This period witnesses a tremendous shift in the tide of social, political, and artistic life in Great Britain and Ireland. At the end of the Elizabethan age, England is a major economic power, with London as its bustling cultural hub. Shortly after the accession of the first Stuart monarchs, the political and financial strength of the kingdom wavers. The Stuarts’ rule by the Divine Right of Kings undermines the authority of subjects represented by Parliament, and their Catholic sympathies stir a new wave of religious unrest. These tensions culminate in the outbreak of civil war in 1642, the trial and execution of King Charles I (r. 1625–49), and a decade of Puritan rule. The eighteenth century is marked by even more far-reaching changes. Revolutions rage against absolute monarchy in France and British rule in America; they manifest a belief in the authority of the individual and the assertion of human reason over doctrine. This philosophy, which takes root throughout Western and Central Europe, influences nearly every aspect of the political and cultural life of the age, known as the Enlightenment, or the Age of Reason. At the end of the century, emotionalism and the senses take precedence over order and law as the Romantic movement in the arts and literature gains momentum.
While the British Isles are home to many of the great literary minds of the age, visual arts and architecture at the turn of the seventeenth century are dominated by foreign masters, most of Flemish origin. The Puritan-led Commonwealth of 1649–60, an outbreak of plague in 1665, and the Great Fire of 1666 virtually still the artistic production of the region. In the wake of these catastrophic events, however, a generation of native-born artists plants the seeds of a distinctly British school of painting and architecture. Influenced through earlier periods by movements and styles from other countries—such as the Italian Baroque and French Rococo—England is, in the eighteenth century, the seat of two major cultural movements—Neoclassicism and Romanticism—that give new shape to the arts.
At the death of Elizabeth I, James VI of Scotland (r. 1567–1625) ascends the throne of England as James I, the country’s first Stuart monarch. Literature and drama flourish at his court, as the king lends his patronage to such luminaries as playwright Ben Jonson (1572–1637) and the King’s Men, a theatrical troupe co-owned by Richard Burbage (1567?–1619) and William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The art and architecture produced during this period are frequently referred to as Jacobean; the term, however, is less stylistic than temporal. Portraiture—particularly of a heraldic or iconic nature—dominates, and easel paintings aspire to the same degree of minute detail and high finish as that achieved by Nicholas Hilliard (ca. 1547–1619) and Isaac Oliver (ca. 1565–1617), the preeminent miniaturists of the day. Painters John de Critz (before 1551–1642), Robert Peake the Elder (ca. 1551–1619), and Daniel Mijtens the Elder (1590–1647/48) excel at this type of representation and enjoy successful careers at the Stuart court. Architecture of the period is markedly inspired by Flemish masters and often bears Northern decorative motifs. Construction of massive country houses for the ruling elite also proliferates; notable examples of this are Audley End (ca. 1603–16), Essex; Hatfield House (1607–12), Herts; and Blickling Hall (designed 1616–17), Norfolk.
James I commissions Inigo Jones (1573–1652), architect, leading theatrical designer of the day, and surveyor of the king’s works between 1615 and 1643, to construct a banqueting hall at Whitehall Palace in London. Completed in 1622, the structure conforms to the principles set forth in the Quattro libri of Palladio, whose designs he encounters on visits to Italy; it is simple, symmetrical, and ornamented by engaged columns employing the classical orders. Jones’s strongly classical designs for this and other major works, including the Queen’s House at Greenwich (1616), are an important departure from the highly ornamental and Flemish-inspired structures prevalent at this time. Moreover, they provide an early model of the Palladian principles that are a vital force in the Neoclassical movement of the eighteenth century.
The precociously gifted Antwerp-born painter Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641) arrives in London, where he remains until the following February. He is brought to England by Thomas Howard, second earl of Arundel, who first encounters the young artist at work in the studio of his master, the great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640). His stay, though brief, wins him great acclaim among the English nobility; his return and permanent settlement in 1632 earn him a knighthood and the patronage of King Charles I.
Frustrated in their attempts to achieve reform within the Church of England, the Pilgrim Fathers, a group of Puritan separatists, set sail for North America on the Mayflower. They establish Plymouth colony in Massachusetts later that year.
