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.