Yanks and other true Brits

Five Centuries of British Painting - The Battle for Realism - Nineteenth Century British Painting
May 3, 2002

The publication, within a few months of each other, of three significant books on different periods of British painting with some inevitable chronological overlap, is a significant event in itself. It provokes several taxing questions, not least what constitutes British painting in the first place.

Leaving aside the subtle complexities of the differences between the English and the Scots - perhaps we may leave the Welsh and the Irish aside for the moment - we obviously need the word British if we are to encompass, say, Allan Ramsay and George Stubbs in the same category. But, as Luke Herrmann reminds us in his lengthy, immensely detailed survey of 19th-century British painting, the second president of the Royal Academy, and successor to the founder Joshua Reynolds, was the American Benjamin West, who became George III's favourite painter. (Interestingly, West's contemporary and only rival as a history painter in England - and, in my view, his superior - was John Singleton Copley, also an American.) Another giant of the academy was the Swiss Henry Fuseli (born Heinrich Fussli). Were there ever greater portrait painters at work here than the German Hans Holbein the Younger, the Fleming Anthony van Dyck, the Dutchman Peter Lely and many more who are among the cornerstones of art in Britain? Indeed, they are an integral and indispensable part of our history. Among the most potent images of monarchy in these islands are the iconic representations of Elizabeth I by the Fleming Hans Eworth and the Dutchman Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Godfrey Kneller came from Lubeck and possibly our greatest theatrical painter, Johann Zoffany, from near Frankfurt. It is a nice irony that Britain's centuries-old reputation for insularity, isolation from "the Continent" and overweening cultural xenophobia should have been so frequently and so profitably punctured. No wonder that, when Hitler's madness came to fruition, England welcomed so many refugees who did so much for the culture of the UK. It was simply part of a long tradition.

Andrew Wilton's volume rattles along, necessarily, at a great pace and is the most useful of these three books for the general reader. If a quick gallop through British painting is needed, then Wilton is a thorough and measured guide, who leaves himself just enough time to make interesting judgements. Of Lord Leighton's vast Cimabue's Madonna Carried in Procession through the Streets of Florence (1855 and a wonderfully evocative Victorian title) he observes that it was "sufficiently German in taste to appeal to Prince Albert, and the Queen acquired it". Augustus John's characteristically swaggering, virtuoso portrait of the cellist Madame Suggia "continues the manner of Sargent (another American in London) with a flamboyance even Sargent would not have contemplated".

Of England's two disparate giants, Wilton writes: "Constable, more conservative politically and socially, was more concerned with the life of the ploughman and his kind than with modern machinery. Turner embraces all existence, past and present, town and country, rich and poor, in a comprehensive excitement that his great admirer John Ruskin (1819-1900) had no hesitation in calling 'Shakespearian'."

My only reservation is that Wilton rather glosses over the neo-Romantics and, while he includes Graham Sutherland, John Piper and Robert Colquhoun, he omits Robert McBride, Michael Ayrton, John Minton, Prunella Clough and Keith Vaughan.

The Holbein/Hodgkin subtitle is a nice euphony but Wilton goes comfortably beyond Hodgkin. We get a number of artists who are very much of the moment but who might well not end up in any final British pantheon: Fiona Rae, Jenny Saville, Peter Doig and even the vastly overrated Gary Hume. Happily, Wilton passes a veil over Damien Hirst but does give brief space to Ken Kiff and Stephen McKenna and - yet another non-Briton - the Lisbon-born Paula Rego.

All in all, with its well-printed 183 illustrations, of which 71 are in colour, this is a most useful addition to the World of Art series, and an affordable one.

Herrmann's book deals with one of the key periods of British painting. It begins firmly in the 18th century with Reynolds, who in 1790 delivered the last of his celebrated Discourses and gave up painting because of his failing sight. The book ends well into the 20th century with essays on Philip Wilson Steer and Walter Sickert, who both died in 1942, and has brief mentions of Gwen and Augustus John, William Orpen and William Rothenstein.

Herrmann employs a useful biographical framework for a text divided into nine parts on a straight chronological base with essays on the major individual artists within each part. This can seem arbitrary, as when he creates a division between "artists in watercolour" (William Blake, John Varley, John Sell Cotman, Samuel Palmer, David Roberts and so on) and "painters of landscape" (Turner, Constable, John Crome, R. P. Bonnington and so on). After all, the "landscape painter" Turner was a formidable watercolourist and the watercolourists such as Varley and Roberts were masters of landscape.

Nonetheless, these sections are among the best in the book and the author is particularly informative on the subtleties of watercolour technique. He includes interesting serendipitous facts, such as up-and-coming great watercolourist, Thomas Girtin, moving into a Bayswater house next door to that of the ageing great watercolourist Paul Sandby. And he includes a charming quotation from that genius of watercolour Samuel Palmer: "While I am drawing from Nature, vision seems foolishness to me, the arms of an old rotten tree trunk more curious than the arms of Buonarotti's (Michelangelo's) Moses."

