English Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations   

Throughout its history, English art has been influenced by that of the rest of Europe. But England has also made its own unique contributions to world art. In architecture, the English version of the Gothic style produced churches of great beauty; later English architects captured the spirit of the Italian Renaissance style and transformed it to suit English needs. Perhaps most influential was the great era of English painting that began in the 1700's. This period set new standards for landscape painting and established watercolor as an important artistic medium. In the 1800's and 1900's, individual English artists continued to have an impact on international movements and trends.

Celtic, Roman, and Anglo-Saxon Art

English art begins with the stone carvings and metalwork created by early Celtic tribes. The objects that survive show a love of decoration. Helmets, swords, and household goods were patterned with coils and spirals based on animal forms.

In A.D. 43, Britain was conquered by the Romans. They built fortified cities such as Londinium (London) and Aquae Sulis (Bath), which they joined by a network of paved roads. Roman engineers and craftsmen used techniques and materials from the Mediterranean to build elaborate palaces and temples, decorated with mosaic pavements and marble sculpture. Later, the Romans introduced Christianity to Britain.

After the Romans left Britain in the 400's, the country was invaded by northern European tribes, among them the Angles and Saxons. They were followed by Vikings from Scandinavia. From this mixture of cultures, a period of Celto-Saxon art emerged of even greater decorative richness. Much of it was portable treasure such as enameled gold jewelry set with precious stones. Objects discovered in the royal ship burial at Sutton Hoo and other sites suggest that both Christian and pagan religions were practiced.

During the 600's, missionaries arrived in Britain to strengthen Christianity there. They came from Rome and from monasteries in Ireland and Scotland. From the monasteries came the art of illuminating manuscripts. Gospels and other devotional books were copied by hand and beautifully decorated. The Book of Kells, an Irish manuscript of 760-820, is one of the best examples of this high point of Celto-Saxon art. Its richly colored illuminations interlace figures, animals, and birds with geometric designs.

The Norman Period

In 1066, William of Normandy invaded England from northern France. He chose London as his capital and fortified it by building the Tower of London on the foundations of the old Roman fortress. William proceeded to subdue his new kingdom by installing Norman barons as feudal lords in different parts of the country. They built imposing castles on high ground as signs of their authority and as defensive strongholds for the small armies they commanded. Cathedrals such as the one at Ely had a similar purpose. Both types of buildings were solidly constructed, using heavy rounded columns and semicircular arches. These features are typical of a style of architecture called Romanesque, then popular throughout Western Europe.

The Gothic Style

By the end of the 1100's, the Romanesque style began to give way to a lighter and more delicate form of cathedral building known as the Gothic style. The Gothic style began in France and later spread to the rest of Europe. Heavy rounded columns were replaced by clusters of slender piers (pillars), and the walls were pierced by larger windows with pointed arches. Panels of stained glass in the windows were supported by delicate stone carvings called tracery. Toward the end of the 1400's the Perpendicular style developed in England. It was an even more elaborate version of Gothic, with wider ceiling arches spanned by fan vaulting (a modified form of tracery).

Many cathedrals took a long time to build and often reflect changes in style. Canterbury Cathedral, for instance, was begun about 1070 as a Norman church. By the time it was finished, about 1400, it was truly Gothic.

In this period were built many parish churches, still a familiar sight throughout the English countryside. A typical parish church has a long central aisle with north and south side aisles. Above the main entrance at the western end is a square tower or belfry, often topped by a pointed spire.

The roofs of English churches were made of timber and were often decorated with carved angels and painted moldings. Sculpture was used more and more to decorate churches. Saints were made to look lifelike and natural.

It was during the Gothic period that painting first became important in England. Panels and altars in churches were decorated with religious paintings. As in sculpture, painted figures were lifelike and natural. Manuscript decoration was more popular than ever before.

Tudor Art

When the Protestant Reformation came to England in the 1500's, church art was forbidden or destroyed, and the medieval period of art was over.

