British art since 1500 would be a thin offering without the work of immigrant artists. It has made us what we are, says Harry Mount

January 26, 2012

Credit: James Tissot/Portsmouth, Dockyard C. 1877, Copyright Tate


Tate Britain

From 31 January until 12 August 2012

Ever since the inauguration of Tate Britain in 2000, its curators and directors have displayed a recurrent anxiety about the significance of the word "Britain" in the name of their institution. The latest manifestation of this disquiet is the upcoming Migrations exhibition. The show has its origins in the observation of the museum's director, Penelope Curtis, that her gallery is riddled with works by artists who might not, when judged against the strictest criteria, be deemed British at all. Intrigued, she set her curators to work on an exhibition that would explore the contribution of immigrants and visitors to the history of British art.

Migrations raises important questions about how we define Britishness, questions whose ramifications extend far beyond the visual arts. What, we might begin by asking, counts as a British artist? The author of the first serious attempt to answer this question, Bainbrigg Buckeridge, was in no doubt. In his An Essay Towards an English School of Painters (1706), Buckeridge included any painter of note who had worked in England for a significant length of time. Buckeridge's list of great English painters is, consequently, dotted with Dutch, Flemish and German names, among them the Augsburg-born Hans Holbein and the Antwerp-born Anthony (né Antoon) Van Dyck. On this basis, Buckeridge cheerfully concluded, the English school might be ranked alongside any in Europe.

By contrast, few modern Britons would, I think, include either Holbein or Van Dyck in a list of their nation's greatest artists. A sterner, more tightly defined attitude to nationhood now seems to apply, an attitude born out of the assumption that one can belong to only one country. If Van Dyck was Flemish then he could not have been British too. This attitude extends far beyond the visual arts. When British music lovers debate the identity of the nation's greatest composer, the names that come up - Purcell, Elgar, Tallis, Britten - are most unlikely to include Handel (né Händel), deemed ineligible on account of his German origins despite having lived in England for 47 of his 74 years, and despite having composed most of his major works here. Similarly, some of the England cricket fans revelling in the recent triumphs of their team have expressed discomfort about the contributions to those triumphs made by two South African-bred batsmen, Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott, for all the apparently wholehearted commitment of both players.

While the political rights and wrongs of such essentialist definitions of nationality might be debated, the Migrations exhibition compels us to question whether they are of any use whatsoever to those attempting to understand cultural phenomena, whether in the past or the present. In most cases, it is simply impossible to draw sharp lines between the cultural contributions of migrants and those of pure-bred Britons. Just as the history of British music is unthinkable without the contribution of Handel, and England's 2005 Ashes victory inconceivable without the runs of Pietersen, so no artist did as much to shape the emergent national school of painting as Van Dyck. It was due largely to the Flemish painter (and later to the Dutch immigrant Peter Lely, né Pieter van der Faes, and the German immigrant Godfrey Kneller, ne Gottfried Kniller) that by the early 1700s excellence in portraiture had come to seem the defining characteristic of British art.

Migrations does, indeed, show us just how much of what is considered quintessentially British about British art actually originated abroad. The conversation piece, a type of portrait sometimes thought to be distinctively British, was, for example, already a familiar genre on the continent when it was imported to Britain in the early 18th century by painters such as the Fleming Joseph van Aken. Even landscape, the genre that replaced portraiture as that which seemed most typically British, was introduced to these islands by Netherlandish painters during the 17th century. The word "landscape" is itself of Dutch origin, a reminder of how much of the vocabulary that the British developed to discuss visual arts came from abroad, derived during the 1600s from the argot of immigrant Netherlandish painters and the jargon of French and Italian books on art theory.

As far as painting was concerned, 17th-century England was little more than an artistic colony of the Netherlands, its nascent art market dominated by the works of immigrant Dutchmen and Flemings. Even if more homebred painters emerged during the 18th century, the contributions of migrants were still significant, from the achievements of Huguenot refugees in the arts of design to the Swiss, Italian and colonial American painters selected by Joshua Reynolds and his cronies for their all-star team of Royal Academy founder members in 1768.

There is something of a hiatus in this pattern during the early and mid 19th century, a period understandably ignored by the Tate's exhibition. It might be interesting to find out why there were so few migrant artists during Britain's most powerful years. By the later 1800s, however, the migrants were back with a vengeance. During the 20th century, meanwhile, the British art world became strongly coloured by contributions of refugees from repressive regimes, in particular Jews fleeing from pogroms and national socialism. These immigrants were not only practising artists; the most important historians of art and architecture working in Britain during the post-war decades were two Jewish immigrants, Sir Ernst Gombrich and Sir Nikolaus Pevsner. The gulf between Gombrich, with his humanist universalism, and Pevsner, fascinated by the Englishness of English art, neatly encapsulates the tensions between inclusiveness and essentialism still apparent in Britain's attitude to its talented migrants.

In recent decades, the arts of Britain have been further shifted on their axis by the works of artists with origins in its former colonies. A sense of the scale of this shift may be obtained by standing on the steps of Tate Britain's sister institution, the National Gallery. There before you, occupying Trafalgar Square's notorious fourth plinth, stands Yinka Shonibare's Nelson's Ship in a Bottle, a work in which HMS Victory, among the most patriotically resonant of British war machines, sets sail under canvas adorned with African patterns. Shonibare's work has not only proved one of the most popular tenants of the troublesome plinth it has also raised remarkably little controversy. It is hard to imagine its reception being so peaceful or so positive just a generation earlier, a development that offers further evidence both of the openness of the British to the cultural contributions of our migrants and of our willingness to adjust our definitions of British culture in the light of those contributions.

The visual arts are, perhaps, a field in which British national identity has proved especially prone to transformation by those arriving from abroad. However, the immense impact that migrants have had on British art has, if not always to quite the same extent, been mirrored in many other facets of our national culture, from popular music to food. Britain's willingness not only to welcome talented incomers but also to be changed by their contributions might be deemed one of the most appealing features of our culture, our reluctance to regulate our national identity through any appellation contrôlée or Reinheitsgebot of pure Britishness counted as a strength rather than a weakness. It is, perhaps, time to reflect this strength by relaxing our constricted definitions of cultural citizenship so that we may once again celebrate the Britishness of Van Dyck, of Handel, and of the many other talented migrants who have helped to shape our national identity.

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