Throughout, he gives useful background contemporary prose extracts, which particularly elucidate Constable and Turner. These two figures, quite rightly, get the longest and most illuminating chapters, ending with the sad, because almost certainly true, observation: "Landscape painting gained in popularity in Britain throughout the 19th century, but it was not again to have practitioners of real genius like Constable and Turner. For such, lovers of art had to look across the Channel, to France."

His view that Turner's work "never forsook its 18th-century origins, yet was also some of the most advanced and exciting of his day" is surely correct. One might well add "and indeed of any day". Certainly, one cannot envisage the rise of the Impressionists, particularly Monet, without the overpowering shadow of Turner. Indeed, Monet's wonderful London paintings would have been impossible without Turner.

Perhaps Herrmann is a little too generous to William Etty, whose female nudes, like those of Lawrence Alma Tadema, always strike me as verging on soft porn for the Victorian haute bourgeoisie . Just look at his Pandora Crowned by the Seasons , reproduced in colour in the book, a technically adept but ultimately preposterously silly painting. But Etty always was, and doubtless always will be, simply a matter, in all senses, of taste.

Herrmann is perceptive about such largely forgotten artists as Edwin Longsden Long and the other Henry Moore - the once popular academician and painter of classic English seascapes (1831-95). His publisher states that the book is intended to be used more as an introduction, and where appropriate as a textbook, than as a work of reference. In fact it is also, because of its scale, useful for reference purposes but, in its principal aim, it is an admirable overview.

James Hyman's book is the narrowest in scope, yet by far the most provocative of these three studies. Given the worldwide effects of American abstract expressionism post-second world war, a mere 15 years of British figurative art is a tiny blip on the world picture, but Hyman makes it a fascinating one. As he points out, in 1945, "the chimneys of Auschwitz and the atomic cloud of Hiroshima overshadowed life".

The battle of his title, as he sets out the rules of engagement, is "between two competing visions of realism, each of which embodied distinct and separate ideologies: a conflict betweenI 'Modernist realism' and social realismI The implications of this conflict were more than a question of aesthetic choice or of stylistic preference. A series of dialectics lay at the heart of this struggle for the future of artI These poles include internationalism and nationalism; liberalism and Communism; overt politicisation and artistic autonomy; individual genius and collective action."

Hyman draws throughout on the two most influential art critics of the period, David Sylvester and John Berger, who ringingly declared: "Today the artist either serves or searches arrogantly alone."

In fact, Berger and Sylvester clashed publicly at an Institute of Contemporary Arts meeting in 1952. Berger criticised Francis Bacon for revelling in horror, and questioned the morality of looking at Bacon rather than going to the concentration camps at Belsen - something of a question-begging exercise as Belsen was by then long cleared of corpses and emaciated bodies. Sylvester pointed out that mere indignation is chaotic and praised Bacon for presenting suffering without indignation. Hyman shrewdly divines the crux in the battle for realism: "While Berger condemned a lack of morality, Sylvester celebrated a freedom from moralising."

One of the many virtues of Hyman's narrative is its understanding of the politics of history and the politics of art in a notably turbulent period. He proves yet again that any proper understanding of art depends not on ivory-towered theories of attribution but on a deep comprehension of the time and culture that produced the work in question.

Hyman's book also provides the reverse of the coin about the Englishness or otherwise of English art. This country not only absorbed many foreign painters of genius in a relatively quiet few centuries, but also, particularly in Hyman's chosen 15 years of real ferment in painting in Britain, picked up some strong influences from Europe without giving the artists permanent residence and citizenship. It was a time when there was a strong movement towards social realism, a rather nasty byproduct of the political polarisations of the cold war. No other European painter, as Hyman makes horribly clear, was more influential for a few years than the Italian Renato Guttuso and he was far from being a beneficial influence. The two sides of totalitarianism have always been similar; compare Nazi art to Stalinist art and see if you can spot the difference, banners and insignia apart.

One must not be too hard on Guttuso - whose work I cannot stand - since he was no mere simple-minded Stalinist. For a time he was much admired by the bien pensant radical chic crowd: seeing his - perfectly competent - portrait of Noel Annan when he was provost of King's College, Cambridge, always caused me a wry smile.

Hyman has also gathered together many blessedly unfamiliar illustrations in a classic Mellon-funded Yale University Press volume, which is a notable contribution to the scholarly history of art in Britain.

Tom Rosenthal is a former chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts, and the author of a new book on Sidney Nolan.

Five Centuries of British Painting: From Holbein to Hodgkin

Author - Andrew Wilton
ISBN - 0 500 20349 0
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Price - £8.95
Pages - 256

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