual practice, and to advance the art of painting itself, however it may have tended to degenerate its style. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, a representation was made in tapestry of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, which was considered very spirited and very fine, and which, before the destruction of the Houses of Parliament in 1834 adorned the walls of the House of Lords.

Rubens, Vandyke, and several other very eminent painters, subsequently visited this country ; but the art does not appear to have been established by them, although they left among us many of their works. Nor can we regard their productions actually brought forth here as proofs of the talent of the English School ; of the mind and taste and genius of the nation. Several splendid paintings were also then imported, which remain among us to this day. The Cartoons were brought into England from Italy, in the time of Charles I., so that there was then a taste for art alive in the nation much in advance of the power of our artists. The early illustrations which were produced at the close of the seventeenth century for popular imaginative works, such as Milton’s ‘ Paradise Lost’ and Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ evince, nevertheless, by the rude and barbarous compositions which they present, that the common principles of the art had not then become engrafted in our soil.

Sir James Thornhill, who lived about the beginning of the last century, and whose designs still continue to ornament the cupola of St. Paul’s, was the first artist worthy of being classed as an historical painter that England produced. His performances are spirited, and display considerable feeling, and extensive knowledge of epic composition. Sir Joshua Reynolds must, however, be regarded as the actual founder of the English school of painting. He it was who, first among our native painters pointed out the real end and great capacities of this art, and who laid down principles for its regulation which were calculated to raise it to the loftiest station among intellectual pursuits. Through him an academy was established for promoting the study of painting sculpture and architecture; thus making these arts a branch of national study, and affording a national testimony to their importance. Sir Joshua Reynolds, although his Discourses read before the Academy relate principally to the highest branches of the art, and to the principles of epic and imaginative composition, followed portrait painting almost exclusively, occasionally making attempts in historical design. These have not, however, I think really contributed to his renown, but have rather served to evince that his devotion to portrait painting had disqualified him for success in the higher walks of the art, and that his genius and imagination had been cramped by this means. His compositions appear stiff and formal, and his figures have too much the appearance of portraits. His representations of persons in historical characters are, nevertheless, many of them very admirable, and a master-piece in this style was his picture of ‘ Mrs. Siddons as the Tragic Muse.’ The portraits by Sir Joshua Reynolds display not only the features and outward form of the individuals, but they describe them with all the intellectual expression and character and feeling which distinguished them.

It has been matter of regret among many, that men possessed of the genius and power, the knowledge of human nature and human passions, and the capacities so strikingly to describe what they saw and felt, which have characterized certain of our most distinguished artists who have occupied themselves in portrait painting ; should have devoted their lives and their energies to the study of this particular branch of art, to the neglect of that nobler and more ambitious department of it, where full scope for the display of their talents would have been afforded. Some of them have, moreover, evinced capacity and genius for original composition, and corresponding feelings of admiration for the noblest works of art. Sir Joshua Reynolds also displayed in his Discourses a perfect knowledge of the principles of the epic. From these circumstances we may reasonably infer that, had they devoted themselves to the pursuit of the highest walk in the arts, they might have produced works in that branch as great, comparatively, as those which they have left to us in that inferior one which they followed. In this case, however, would posterity, and their countrymen in general, have been benefited by the change ? From the choice which they made, the present, and all succeeding generations, will have the opportunity of viewing and forming correct notions of the portraits of all the great characters that have adorned the page of history contemporaneously with any of these renowned painters. We seem thus to retain among us, not only their works and their remembrance, but their very persons.

Portrait painting not merely preserves to us the effigies of the eminent men, and of the valued friends that we have lost, but enables us to retain in our minds an exact remembrance of them, with all the vigour and animation which they displayed in life. Many of the portraits by Reynolds and Lawrence, and Gainsborough, too, although this artist is mainly admired as an exquisite painter of rural scenes, must be considered equal, if not superior, to any works of this kind, even by the most renowned of the old masters, and that in the highest characteristics with which such performances can be endowed. England has, indeed, been doubly fortunate, not only in having produced in the last age painters so well fitted to hand down to posterity the resemblance of her illustrious departed, but in possessing illustrious characters truly worthy of being so handed down.

