British Art in the 17th and 18th Century: What Was British About It?

Flaming June, The Painter and his Pug, Newton, Ophelia

A short version of my British Art essay at Metropolitan University Prague,June, 2017. Originally published on LinkedIN.

Although an artistic nature of the nation dates back to Anglo-Saxons and Normans, from illuminated manuscript to church architecture, art of England, once predominantly under patronage of Church and local pious benefactors, experienced a stirring transformation throughout centuries. From portraiture and satire to landscape and equestrian art, the 16th century Reformation in some way forced artists to embrace new forms of artistic production — something that would later endorse the nation’s artistic heritage with the kind of distinctiveness exclusive only to Britain.

Remarkably diverse, and to some extent formed by friendliness towards an outside influence, British art gave prominence to considerably unique characteristics, and those characteristics have genuinely defined its Britishness.

A ‘Warts and All’ Tradition of Portraiture

Portrait of Henry VIII, Hans Holbein

Contrary to extravagant fantasy that had prevailed in British art until the middle of the seventeenth century, the famous ‘warts and all’ tradition in portraiture embraced facts and realism as an aesthetic trend and as an unprecedented approach to art. Particularly popular since Renaissance, and as a consequence of the Protestant Reformation, portraiture successfully replaced commissions for religious images, thus became patronized by ruling classes who developed a selective interest in preserving a memory of friends and ancestors, as well as in honouring their own virtues, wealth, power, and social status. Commissioned for challenging tasks of visually securing their patrons’ reputation and rank — with an aim to idealize, improve or celebrate them in front of the eyes of society — status validation through portraiture became a conduct for asserting authority. The pragmatic accuracy of “warts and all” paintings delighted the society, and consequently created a strong interest in details through the examination of intellectual or ideological postures. Incorporating presence and reality in portraiture — new talents — usually outsiders, began altering the nation’s artistic expansion, and embarked themselves on a journey of creating something that would later become one of the distinctiveness British art has been known for.

Holbein and Cooper

One of those talents — Hans Holbein — became notably famous for mastering excessive presence in his works of art. Although sometimes running against state propaganda, he precisely represented the “warts and all” power and its compelling realism as an exclusive technique. According to Graham-Dixon’s History of British Art, Holbein’s realism irreversibly shaped a powerful and morally charged view of the portrait in Britain. Equally talented, Samuel Cooper was one of those brilliant minds, too. His realistic miniature of Oliver Cromwell — to whom we owe a debt of gratitude for coining the phrase “warts and all” — has been recognized as the Britishness in British art.

In respect to this new art form, beautiful dreams and extravagant fantasies ceased to exist; the time had come to employ the facts and embrace realism as a new aesthetic trend, which, according to Graham Dixon’s History of British Art, once the British fully aligned themselves with, gave life to their national self-discovery.

Political Satire

The Plumb Pudding in Dinner, James Gillray

Similarly, the eighteen-century British art witnessed a birth of a brilliance in political and social satire — an outstanding innovation that mocked the noble and the members of the ruling class, who, abruptly faced by the cruel satirical attacks, was forced to find ways of revising their often exaggerated power. The rise of this “art of resistance”, mostly in the second half of the eighteen century, was associated with the political changes in Britain (e.g., the introduction to the first official parliamentary opposition). This turbulent political period ideally coexisted with a growing print industry, and, reflecting the flow of the intense political situation, perfectly blended the quintessential reproductions of satirical art with the well-educated British audience that highly enjoyed its stark and sharp truth. Additionally improved by easy means of production and distribution, as well as by the appearance of new artists on the scene, the situation in Britain conveniently created favourable grounds for satire to flourish. In the absence of absolutism at that time, artists who successfully established a tradition of political and social visual satire in Britain — James Gillray, Thomas Rowlandson, George Cruikshank, and William Hogarth — created works of art free of censorship, something yet unseen in Europe.

Hogarth and Gillray

Gillray’s The Plumb Pudding in Dinner, in which the Prime Minster William Pitt and Napoleon are greedily carving up the globe with forks and knives; or Hogarth’s Gin Lane — a powerful satire of the eighteenth-century London portraying beggary, poverty, suicide, crime, debt, and drunkards on the streets of the city — revealed the artists’ sophisticated skill of using metaphor to mock the society and politics in Britain at that time. The strength of the consensus lied in the absence of censorship, but also in the ruling class’s unique tolerance for satire; Had they allowed themselves to be targeted in art, perhaps they could have escaped being attacked in reality.

The detachment of horror and laughter, merged in one visual message, awarded this brilliant innovation with a recognition for its uniqueness and achievement — the kind of glory that continues to this day.

Landscape Painting

The Decline of the Carthaginian Empire, William Turner

Perhaps less controversial but equally compelling and unique, the eighteen-century landscape painting played a decisive role in shaping Britishness in British art. Frequent travels, provided by the rise of railway and an improved stagecoach system, had created circumstances for this interesting genre to transform itself from the background of religious, mythological and historical paintings to the foreground of some of the most remarkable works of art. Influenced by the Dutch landscape school and its naturalistic approach to environment, British artists, such as Thomas Gainsborough or William Turner, created fresh and natural landscape paintings — something completely different from the modest and basic style that had dominated until the seventeenth century. Gradually reshaping the perspective on landscape — from the eyes of landowning through the eyes of art and poetry — the British society witnessed a transformation of the common traditional topography into breathtaking sceneries of distant lands. One of the original examples, Richard Wilson’s The Destruction of Niobe and Her Children, certainly proves that the eighteen-century landscape painting in Britain had the power to disseminate an emotional and intellectual message, thus revamp landscape into aspiration. Revolutionizing the painters’ perspective in Britain, but also in Europe, landscape painting achieved an even greater success in the nineteenth century when the artists began to apply their landscape vision to figure painting as a result of new technical methods and a widely spread attitude towards nature.

And although it would be difficult to compare the commercial success of landscape painting to the success of portraiture and political satire, the founders of the English landscape school, Wilson, Turner, andGainsborough, nevertheless excited an emotional response to this genre in an equally triumphant way. Using watercolour as the leading technique for creating desired effects of lights and weather, the artists’ impressive imagination aroused the kind of worship of nature that presented landscape painting as one of the most notable features of the British artistic taste — something that would become an unprecedented element of Britishness in British art.

About That Britishness in British art…

Britain’s 17th and 18th century artwas shaped by various different art forms and styles that noticeably brought naturalism and innovation into attention. Coherently and diversely, a fusion of the outside influence and the culture transformation matured into the kind of distinctiveness that became exclusive to the art of Great Britain. Its authentic tone, but moreover its unique features within the art genres — a factual and realistic ‘warts and all’ tradition of portraiture, a profound political and social satire, and a watercolour-based landscape painting — revealed the art’s true nativeness, and, accompanied by a dynamic progress, confirmed that very Britishness in British art.


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