Charles I (r. 1625–49) commissions Peter Paul Rubens—then in London engaged in diplomatic affairs—to paint the ceilings of the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall Palace. The decorative program, completed in 1634, glorifies the reign of James I. The commission is a notable example of Charles’s extensive patronage of many of the period’s great artists. During his reign, Charles also purchases from the dukes of Mantua most of the Gonzaga art collection. This acquisition, consisting of sixteenth-century masterpieces by Titian, Correggio, and Raphael, as well as contemporary works by Domenico Fetti, Guido Reni, and Caravaggio, makes Charles the envy of rival connoisseurs across Europe. While the king’s connoisseurship contributes to the cultural richness of the kingdom, it also contributes significantly to the crown’s steadily increasing debt.
Following the deaths of Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, the popular tradition of miniature painting is carried on by a generation of artists led by Samuel Cooper (1608?–1672). Trained by his uncle, John Hoskins (active ca. 1615, died 1665), Cooper becomes the most important miniaturist of the Commonwealth and Restoration periods.
Anthony van Dyck returns to England where, apart from two brief sojourns on the Continent (1634–35; 1640–41), he remains until his death. While his oeuvre includes religious as well as mythological subjects of great accomplishment, his fame in England rests chiefly on his abilities as a portraitist to render the sitter with sensitivity to character and incomparable elegance. Van Dyck’s portraits, including those of James Stuart (1612–1655), Duke of Richmond and Lennox (89.15.16), and Robert Rich (1587–1658), second earl of Warwick (49.7.26), attest to this mastery in their assured handling, remarkable detail, and high finish.
Civil war breaks out in England as the culmination of a longstanding rivalry between Charles I and Parliament. Like his father, James I, Charles is a staunch supporter of the Divine Right of Kings, a doctrine by which the monarch is answerable not to man but to God only. Charles twice dissolves Parliament and rules without one for eleven years. After several Royalist victories, the decisive Battle of Naseby (1645) ends in triumph for the Parliamentary army led by Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658). Charles surrenders in the following year, and in 1649 he is tried and executed for treason against his kingdom. England, Scotland, and Ireland are collectively declared a commonwealth, with Cromwell acting as Lord Protector. What follows is a period of strict Puritan rule, during which the arts are suppressed, theaters are closed, and patronage declines.
Dutch painter Peter Lely (1618–1680) settles in Covent Garden, where he wins the patronage of Royalist families who remain in London despite the raging civil war. Among Lely’s most important patrons of this period are the Capel family, for whom he paints six half-length portraits and two double portraits. One of these is a canvas depicting Mary Capel (1630–1715), later duchess of Beaufort, and her sister Elizabeth (1633–1678), countess of Carnarvon, (39.65.3), remarkable in the delicacy of its modeling and masterly execution of the gleaming silk drapery of the sitters’ gowns. Another portrait from this group represents Sir Henry Capel (1638–1696) (39.65.6). Lely’s style is fully mature by the Restoration of 1660 and profoundly influenced by van Dyck, known to Lely from his patrons’ collections and through his own activities as a collector and connoisseur. Lely serves as principal painter to Charles II from 1661 until his death.
At Oliver Cromwell’s death, the English Commonwealth passes into the hands of the Lord Protector’s ineffectual son, Richard Cromwell, and soon dissolves. The late monarch’s heir is brought out of exile and accedes as Charles II in 1660. The decades following the reestablishment of the monarchy, loosely termed the Restoration, are marked by a new surge of artistic, literary, and dramatic output.
Most of London is destroyed in a fire that rages for five days. A committee of six men is established with the aim of rebuilding the city. Foremost among them is Christopher Wren (1632–1723), by this time a lauded architect, though not initially trained as such. Educated as a scientist and mathematician, Wren has a gift for invention, engineering, and problem solving that makes him a worthy candidate for this formidable undertaking. He drafts a plan for the new city within a week of the Great Fire; his role in the rebuilding, however, soon takes greater focus. He is placed in charge of the design and construction of churches, of which about fifty are erected. These are among the principal landmarks of the City of London until the twentieth century; many, however, are destroyed during the blitz of World War II. Wren executes many royal commissions as well, including the Royal Hospital, Chelsea (1682–89) and Hampton Court Palace (1689–ca. 1698), and designs buildings at Oxford and Cambridge. His greatest achievement, a project spanning thirty-five years of his career, is the construction of Saint Paul’s Cathedral (1675–1710), London. Its massive structure, dynamic facade, and great dome point to Wren’s fluency in the architectural vocabularies of both the Renaissance and Baroque, and the inspiration he takes from contemporaries such as French architect Jules Hardouin Mansart (1646–1708), as well as earlier masters, particularly Donato Bramante (1444–1514).