Nor, considered merely in itself, must we rank the art of portrait painting as it was practised by such men as Sir Joshua Reynolds, so far below the highest walk in painting as an intellectual art. To be enabled to dive, as it were, into the very soul of the individual who is to be represented, to seize at once upon his character and expression and manner, and to transplant these to the canvas, are the efforts of men endowed with no common degree of knowledge of human nature, and with no ordinary portion of observation and skill.

Among the works that have been produced in this country in the historical branch of painting, those of Mr. West, who succeeded Sir Joshua Reynolds as president of the Royal Academy, are well worthy of attention. The compositions of this renowned artist are distinguished by great vigour and grandeur in conception, and much force and truth in expression; and some of them almost rival in dignity and mental power, if not in manual execution, the performances of the celebrated masters of old.

The portraits of Sir Thomas Lawrence, who succeeded Mr. West in the presidency of the Royal Academy, were in many respects held to rival those of Sir Joshua Reynolds, in that intellectual expression and vigour which so distinguished the performances of the latter. In the portrayal of female beauty, and in the representation of children, he was perhaps even his superior; and several of his male portraits also are masterpieces in the art of the highest order.

The classical designs of Barry, who was, moreover, a distinguished writer and critic upon art, and the historical productions of Northcote, Opie, and other eminent artists, deserve also here to be recorded. In some of the wild and imaginative compositions of Fuseli, in which character and feeling are very forcibly described, and full effect and vigour are infused into the representation, several of Shakespeare’s most vivid conceptions have been successfully depicted upon canvas, and with all the life and energy of the reality.

Nor ought we to omit all mention of the compositions of the incomparable Hogarth, whose productions have indeed already been referred to in another chapter, as illustrations of the satirical and humorous in design.* In genuine humour, certainly more refined and in some respects more natural, Hogarth has been rivalled, if not excelled by Wilkie. Of domestic and pastoral and everyday scenes we have had many excellent painters, whose performances have been distinguished alike for their simple beauty, their exquisite feeling, and their fidelity to nature.

The historical compositions of Mr. Martin, must be reckoned in many respects for extraordinary imaginative power, for vigour and grandeur of description, for wonderful perspective knowledge, and for the striking effect which they attain, as among the most remarkable and original artistical productions of modern days. His pictures, considered merely as such, in mechanical execution, are inferior to many ; the colouring is unnatural, and the drawing is incorrect. His works might be referred to as forcible examples both of the breach, and of the result produced by the observance, of several of the most important principles of art. In this respect, and perhaps in certain others, he might be compared to Shakespeare, of whose genius it was observed by a great writer,* that it was ” genius shooting wild, and that it was doubtful whether his faults or his beauties were greatest.” Mr. Martin seems to have invented a style of his own, in which none can rival or even approach him. Many would deny him to be worthy of holding a place among the epic painters, as in the de-lineation of human character and passion, the noblest aim of this branch of the art, he is not only very deficient, but has hardly ever attempted it, and it is as a landscape-painter that he must be regarded. Yet there is no one in our age who has represented with such effect and power those grand and wild and supernatural scenes which it is the peculiar province of the highest branch in the art of painting to describe.

In landscape painting we have produced several eminent artists, especially in water colours, which, as regards its invention, and the excellence to which it has been carried, may be. considered as a peculiarly English art.

In water-colour drawings, indeed, English artists particularly excel, especially in the representation of landscape scenery; and in this department the moderns have no doubt decidedly and far exceeded the ancients. In tints, and in perspective more especially, they are considerably their superiors. In the portrayal of scenes of still life as regards animal painting, both in water colours and in oils, the productions of the moderns, especially those of Sir Edward Landseer, have also surpassed the ancients ; but in depicting active animal life, the earlier painters, especially Snyders, and the ancient Greek sculptors, as exemplified by the Elgin Marbles, are no less certainly our rivals.