A style of architecture named for the Tudor kings developed in England during this time. King Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509) and King Henry VIII (reigned 1509-57) had much to do with the development of English art and architecture. The Tudor style of architecture combined characteristics of English Gothic with features of the Italian Renaissance style.

The main feature of Tudor architecture was the half-timber style. Wooden frames were filled with plastered panels, and the open timber roofs were painted in gold and bright colors. Tudor manor houses contained rooms of different sizes to reflect their different uses: summer and winter parlors, private dining rooms, and, in some cases, as many as forty bedrooms. Outside, a formal garden, often planted with herbs, surrounded the manor house.

In the 1500's the German-born painter Hans Holbein the Younger was the most important artistic figure in England. In 1532 he became court painter to King Henry VIII. In addition to the fine portraits he painted, he designed tapestries and royal robes. He also was sent on trips to other countries to paint portraits of possible brides for Henry.

The Elizabethan Age

Elizabethan portrait painters continued the traditions established in England by Holbein and his followers. They were rivalled in importance by the limners, painters of the miniature portraits that were in great demand at the court of Queen Elizabeth (reigned 1558-1603). Nicholas Hilliard was the Queen's limner, and he also designed medals for his royal patron.

During the Elizabethan Age, architecture showed the influence of the Renaissance. An early Elizabethan house was shaped like an E or an H with the entrance in the center. It had a great hall and broad staircases and terraces. Doorways, fireplaces, and staircases were decorated. The roofs were sloping and gabled. Later the plan of the house became square. The sloping roofs became flat. Roman columns decorated the outside, and more furniture filled the inside. As cities grew, brick was used instead of timber. Timber was growing too expensive and was proving to be a fire hazard.

The Age of Stuarts

In 1619 the Banqueting House in the royal palace of Whitehall was destroyed by fire. James I of the house of Stuart (reigned 1603-25) commissioned his architect Inigo Jones to rebuild it. Jones was one of the few Englishmen to have visited Italy and to have studied in particular the work of the great Italian architect Andrea Palladio. The Banqueting House that Jones completed in 1622 shows how strongly he favored the classical style of the Italian Renaissance. The building's influence on later English architecture cannot be overestimated.

During the reigns of James I and his son Charles I (reigned 1625-49), painters in England became aware of what was going on in the courts of Europe. The royal family began to form a fine collection of Italian paintings and became active patrons of British artists. They also persuaded important foreign artists to work at the English court. The Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens was the leading European artist of his day. As a mark of respect, Charles I knighted Rubens and asked him to paint the canvases that decorate the ceiling of the banqueting hall at Whitehall. Anthony Van Dyck also was Flemish. In 1633 he was invited by King Charles to settle in England. Van Dyck became the most outstanding figure in English art since Holbein. He established a painting tradition that has been reflected in English court portraiture ever since.

Political disturbances after 1642 led to civil war and the overthrow of the monarchy (rule by kings and queens). Royal support of the arts was ended until the monarchy was restored in 1660. Under the new king, Charles II (reigned 1660-85), Sir Peter Lely revived court portrait painting in the style of Van Dyck. Charles also began to remodel Windsor Castle with the help of painters from France and Italy. He employed the woodcarver Grinling Gibbons to create ornate carved wall panels, fireplace mantels, and other works.

The most important artistic figure associated with the court of Charles II was the architect Christopher Wren. In 1666, a great fire swept through London, and Wren was chosen to rebuild many of the buildings that had been destroyed. His greatest work is St. Paul's Cathedral (1675-1710), with its massive dome and beautifully decorated interior.

The 18th Century

A style of architecture popular in the early 1700's was named for Queen Anne (reigned 1702-14). Queen Anne houses, built of brick, were boxlike in shape and had canopied doors and sashed windows. The Georgian style that followed was named for the kings who reigned from 1714 to 1830: George I, II, III, and IV. The Georgian style was even simpler than the Queen Anne style. Like the 17th-century English architect Inigo Jones, Georgian architects were greatly influenced by the Italian classical style.