John Milton (1608–1674), author, poet, and supporter of the Commonwealth, publishes the first edition of Paradise Lost, an epic blank verse poem describing the rebellion of the angel Lucifer (Satan), his expulsion from heaven, and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. With Paradise Lost, Milton aims to “justify the ways of God to Man,” and his portrayal of the three central characters is psychologically penetrating and sympathetic.
Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723), born Gottfried Kniller in the Baltic port city of Lübeck, arrives in London, where he serves as painter to Charles II, James II, William and Mary, and Queen Anne. His worldliness, gained from studies in Leiden and Amsterdam and later travels in Venice and Rome, prepares him for a life at court as well as with the urban elite in which he immerses himself and which he depicts on canvas with great success. His masterfully refined but realistic likenesses make him the most sought-after portraitist in London after the death of Peter Lely. Kneller popularizes the lifesize, half-length portrait, a format often referred to as the “kit-cat,” named after the London gentlemen’s club for which Kneller executes about forty such portraits (ca. 1720–21; National Portrait Gallery, London).
Enlightenment thought spreads throughout Europe. Fostered in England by scientific innovations and discoveries of the previous century, particularly those made by Isaac Newton (1642–1727), the inductive method professed by Francis Bacon (1561–1626), and the empirical philosophy of John Locke (1632–1704), the Enlightenment asserts the importance of human reason as well as the existence of natural law. Although the movement is centered in Paris, it flourishes in England and gives rise to a generation of notable critics (Joseph Addison, Richard Steele), satirists (Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift), and economists (Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham). Inspired by this flowering of rationalism and order, the focus of the arts turns from the florid Rococo toward a greater simplicity. At the same time, the discovery of the ruins of the ancient cities Herculaneum (1709) and Pompeii (1748) renews interest in the classical world, and revolutions in France and America at mid-century invite comparisons between ancient and modern government. These factors combine to advance the Neoclassical movement in the visual arts and architecture.
Sir John Vanbrugh (1664–1726), as popular a playwright as an architect, designs Blenheim Palace at Oxfordshire, presented at its completion (1724) by Queen Anne to the first duke of Marlborough to honor his victories in the Wars of Spanish Succession. Vanbrugh, a colleague of English Baroque architects Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661–1736), lends his particular flair for the theatricality of Baroque design to this and other structures, including the earlier Castle Howard (1699–1712) in North Yorkshire.
The Palladian revival in architecture is one of the earliest manifestations of the Neoclassical movement in England. Led by Richard Boyle, third earl of Burlington, the revival exalts the simplicity and order of classical structures as parallels to the clarity of reason; many buildings of this period thus espouse the classically grounded theories of Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, but interpret these theories with strict severity. Lord Burlington’s Chiswick House (1725–29), constructed to his own design and decorated by William Kent (1685–1748), exemplifies this movement.
William Hogarth (1697–1764) publishes the South Sea Scheme, a satirical engraving treating a contemporary financial scandal. It is the first of many moralizing subjects that mark the career of this pivotal figure in the founding of the English school. In addition to his merits as a painter, he asserts and encourages throughout his career the independence of artists from the confines of patronage by publishing engravings after his own paintings. The best known of these is A Rake’s Progress (1735), an episodic series illustrating the demise of a corrupt young man.
A statue of the Baroque composer Georg Frideric Handel (1685–1759) is erected at Vauxhall Gardens in London. The vibrant informality of the likeness secures great renown for its creator, French sculptor Louis François Roubiliac (1702–1762), in his adopted city. The sculpture also contributes to the spread of Rococo style in England, and serves as the forerunner of later monuments to living cultural icons of the age.
Francis Cotes (1726–1770) is established in his native London as a gifted portraitist in pastel with an eye for color and ornamental detail. Later in the decade, he begins to paint more frequently in oils, and numbers members of the royal family among his illustrious sitters.