In landscape painting in oils, as well as in water colours, the moderns, particularly the English school, appear decidedly to surpass the ancients, and here we are superior to the artists of every other country, more especially as regards colouring, and light and shade. In portrait painting also, in the present day, the English excel the Continental artists, however their productions may fall below those of the portrait painters—the Vandykes and Knellers, and Lelys and Reynoldses—of former ages.

Among the landscape painters of this country, Turner must undoubtedly be acknowledged to be one of the most remark-able, if not the most renowned. It is nevertheless in mechanical rather than in mental efforts that he has succeeded ; and it must be admitted that he is as inferior to Martin in the latter, as he is superior to him in the former. In manual excellence it is, in certain departments only, that his skill is displayed, more especially in prismatic effects, and in portraying certain hues and tints. Indeed, the true and fair position which I shall assign to Turner, and which a just and discerning and impartial posterity will, I believe, accord to him, is this. He is not, as has been asserted, the greatest landscape painter who ever lived, or even who has adorned this country ; and he is far inferior generally, and in their highest qualities, to either Claude, Salvator Rosa, Wilson, or Gainsborough. To Martin he is superior in mechanical skill, although far his inferior in imagination and mental power generally, as also in perspective effect. Turner’s merits consist really and solely in his power of representing with wonderful truth and vigour certain prismatic results, the appearance of mist and spray, as also of water when agitated, the rays of the sun when it is declining, and the varied appearance of the sky. In many respects he was unrivalled here, especially as a painter of clouds. But beyond this, he can only be allowed to rank with other artists.

There can be no doubt, indeed, that by a painter of high poetic genius, landscape scenery may be invested with a degree of intellectual interest and character, and even expression, and may be capacitated to call forth the most vivid feelings, and to excite the imagination almost equally with the productions of the epic. This we have, in fact, seen to be the case with Salvator Rosa and Claude, and Wilson and Gainsborough, and above all with Martin. But Turner, although in some of his pictures he occasionally ventured upon attempts of this kind, appears to me to be generally in this respect far below the great painters that I have mentioned, if indeed, even in his highest efforts, he has ever even approached them.

As landscape painting seems to be peculiarly the walk in which the English excel, especially in the present age; the dwelling so extensively, indeed so exclusively on the importance of tints and light and shade, and the effects of sun-beams and mists, and other peculiar features of nature, which distinguishes the writings of certain artistical critics of the pre-sent day, is no doubt very applicable, and very essential to landscape painting, however misplaced as regards epic and other compositions of that high class. My aim in the present work is rather to recommend the infusion of intellectual characteristics as regards passion and expression and imagination, into landscape composition,—as has been successfully and indeed completely effected in the productions of Salvator Rosa, and Claude, and Martin, and some other artists,—than to limit the higher walks of art to the ordinary objects within the scope of that department of painting.

Our skill in science has indeed enabled us to carry to a very high degree of perfection, in its various departments, the art of engraving, a good and complete history of the rise and progress of which would constitute a very valuable addition to our artistic and scientific literature. Engraving is, indeed, calculated to have an important influence in advancing the arts generally, especially as by this means the mind of the painting is capable of being fully translated, and copies of the work may be widely diffused.

By the aid, moreover, of this branch of art, not only can a painting be faithfully copied, or rather translated; but from the number of impressions which can be taken from the plate, a very large amount of care and labour and skill may be expended on each work, so as to render it as complete as possible. The same degree of pain and attention may, in fact, be devoted to the plate itself, that might have been bestowed on all the impressions together which are produced from it, considering them each as separate independent works of art, and far beyond what was allowed to the original painting.

The science of photography has also, in our day, greatly aided the copying of paintings and statues, as also the obtaining of correct and literal portraits of living characters. On the other hand, it must be confessed that, in this latter respect, photography presents to us not the soul-gifted man, but the form only, void of vitality and of soul. It is not nature, but the ghost of nature that it brings before you. Phantom-like it is pale and stiff, and cold and colourless, destitute of either blood in the veins, fire in the eyes, or glow in the cheeks ; a dreary contrast, not only to the living man himself, but to the almost animate representations which sprang from the genius of a Vandyke, a Reynolds, and a Lawrence.