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Text 1. British Art: early modern period


The very idea of British art is intriguing, given the constant flow of outside influences on the arts of the British Isles. A narrative approach to art in Britain often considers it in terms of the nation’s history, but this is reductive and neglects the regional and national traditions of Scotland, Wales and Ireland.

It is usual to regard English painting as beginning with the Tudor period and for this are several reasons. Yet the fact remains that painting was practiced in England for many hundred years before the first Tudors came to the throne.

The development of the linear design in which English artists have always excelled can be traced back to the earliest illuminations brilliantly evolved in Irish monastic centres and brought to Northumbria in the VII century. Its principal feature is that wonderful elaboration of interlaced ornament derived from the patterns of metal-work in the Celtic Iron Age.

The XIII century had been the century of the great cathedrals, in which nearly all branches of art had their share. Work on these immense enterprises continued into the XIV century and even beyond, but they were no longer the main focus of art. The world had changed a great deal during that period. In the middle of the XII century Europe was still a thinly populated continent of peasants with monasteries and baron’s castles as the main centres of power and learning.

The Church had been the most significant, if not sole, patron of the arts. Vestments, stained glass, candlesticks, prayer-books, altarpieces, wall-paintings, fonts and churches depended on the patronage of the Church or on local benefactors, anxious to commemorate certain events, preserve their memory for posterity and reserve their place in the afterlife.

Portraiture has been the dominant art form in Britain for centuries and much of it has also played a part in propaganda. Portraits were valued in inventories, not for their artistic merit or human likeness, but in terms of their sheer size and the expense of materials used.

Holbein came to England imbued with Italian and European influences, and his early paintings for the English court have a monumentality and solidity to them that had not been seen in British portraiture prior to his arrival. He brought with him a much more highly developed pictorial tradition with a much fuller sense of plastic relief. Holbein It is a measure of Hans Holbein’s success that he maintained his position principally as a painter at the court of Henry VIII. H. Holbein. Self-Portrait. Colored drawing on paper. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy.

Holbein was a supreme master of linear design; he could draw patterns for embroidery and jewellery as no one else, but he never entirely sacrificed the plastic feeling for form to that, and in his early work he modelled in full light and shade. Still, it was not difficult for him to adapt himself somewhat to the English fondness for flat linear pattern. Particularly in his royal portraits, e. g. the portrait of Henry VIII, we find an insistence on the details of the embroidered patterns of the clothes and the jewellery, which is out of key with the careful modelling of hands and face.

In the Elizabethan, as in succeeding periods, portraiture was the only branch of art in Britain in which a painter could find a sure subsistence. The demand for miniatures, or limning, was a specialized section of this demand for portraiture. Nicholas Hilliard and Isaac Oliver, grown up in the atmosphere of the goldsmith’s craft, understood perfectly the demands of their art.

The miniatures of Hilliard and Oliver bring all the excellencies that portraiture can hold into a portable compass-combining likeness of the feature and harmony of colouring with spirited handling and the ability to transmit the diverse characters of their sitters through the representation of their features.

The work of Hilliard was mainly confined to small-scale portraiture. None the less he was a complete artist. Hilliard specifically refers to his miniatures as “small pictures, which are to be view in hand”. He combined his unerring use of line with a jeweller’s exquisiteness in detail, an engraver’s elegance in calligraphy, and a unique realization of the individuality of each sitter. His miniatures are often freighted with enigmatic inscription and intrusive allegory (e.g. a hand reaching from a cloud); yet this literary burden usually manages to heighten the vividness with which the sitter’s face is impressed.

Hilliard’s active career was at least fifty-six years. A series of splendid works dated 1572 testify to his fully acquired certainty at the age of 25. From then almost to the close of the century he produced a dazzling series of exquisitely studied and characterized portraits, besides ringing innumerable changes on the Queen’s counterfeit.