Josiah Wedgwood (1730–1795) founds a ceramic firm which is soon to become the most important in England. The Wedgwood company produces both functional and ornamental wares in a variety of media developed by its founder: creamware (cream-colored earthenware), Black Basalte (black stoneware), Rosso Antico (red stoneware), Cane (yellow stoneware), and Jasper, an unglazed white stoneware. Jasperware, the most popular of these media and the one with which Wedgwood’s name is most closely associated, is created in 1771 and perfected in the mid-1770s. Characterized by white bas-relief scenes or cameos applied to a smooth, colored ground, Jasperware vases, medallions, and figures often emulate classical models both in their shape and iconography and are widely popular into the nineteenth century.
The British school of portraiture flourishes in the hands of artists whose varied styles and international influences make significant contributions to its depth and scope. In 1761, Allan Ramsay (1713–1784), a Scottish painter working mostly in London, is appointed principal painter to George III. Well-versed in the Baroque and also inspired by contemporary French painting (both of which he encounters in travel and study on the Continent), Ramsay brings to his canvas naturalism and intimacy coupled with worldly grace. In the two decades preceding his appointment, Ramsay is among the most sought-after portraitists in England, influencing and also occasionally rivaling his younger contemporaries, Reynolds and Gainsborough. In the following year, George Romney (1734–1802), a painter of provincial birth, moves to London and establishes a practice. Romney’s portraits—at their most successful, of women—are characterized by soft modeling, fluidity of form, and rich coloration.
While resident in the spa town of Bath, locus of a wealthy clientele, Thomas Gainsborough (1727–1788) exhibits for the first time at the Society of Artists in London. He settles there in 1774, already honored with a founding membership in the Royal Academy and possessing a solid reputation for his ability to capture on canvas the great beauties of the age. While best known for portraiture of outstanding sophistication and assured fluidity of execution, Gainsborough is also a skilled landscapist and draftsman, and experiments with the graphic media of soft-ground etching and aquatint. Despite the fact that he never visits the Continent, he studies closely and takes inspiration from the French Rococo and Dutch and Flemish masters of the previous century, especially van Dyck. At his death in 1788, his contemporary and some-time rival Joshua Reynolds eulogizes him by stating, “If ever this nation should produce genius sufficient to acquire to us the honourable distinction of an English School, the name of Gainsborough will be transmitted to posterity, in the history of Art, among the very first of that rising name.”
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–1797) paints A Philosopher Lecturing with a Mechanical Planetary (Derby Museum and Art Gallery) and, two years later, executes An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (National Gallery, London). In the 1760s, candle- and lamp-lit interiors such as these become an increasing preoccupation of the artist, who here employs Caravaggesque lighting techniques to effect drama in scenes of scientific inquiry and discovery. The depiction of research and experimentation reflects a key component of Enlightenment thought; the artist himself was well acquainted with several scientific and technological luminaries of the day, including Josiah Wedgwood and the poet and scientist Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802).
Angelica Kauffmann (1741–1807) arrives in London, where she settles until 1781. The young Swiss painter of prodigious talent, already renowned on the Continent, achieves immediate success in England, and is one of two women honored in 1768 with a founding membership in the Royal Academy (the other is still-life painter Mary Moser, 1744–1819). Working with Neoclassical architects William Chambers (1726–1796) and Robert Adam (1728–1792), Kauffmann supplies interior designs for Adam (whose own elegant designs are among the most popular of the period) and produces four allegories for Chambers’s new rooms for the Royal Academy at Somerset House. An accomplished portraitist and a prolific advocate of Neoclassical history painting in England, she continues to exhibit there until the 1790s, long after her relocation to Rome.
The Royal Academy is founded, with the painter Joshua Reynolds (1723–1792) as its president. Widely traveled and by this time the most celebrated painter in London, Reynolds is soon to be distinguished also as a man of letters, as the first of his annual lectures, theDiscourses on Art (1769–90), are published to great acclaim in 1778. In 1784, Reynolds is appointed chief painter to George III. Although lacking in the adept brushwork of his rival contemporary Thomas Gainsborough, Reynolds’s mastery of pose and gesture elevates his subjects to a grand, often heroic ideal. In The Honorable Henry Fane (1739–1802) with His Guardians, Inigo Jones and Charles Blair (87.16), Reynolds applies this sense of grandeur to the conversation piece, a type of painting popular in England from about 1725. Depicting relatives or intimates at leisure, the conversation piece derives in part from Dutch cabinet pictures of the seventeenth century and is usually small in scale. Reynolds preserves the informality of this type, but renders it in a dramatic full-size canvas.