The outstanding architects of the period were Robert Adam and his brother James. Between 1768 and 1772 the Adam brothers designed and built in London the Adelphi, a complex of townhouses beside the river Thames. There and elsewhere they succeeded in giving a sense of spaciousness to row houses built on narrow lots. Much of their work, as at Syon House in Middlesex, consisted of interior remodeling; they are noted for the delicate ornamentation with which they decorated the walls and ceilings of rooms that were oval, square, or round in shape. The Adam brothers also designed the furniture for many of their buildings.

A Golden Age of English Painting
The 1700's marked the beginning of a great period in English painting that lasted for more than a hundred years. Perhaps more than any other artist, William Hogarth helped to begin this period. Hogarth specialized in paintings and prints that attacked the folly and vice of the age. For example, The Rake's Progress (1735), a series of eight paintings, shows a rich but foolish young man going from one wrongdoing to the next, and finally ending in ruin. Hogarth was also successful in pressing for copyright laws to protect artists, and his essay Analysis of Beauty (1753) made an important contribution to art theory.

In 1768 the Royal Academy of Arts was founded in London with Sir Joshua Reynolds as its first president. Scholar, writer, teacher, and painter, Reynolds became a spokesman for the new, typically English kind of art that was developing. A trip to Italy in the mid-1700's had a great impact on Reynolds' art. He was also influenced by the work of Rubens. Reynolds combined these and other influences to create the English portrait in the "Grand Style," as he put it. He often included references to ancient legends in his formal portraits.

Another important portrait painter of the period was George Romney. Romney had studied in Rome and brought to his portraits the classical influence of ancient Greece and Rome.

Thomas Gainsborough was another outstanding painter of the same period. Gainsborough was one of the original members of the Royal Academy. His portraits, such as the famous Blue Boy (1770), are distinguished by fine brushwork and delicacy of color. Gainsborough is also recognized for his importance as a landscape painter.

English landscape painting shows the countryside for its own sake, not merely as a background. Many early landscape painters, like Thomas and Paul Sandby, trained as military artists. They were taught to make very accurate representations of what they saw. Others, like the Welsh painter Richard Wilson, were influenced by their travels to Italy and by the way artists of the 1600's such as Claude Lorrain had painted the Italian countryside. As a result, Wilson often altered the appearance of the countryside in his paintings to conform to his ideals.

The poet William Blake engraved and hand colored his own books. He printed from a single copperplate the text and illustration of each page before painting it. His style is linear, flat, and full of movement, and the pictures at first glance may appear strange. It is important to remember that Blake trained as an engraver but rejected many of the conventions of the day to develop his own artistic ideas.

Constable and Turner

By the end of the 1700's, landscape painting in Britain had reached a new level of importance as artists and writers focused on the beauties of nature. Like Blake, the young John Constable reacted against the academic tradition he found when he went as an art student to London. In 1802 he turned his back on the capital and returned to his native Suffolk to pursue what he described to a friend as "natural painture."

Constable found beauty in the ordinary life of farm, field, and woodland. His fresh approach resulted in delightful landscapes like The Hay Wain ("wain" means wagon). This painting later influenced the French painters known as the impressionists.

Unlike Constable, J. M. W. Turner grew up in London. Poor and unsociable, he began his career working as a draftsman. By the time he was in his mid-20's, he had become a member of the Royal Academy. His paintings reveal his interest in changing atmosphere and in the fleeting effects of light. The clouds seem ready to burst, trees appear to sway in the wind, and water seems almost to sweep off the canvas. Turner produced a great number of watercolors as well as oils.

England is a wet, green country. Clouds in the windswept sky change quickly from gray to white, from fluffy to thin. The climate and character of the landscape are well expressed in watercolor, a medium that flowered in England during the 1800's.

Turner was probably the best-known master of watercolor in England. But Turner himself singled out his boyhood friend Thomas Girtin, who died in 1802 at the age of 27. "Had poor Tom lived, I would have starved," was Turner's comment.