Elizabeth I, more than any monarch, knew the power of the regal image and kept right control over its dissemination, to the extent that she stipulated that no shadow should fall upon her face in Hilliard’s miniatures. Rarely could an image of the Queen be made public without her royal approval, whether an iconic image of her as ruler or as the Virgin Queen, clad in white and wedded only to her people, clasping symbols of chastity, such as the sieve, the phoenix and the rose. Elizabeth I of England with a crescent moon jewel in her hair 1595-1600  

From the Renaissance until the early XVII century the best painters working in England were imported, often from Flanders. These, besides Hans Holbein, included Van Dyck, Rubens, Sir Peter Lely and Sir Godfrey Kneller.

In 1632 Van Dyck settled in London as chief court painter to King Charles I, who knighted him shortly after his arrival. Van Dyck painted most of the English aristocracy of the time, and his style became lighter and more luminous, with thinner paint and more sparkling highlights in gold and silver. At the same time, his portraits occasionally showed a certain hastiness or superficiality as he hurried to satisfy his flood of commissions. In 1635 van Dyck painted his masterpiece, Charles I in Hunting Dress, a standing figure emphasizing the haughty grace of the monarch.


Charles I, King of England at the Hunt c. 1635 Oil on canvas, 266 x 207 cm Musée du Louvre, Paris In the Stuart portrait, Van Dyck evoked an effortless sense of royalty and aristocracy, innate in pose and gesture, and which did not need elaborate gold leaf, and pattern or heraldic symbols. Van Dyck eclipsed his foreign predecessors and the speed and delicacy with which he executed his work, his facility with oil and canvas and his eye, well informed by travel, revolutionized British portraiture. Figures became fully three-dimensional for the first time, placed in a real space with articulated movement, emphasized by the beauty of colour and play of light on exquisite fabrics.

As for native English talent – the approach of the Civil war stripped away the polish and brought out a sterner strain of character no less in the aristocratic supporters of the royalist cause than in their democratic opponents. William Dobson marks a breakaway from Van Dyckian elegance. Born in London, Dobson comes suddenly into prominence in royalist Oxford after the Civil War had broken out. The rude strength Dobson gives to people he paints contrasts with the aristocratic air of Van Dyck’s figures.

The painting of Endymion Porter, the friend and agent of Charles I in the purchase of works of art, is generally accounted Dobson’s masterpiece. The most striking aspect of the work is its realism. Though Endymion Porter is portrayed as a sportsman who has just shot a hare, there is a stern look about his features which seems to convey that this is wartime.

The corresponding painter to Dobson on the Parliamentary side, however, Robert Walker, was a much less original artist and still closely imitated Van Dyck’s graceful style. Robert Walker was a painter well known for doing portraits of English politicians, for austere and candid portraits with a “soft” style. A number of other portrait painters are of interest by reason of their subjects. John Greenhill is of some note Endymion Porter c. 1643 Oil on canvas, 59 x 50 cm Tate Gallery, London

as one of the first artists to depict English actors in costume. Besides these private works he made portraits of such important figures as Seth Ward, Bishop of Salisbury and the philosopher John Locke. John Riley was an artist whose work is distinguished by a grave reticence. Riley maintained a prolific and successful practice as a portrait painter over the next decade against keen foreign competition. His best portraits were not done in the court, they depicted sitters from the lower classes. He was described by Horace Walpole as “one of the best native painters who have flourished in England”.

(from “A Concise History of English Painting”)


2. Answer the following questions. Look for extra information in the Appendix if necessary.


1) What historical period is traditionally regarded as the beginning of the English school of painting?

2) How did the development of linear design in earliest centuries influence the English school of painting? What were its principal features at that time

3) Why is the Church considered to be the most significant patron of the arts in the late medieval period (XII –XIII c.)?

4) How did the demand for miniatures influence the production of the new works of art?

5) What artists are believed to originate the English school of portrait miniature? What artistic features did Hilliard and Oliver manage to combine in their works?

6) Why was miniature so popular at the Elizabethan Court?

7) What features distinguished Holbein’s art and in what way did they change during his stay in England?

8) Why is Van Dyck believed to revolutionize English portraiture? What characteristics are his portraits of aristocracy marked by?

9) Give some examples of the English preference for flat linear pattern.

10) Who carried on the Continental standards of design in England in the XVII century?

11) Name the most important native English artists of the XVII century and characterize their style.


3. Read Text 2, point out words and expressions connected with painting and painters. Give a summary of the text.



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