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Celtic & Medieval Art (ca. 9th C. B.C.-16th C. A.D.)

Celtic art survived the Roman conquest and medieval Christianity mainly as carved swirls and decorations on the "Celtic Crosses" peppering cemeteries. During the medieval period, colorful Celtic images and illustrations decorated the margins of Bibles and Gospels, giving the books their moniker "illuminated manuscripts."

The best example of this art is the Wilton Diptych at London's National Gallery, the first truly British painting. It was crafted in the late 1390s for King Richard II by an unknown artist. The Lindisfarne Gospels at London's British Library is one of the greatest illuminated manuscripts from the 7th century.

Renaissance & Baroque Art (16th-18th C.)

The Renaissance hit England late, but its museums contain many Old Master paintings from Italy and Germany. A few foreign Renaissance masters did come to work at the English courts and influenced some local artists, but significant Brits didn't emerge until the baroque.

The baroque, a more decorative version of the Renaissance approach, mixes compositional complexity and explosions of dynamic fury, movement, color, and figures with an exaggeration of light and dark, called chiaroscuro, and a kind of super-realism based on using peasants as models. The rococo period is baroque art gone awry; it's frothy and chaotic.

Significant British artists of this period include:

  • Joshua Reynolds (1723-92). A fussy baroque painter and first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, Reynolds was a firm believer in a painter's duty to celebrate history. Reynolds spent much of his career casting his noble patrons as ancient gods in portrait compositions cribbed from Old Masters. Many of his works are in London's National Gallery, Tate Britain, Wallace Collection, and Dulwich Picture Gallery; Oxford's Cathedral Hall; Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery; and Birmingham's Museum and Art Gallery.
  • Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88). Although he was a classical/baroque portraitist like his rival Reynolds, at least Gainsborough could be original. Too bad his tastes ran to rococo pastels, frothy feathered brushwork, and busy compositions. When not immortalizing such noble patrons as Jonathan Buttell (better known as "Blue Boy"), he painted a collection of landscapes just for himself. His works grace the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath (where he first came to fame), London's National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery, Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum, Oxford's Cathedral Hall and Ashmolean Museum, Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery, and Birmingham's Museum and Art Gallery.

Paintings by The Romantics (Late 18th-19th C.)

The Romantics felt the Gothic Middle Ages was the place to be. They idealized the romantic tales of chivalry and had a deep respect for nature, human rights, and the nobility of peasantry.

Significant artists of this period include:

  • William Blake (1757-1827). Romantic archetype Blake snubbed the stuffy Royal Academy of Arts to do his own engraving, prints, illustrations, poetry, and painting. His works were filled with melodrama, muscular figures, and sweeping lines. Judge for yourself at London's Tate Britain and Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery.
  • John Constable (1776-1837). Constable was a great British landscapist whose scenes (especially those of happy, agricultural peasants) got more idealized with each passing year -- while his compositions and brushwork became freer. You'll find his best stuff in London's National Gallery and Victoria and Albert Museum, and in Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery.
  • J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). "The First Impressionist" was a prolific and multitalented artist whose mood-laden, freely brushed watercolor landscapes influenced Monet. The River Thames and London, where he lived and died, were frequent subjects. London's Tate Britain displays the largest number of Turner's works.
  • Pre-Raphaelites (1848-70s). This "brotherhood" of painters declared that art had gone all wrong with Italian Renaissance painter Raphael (1483-1520) and set about to emulate the Italian painters who preceded him. The works of Dante Rossetti, William Hunt, and John Millais most evoke this school. Their symbolically imbued, sweetly idealized, hyper-realistic work depicts scenes from Romantic poetry and Shakespeare as much as from the Bible. You can see pre-Raphaelite art at London's Tate Gallery, Oxford's Ashmolean Museum, Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery, and Manchester's City Art Gallery.

20th-Century Art

Art of the last century often followed international schools or styles -- no major ones truly originated in Britain -- and the major British artists listed here tended to move in and out of styles over their careers:

  • Henry Moore (1898-1986). A sculptor, Moore saw himself as a sort of reincarnation of Michelangelo. The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, where he studied, preserves his drawings and sculpture. You'll also find his work at Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum and Clare College.
  • Francis Bacon (1909-92). A dark and brooding expressionist, Bacon presented man's foibles in formats, such as the triptych (a set of three panels, often hinged and used as an altarpiece), that were usually reserved for religious subjects. Find his works in London, Birmingham, and Manchester's Whitworth Art Gallery.
  • David Hockney (b. 1937). The closest thing to a British Andy Warhol, Hockney employs a less pop-arty style than the famous American -- though Hockney does reference modern technologies and culture. His work resides in London and Liverpool.
  • Damien Hirst (b. 1965). The guy who pickles cows, Hirst is a celebrity/artist whose work sets out to shock. He's a winner of Britain's Turner Prize.

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