Benjamin West (1738–1820), a major proponent of Neoclassicism, is appointed historical painter to King George III. Born in Pennsylvania, West travels to Italy in 1760 and, three years later, to England. Although intending to stay only briefly, he settles there for the remainder of his life and becomes a founding member of the Royal Academy. At Reynolds’s death in 1792, West succeeds him as the Academy’s president. In his most famous work, The Death of General Wolfe(1770; National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), West lends—with dramatic composition, gesture, and scale—a sense of classical heroism to his depiction of the event while remaining faithful, through setting and costume, to its historical truth. In 1774, West is joined in London by his countryman and likeminded supporter of Neoclassicism, John Singleton Copley (1738–1815). An outstanding portraitist, after settling in London Copley additionally undertakes large-scale history paintings such as Watson and the Shark (1778; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), an opportunity for the artist to present a moral allegory through the horrific scene of a young man’s narrow escape from the assailing shark.
Richard Cosway (1742–1821) is among London’s most successful miniaturists. Admitted to the Royal Academy in 1771 and in about 1786 appointed miniature painter to the Prince of Wales, later George IV, Cosway is as active in fashionable society as his sitters (see his self-portrait, 62.49). Contemporary with Cosway is George Engleheart (1750/53–1829), a miniaturist of German origin. At work in the studio of Joshua Reynolds, he produces miniature versions of the master’s portraits. Engleheart’s prolific oeuvre includes nearly 5,000 works, painted during a career spanning forty years.
While Georgian-era painting is championed by Reynolds and Gainsborough, followed by the less celebrated but more productive Romney, other painters active during this period make significant contributions to the British school. John Hoppner (1758–1810), a skilled draftsman with a keen awareness of color and free brushwork influenced by artists of the Venetian Renaissance, excels at capturing fresh and sympathetic likenesses of his sitters, particularly youthful ones (53.113; 53.59.3). Sir William Beechey (1753–1839), in a long career, serves the Hanoverian royal family; he is named principal painter to Queen Charlotte (from 1793) and later to William IV (from 1830). Henry Raeburn (1756–1823), one of the foremost Scottish artists of the period, executes broadly handled portraits with a bold, painterly approach to color, light, and shadow.
George Stubbs (1724–1806), an artist known for his “portraits” of racehorses and other animals, paints Lion Attacking a Horse (Yale University Art Gallery). Inspired by a scene he witnesses during a visit to North Africa, the violent subject matter as well as the tempestuous setting in which he places it point toward the Romantic movement, with its commingling of the horrific and the sublime, its exaltation of nature and the emotions. About the same time, Henry Fuseli (1741–1825), a Swiss-born artist active in London, paints The Nightmare (Frankfurter Goethe-Museum, Frankfurt). Fuseli has a deep understanding of classical art and literature acquired during a long stay in Italy; he also shows a keen interest in contemporary literature, poetry, and theater. In Fuseli’s hands, classical elements combine with a psychological penetration and a sense of the macabre that mark a transition between the Neoclassic and the Romantic. In The Nightmare, the reclining, draped figure of the sleeper calls on a classical motif, while her eerily luminescent form and contorted pose convey the tormented nature of her sleep.
Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830), recently settled in London from Bath, exhibits two full-length portraits at the Royal Academy: one depicts Queen Charlotte (National Gallery, London), the other the actress and later countess of Derby, Elizabeth Farren (50.135.5). The pictures meet with great public and critical acclaim, and are praised above even the work of co-exhibitor Reynolds for their naturalistic freshness and vivacity. Two years later, Lawrence succeeds Reynolds as painter to George III, and his reputation as the finest painter of his generation carries into the nineteenth century, when his style becomes increasingly influenced by Romanticism.
“Great Britain and Ireland, 1600–1800 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=09®ion=euwb (October 2003)