Art in the UK


You can learn a lot about the history and culture of a country by looking at its art and that is certainly true of British art.

Prehistoric Art

While Stonehenge c. 2600 BC predates and predicts large Modernist stone sculpture and earthworks by thousands of years most experts are still unable to characterize the mysterious monuments as works of art, religious objects or as sacred stone monuments that conceal a more esoteric meaning, but no one can deny that they have inspired and fascinated artists for centuries.

So, we could say that the oldest art in the United Kingdom can be dated to the Neolithic period, and is found in a funerary context, but it is in the Bronze age that the first innovative artworks can be found. The Beaker people, who arrived in Britain around 2500 BC, were skilled in metal refining. At first, they worked mainly in copper, but around 2150 BC they learned how to make bronze. As there was a ready supply of tin in Cornwall and Devon, they were able to take advantage of this new process. They were also skilled in the use of gold, and especially around Wessex, culture excelled in the making of gold ornaments. Works of art placed in graves or sacrificial pits have survived, showing both innovation and high skills. Anglo-Saxon sculpting was outstanding for its time in the 11th century, as proved by pre-Norman Ivory carving.

In the Iron Age, the Celtic culture spread in the British isles, and with it a new art style.  Metalwork, especially gold ornaments, was still important, but stone and most likely wood was also used. This style continued into the Roman period, and would find a renaissance in the Medieval period. It also survived in the Celtic areas not occupied by the Romans, largely corresponding to the present-day Wales and Scotland.

Roman Britain

The Romans, arrived in the 1st century BC, and brought with them the Classical style. Many monuments have survived, especially funerary monuments, statues and busts. They also brought glasswork and mosaics. In the 4th century, a new element was introduced as the first Christian art was made in Britain. Several mosaics with Christian symbols and pictures have been preserved. The style of Romano-British art follows that of the continent, there are some local specialities, to some extent influenced by Celtic art.

Early Middle Ages

Eventually, Roman rule was replaced by a number of Anglo-Saxon and Briton kingdoms with different cultural backgrounds. The Anglo-Saxons brought Germanic traditions, seen in the spectacular metalwork of Sutton Hoo. The fusion of these with the book in Insular art was to influence the rest of medieval art across Europe. The carved stone high crosses were a distinctive Insular form, though related to the Pictish stones of Scotland. Anglo-Saxon art developed a very sophisticated variety of contemporary Continental styles, seen especially in metalwork and illuminated manuscripts such as the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold. After the end of the Insular period, Scottish art took a distinct path until the after the union of 1707.

Middle Ages

Anglo-Saxon architecture, of which very little remains, was smaller scale than the large Romanesque cathedrals built after the Norman Conquest. After a pause of some decades, manuscript painting in England soon became again the equal of any in Europe, in Romanesque works like the Winchester Bible and the St Albans Psalter, and then early Gothic ones like the Tickhill Psalter. In the final phase of the Gothic period however, English illumination falls away surprisingly, and elite patrons of the 15th century commission works from Paris or Flanders instead.

Very few examples of top-quality English painting on walls or panels from  before 1500 have survived, but there were probably relatively few. Some fragments have survived from paintings in Westminster Abbey, which also has a large portrait of Richard II An outstanding example of this period is The Wilton Diptych, also inclding a portrait of Richard, although this may be by a French artist. Of all the English kings, he was the most active as a patron of the arts before his depostion.

Renaissance and Reformation

A notable event in British art history is the English Reformation, initiated by Henry VIII of England in 1536, and the subsequent seizure of property in the Dissolution of the Monasteries; Scotland soon followed. This, with the iconoclasm often accompanying it, resulted in the destruction of much of the art in England and Wales’ art tradition, which had previously been under the patronage of the church. Another result was isolation from the trends of Catholic Europe, including many of those at the centre of the Renaissance. While there was a political motive for the seizing and destruction of church property, there was also the religious motive of iconoclasm, which continued in fits and burst until the late 17th century.