Two other artists who captured in watercolor the changing light and winds of the English countryside were John Sell Cotman and David Cox. Early in his career Cotman painted flat washes of color in simple shapes. Later he added material to his water paints to make thick, opaque colors.

The Victorian Age

During Queen Victoria's reign (1837-1901), Britain emerged as the world's foremost industrial nation. But many people were critical of the society in which they lived, and many saw in art and architecture opportunities for social change.

When Augustus Welby Pugin published his essay Contrasts in 1837, he compared his own times unfavorably with the Middle Ages. His efforts, along with those of the great critic and writer John Ruskin, helped to promote the Gothic Revival as a reformist style. With Sir Charles Barry, Pugin was responsible for the design of the Houses of Parliament, one of the first important public buildings in Britain to look back toward medieval rather than classical architecture. Others followed, including London's Law Courts, designed by George Edmund Street.

In 1848 a group of artists formed the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Led by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais, and Ford Madox Brown, they looked back to the art before the age of the Italian Renaissance painter Raphael. Other English artists began to imitate the work of painters of the Middle Ages, using jewel-like color and carefully drawn detail. Sir Edward Burne-Jones began his career as an assistant of Rossetti and developed into an important symbolist painter.

William Morris was one of the most talented men in England, a fine poet as well as an artist. He believed that the everyday objects that surround us should be made beautiful. In 1861 he founded a company to make stained-glass windows, furniture, wallpaper, and fabrics after his designs and those of his artist friends. Later he started the Kelmscott Press. One of his greatest accomplishments was an edition of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Morris' beliefs formed the basis of the arts and crafts movement, which later spread to the rest of Europe and the United States.

The 20th Century

To recapture the spirit of the Edwardian era (1901-10), it is necessary only to look at the romantic country houses built by the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens and the fashionable portraits painted by John Singer Sargent. (Sargent, an American, lived in London for many years.) They reflect a world of wealth and privilege that changed forever after World War I (1914-18).

The English art world had begun to undergo changes early in the century with the introduction of modern art movements. Walter Richard Sickert returned to London from Paris in 1905 to found the Camden Town Group of painters, who produced realistic depictions of everyday life. In 1910 the artist and critic Roger Fry arranged the first large-scale exhibition in London of work by the French postimpressionists. The impact was felt immediately by a new generation of students at the Slade School of Art, who rapidly aligned themselves with the modern movements. Of these, the vorticists, led by Percy Wyndham Lewis, were perhaps the most important in establishing a London-based group of abstract artists.

For a brief period in the 1930's, London competed with Paris as the center of the European art world. Artists and architects fleeing repressive governments settled in England. Among them were the German architect Walter Gropius, the Russian sculptor Naum Gabo, and the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. This internationalism was reflected in the publication of the art journal Circle in 1937. The journal was a survey of international constructivist art, a popular modern art movement.

Two influential British figures were the painter Ben Nicholson and his wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth. During the bombing of London in World War II, they moved to the village of St. Ives, in Cornwall. There they established an artists' colony that was continued by a younger generation of artists, including the painters Roger Hilton and Peter Lanyon.

Internationalism has been the keynote of English art since 1945. Many English artists have lived and worked in other countries. The towering achievement of the sculptor Henry Moore is recognized worldwide. His works, with their curved shapes and interplay of solids and space, greatly influenced his contemporaries. Anthony Caro taught sculpture and created his welded metal works in both England and the United States. The earth artist Richard Long worked with the natural landscape to create innovative outdoor artworks in Europe, North and South America, Africa, and elsewhere.

Among painters, Francis Bacon gained an international reputation for his extremely powerful and often disturbing images. David Hockney, who moved to California in 1964, is perhaps the best known of the English artists who have settled abroad. His paintings, photographic collages, and other works show his mastery of different styles and mediums.

Duncan Robinson
Director, Yale Center for British Art
Herbert B. Grimsditch
Fleetway Publications, England

Help | Privacy Policy




(Separate multiple email addresses with commas)

Check this box to send yourself a copy of the email.


Scholastic respects your privacy. We do not retain or distribute lists of email addresses.