HISTORY OF BRITISH ART

BRITISH ARTSkilled 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 AD

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 . He is Anthony van Dyck.

Van Dyck: AD 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.

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