The English Renaissance, starting in the early 16th century, was late, and relatively little concerned with the visual arts, except for Tudor and Elizabethan architecture; it had a far greater impact in music and literature. Artists of the Tudor Court, mostly from the continent continued to find work in England, mainly on portraits, and brought the new styles with them, especially the Flemish and Italian Renaissance styles. Religious art had virtually ceased, and portraiture of the elite had begun to spread to the richer middle classes, at least in the distinctively English form of the portrait miniature. Nicholas Hilliard charged only £3 for a miniature, certainly affordable by many merchants.

Baroque and 18th century Britain

King Charles I was an ambitious patron and amassed one of the best art collections in Europe, but he still had to rely on imported artists, in particular Rubens and Van Dyck, the latter of whom set the style of relaxed elegance that English portrait-painters continued to aspire to for centuries. But neither left English pupils. In the second half of the century, landscapists imported from the Low Countries introduced this genre to England, though local artists were slow to follow them. From the 18th century, the English school of painting is mainly notable for portraits and landscapes, and indeed portraits in landscapes. Among the artists of this period are Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792), George Stubbs 1724–1806), and Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788). William Hogarth painted far more down to earth portraits and satires, and was the first great English printmaker.

Late 18th century to early 19th century

The late 18th century and the early 19th century was perhaps the most radical period in British art, producing William Blake (1757–1827), John Constable (1776–1837) and Joseph Turner (1775–1851), the later two being arguably the most internationally influential of all British artists. Turner was noted for his wild, almost abstract, landscapes that explored the effects of light and was a profound influence on the later impressionists. Constable too, was a landscape painter who was also to have an influence on the impressionists, but is more accessible than

1840 to late 20th century

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) achieved considerable influence after its foundation in 1848 with paintings that concentrated on religious, literary, and genre subjects executed in a colorful and minutely detailed style. PRB artists included John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and subsequently Edward Burne-Jones. Also associated was designer William Morris, who advocated a return to hand-craftsmanship in the decorative arts over industrial manufacture. His efforts to make beautiful objects affordable (or even free) for everyone led to his wallpaper and tile designs defining the Victorian aesthetic and instigating the Arts and Crafts movement.

Alfred Sisley was British, but painted in France as one of the Impressionists. Walter Sickert and the Camden Town Group developed an English style of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism with a strong strand of social documentary. The key homegrown modern art movement at the beginning of the 20th century was Vorticism, whose members included Sir Jacob Epstein, Wyndham Lewis, and David Bomberg. The reaction to the horrors of the First World War prompted a return to pastoral subjects as represented by Paul Nash. Stanley Spencer painted mystical works, as well as landscapes. Surrealism was briefly popular in the 1930s, influencing Roland Penrose and Henry Moore.

Moore emerged after World War II as Britain’s leading artist, promoted alongside Victor Pasmore and Barbara Hepworth by the Festival of Britain. Abstract art became prominent during the 1950s with Ben Nicholson, Terry Frost, Peter Lanyon and Patrick Heron, who were part of the St Ives school in Cornwall. Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, John Tunnard and Francis Bacon (“The London School”) were contemporary figurative artists. As a reaction to abstract expressionism, pop art emerged originally in England at the end of the 1950s with the exhibition This Is Tomorrow. David Hockney, Peter Blake and Richard Hamilton were part of the sixties art scene.

Art and Language were a conceptual art group who published a journal. Michael Craig Martin created a conceptual work, An Oak Tree in 1973.

Contemporary British art

The Young British Artists (YBA) movement, which includes Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin , rose to prominence during the 1990s with the backing of Charles Saatchi, and achieved international recognition with their version of conceptual art, which often featured installations, notably Hirst’s vitrine containing a preserved shark and Tracey Emin’s “Unmade Bed”. The Tate gallery and its Turner Prize, as well as the Royal Academy, also gave exposure to them. In 1999, the Stuckists figurative painting group was founded in opposition to the YBAs.The Federation of British Artists hosts shows of traditional figurative painting. Jack Vettriano and Beryl Cook have widespread popularity, but not official acceptance.  Banksy made a reputation with street graffiti and is now a highly-valued mainstream artist.  Other contemporary artists who have gain great popularity in recent years include British Asian artists like, Kamal Koria who was born in India but has lived most of his professional life in the UK and the Singh twins .