Without wishing to resort to national stereotypes, you could argue that the British used to be rather self-deprecatory, embarrassed even, about the art of their countrymen. “None of the other nations of Europe has so abject an inferiority complex about its own aesthetic capabilities as England,” wrote the German-born British art historian Nikolaus Pevsner in 1956.
Well, not any more. The BP Walk Through British Art, a splendid new chronological presentation of around 500 works from the Tate’s collection, offers a confident, concise and considered overview of the story of British art. It was hailed as a triumph by critics when it opened at Tate Britain in London last week.
It is full of inventive and unexpected juxtapositions that stimulate debate about the intrinsic characteristics of British art. My favourite example is the face-off between two enormous paintings in Tate Britain’s west wing. Separated in execution by almost 150 years, they eyeball one another like heavyweight wrestlers glowering across the length of the museum, visible through the doorways of six intervening galleries.
At one end is The Archers by Joshua Reynolds. Painted in 1769, it presents two young aristocrats hunting with bows and arrows in a forest. At the other is The Mud Bath (1914), by the Anglo-Jewish artist David Bomberg. In this image, angular blue and white figures move across a tilted red rectangle representing the pool of the Russian Vapour Baths in London’s East End.
At first glance, these two paintings could not be more different. Reynolds’s dramatic picture is a grand double portrait in the spirit of the Renaissance master Titian. The Mud Bath, by contrast, discards time-honoured conventions enshrined within Reynolds’s canvas. There is little sense of depth. The figures are geometric, almost abstract. The colour scheme is simplified and non-naturalistic.
And yet, hung within sight of each other, we are invited to consider what links two such diverse works. In The Archers, Lord Sydney and Colonel Acland, wielding antiquarian weaponry and wearing quasi-historical clothes, advance through ancient woodland in some semi-mythical realm. They are the inheritors of national traditions, laying claim to their country’s green and pleasant land. In The Mud Bath, Bomberg uses a controlled palette of red, white and blue to make his composition resemble a scrambled version of the Union Jack flag. The self-confident grandeur of the past makes way for the jangled uncertainty of modernity – yet both paintings articulate ideas about Britishness.
Looking in, looking out
Yet for every work of art that feels instinctively ‘British’, such as Joseph Highmore’s Mr Oldham and his Guests (c.1735-45), with its cast of bluff and doughty middle-aged drinkers enjoying a bowl of hot spiced wine (the sort of no-nonsense chaps we might find setting the world to rights in any modern English pub), there is also a welter of home-grown artworks that have more in common with foreign trends – like Eileen Agar’s madcap Angel of Anarchy (1936-40), a motley head decorated with Japanese silk and antique feathers and fur that visibly channels Parisian Surrealism. Walking through Tate Britain’s galleries, I was beset by a couple of questions: what, exactly, is ‘British’ about British art? And is there any point in thinking about national schools of art at all?
Charles Saumarez Smith, the former director of London’s National Gallery who is now secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, believes that there is. “British art has historically followed a different course of development from more mainstream European art,” he says. “Traditionally it has been particularly strong in landscape and portraiture, and less involved with religious art. Movements such as the Pre-Raphaelite School have not been paralleled in other countries.”
But Bendor Grosvenor, an art historian and dealer who has written about Tate Britain’s re-hang on his blog Art History News, is not so sure. “Not much is distinctively ‘British’ about British art until the early 18th century,” he tells me. “There are flashes of Britishness, or rather Englishness, before then – especially in more obscure fields like portrait miniatures, at which we excelled with native talent such as Nicholas Hilliard. But for oil painting we were almost wholly dependent on foreign artists: Holbein, Van Dyck, Lely, Kneller.”
Penelope Curtis, the director of Tate Britain who has masterminded the new display, is also cautious about identifying a native spirit within British art. “I think it’s dangerous to say that the British are more interested in landscape or in portraiture than other countries,” she says. “I don’t see that. Most artists don’t think of themselves as primarily British – they look abroad as much as to their immediate surroundings. And that’s been the case for a long time.”
Perhaps uncertainty over the nature of British art stems from doubt about its quality. “It’s only relatively recently that the British have properly celebrated British art,” explains Alexandra Harris, the art historian and author of Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper. “There was a sense that British art was a minor affair, only locally relevant if it was relevant at all. And that still lingers.
“But there are things that British artists tend to do wonderfully well,” Harris continues. “There’s a certain complex, understated colouring that recurs. John Piper thought it was partly about the weather: British eyes are accustomed to seeing things in a certain light. This is simple but makes sense. The great Spanish painters specialise in black shadows and intense light. The British are better at fathoming a thousand varieties of grey and green.”
In part, defining the so-called British School is tricky because so many of its protagonists, from Holbein and Van Dyck to Epstein and Freud, were born overseas. As I lingered in the renovated galleries last week, I reacquainted myself with old favourites such as Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger’s enigmatic Portrait of Captain Thomas Lee (1594), in which the barefoot Elizabethan courtier shows off his naked, blue-veined legs, and Lucian Freud’s Girl with a Kitten (1947), with its electrifying mix of neurosis and beauty. Freud was born in Berlin in 1922. Gheeraerts was a Flemish society portraitist, born in Bruges and active in London during the reign of Elizabeth I.
“The reason Tate’s collection is so rich,” says Curtis, “is because artists have come from all over the world and chosen to live in London. I think we need to be a little less worried about ‘what is British’ and just show the collection.”
In a recent interview, the artist Jeremy Deller, who will represent Britain at the Venice Biennale next week, said: “A lot of people agonise about what Britishness is. There are conferences about it all the time, and yet it doesn’t matter because it can be many things at the same time. It’s constantly evolving.”
Of course, this is also how art history works. Important art transcends the categories of scholars and critics, and this is what we find at the Tate. A chronological display sounds straightforward and orderly, even old-fashioned. But Tate Britain now offers tangled complexity. Works that seem to have little to do with one another stylistically appear side by side.
To take one example: Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s A Favourite Custom (1909) adjoins Walter Sickert’s La Hollandaise (c.1906). The former is a Victorian throwback, in which the enamelled presentation of the interior of a Roman baths masks the picture’s real agenda: ogling disrobed young women. The latter is much more tough and honest: we see a cheap iron bedstead supporting a naked prostitute whose face is in shadow. Sickert’s vigorous, loose brushwork appears almost to mangle and violate the figure before our eyes – the picture is fraught with menace and melancholy. Discovering that Alma-Tadema could paint such a piece of kitsch after Sickert had produced something so modern and affecting thwarts our desire to find development and progression in art history.
Which brings me back to The Archers and The Mud Bath. Both Reynolds and Bomberg were painting “Britishness”, albeit in different ways. Yet when he was working on The Archers, Reynolds was also thinking about Titian, the greatest painter of the Venetian School. In The Mud Bath, Bomberg was drawing upon Modernist developments that had emerged elsewhere in Europe. Trying to define the parameters of British art, then, is impossible – because truly great art transcends national borders.
Alastair Sooke is art critic for The Daily Telegraph