Defining British Art: An exhibition of masterpieces sold by Christie’s in the last 250 years
When James Christie set up his auction business in 1766, his timing could hardly have been better. The British Empire was in its ascendancy. The aristocrats of Georgian England, their appetite for art stimulated by the Grand Tour — that obligatory journey of discovery to France and Italy, where as young men they would first stretch their aesthetic sinews and, with luck, pick up some Old Masters or antiquities along the way — were interested in painting and sculpture as never before.
A good business got even better after 1789 and all that. The French Revolution gave further stimulus to the already thriving trade of ‘picture hawking’, as many of the great collections of the French nobility, surrendered perforce by their desperate owners, went under the hammer. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be a London auctioneer was very heaven.
Christie was friends with a number of English painters, including Thomas Gainsborough and Sir Joshua Reynolds, founder of the Royal Academy of Arts. But he was rarely in a position to promote or sell their work. His aristocratic clients were not interested in British art. They had been brought up to believe that great art was, by definition, foreign art, preferably by long-dead Italians or even longer-dead Greeks. At home, the aristocracy might employ the painters of their native country, but grudgingly, and only to perform the relatively menial tasks of depicting ‘my wife, my horse, my house and myself’.
So it is a cheering measure of how much attitudes have changed that Christie’s should have chosen to celebrate this, its 250th anniversary year, with a grand sale of British art from the past three centuries (30 June), as well as a curated exhibition (17 June to 15 July) that gathers together a selection of British masterpieces to have passed through the company’s salerooms over the years.
There will be some absolute stunners on display. Sir Edwin Landseer’s celebrated Monarch of the Glen (sold not once but twice at Christie’s) is a perfect example of the tendency of great British pictures to seem to be about one thing while actually representing another: that proud stag famously striding the Scottish highlands is not really just an animal, of course, but an emblematic embodiment of the British imperial spirit in its Victorian heyday, lording it over the vast wilderness of the world.
Then there is Joseph Wright of Derby’s spellbinding nocturne, Three Persons Viewing the Gladiator by Candlelight, in which some connoisseurs contemplate a model of the Borghese Gladiator, one of the greatest sculptures of classical antiquity. The painting perfectly catches that heady blend of aesthetic adventure and homoerotic self-discovery that lay at the heart of the Grand Tour for so many English milords.
Another 18th-century favourite of mine is Stubbs’s Huntsmen Setting Out From Southill, a picture that turns gentlemen on horseback and their hounds into a frieze of forms, mutedly heroic, and as grand in its own way as any of the fragments of the Parthenon frieze collected by Lord Elgin. And I can’t help singling out Reynolds’s magnificently half-clumsy portrait, Joanna Leigh, Mrs Richard Bennett Lloyd, in which, with a nod to Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the painter has cast an English lady in the character of a slightly overdressed Arcadian nymph, carving her beloved’s name into the trunk of a tree.
Moving forward into modern times, Francis Bacon’s study in self-loathing in triplicate, Three Studies for Self-Portrait, does not so much catch the eye as attempt to impale it. Equally aggressive, albeit in a rather different way, is Bridget Riley’s perception-bending, sense-bewildering masterpiece of op art, the incantatory and aptly entitled Chant 2.
The title of the show at Christie’s is Defining British Art, which raises the question of how British art should indeed be defined. When I was a fledgling art critic some 30 years ago, the general consensus seemed to be that it was not a subject particularly worth trying to define, or even worth bothering about. At around that time, I came across a slim and battered Pelican paperback called Art in England. It is still in my possession, and although I can’t say it is one of my favourite books, it has through the years been a touchstone of sorts — or at least a constant provocation, since it embodies so many of the dispiriting prejudices that have dogged the appreciation of English (and indeed British) art for so long.
The book, first published on the eve of the Second World War, takes the form of a rather grim anthology of essays by various hands. Perhaps the meanest-spirited of them all is a disconcertingly brisk eight-page survey of painting in England from the late Middle Ages to the end of the 19th century written by none other than Kenneth Clark, who, as a distinguished director of the National Gallery during the war years, should perhaps have known better.
So what was his justification for putting all of English art history into such a very small pot? ‘We are, after all, a literary people.’ Flicking on a few pages, the reader finds this remark from Douglas Lord: ‘There is no tradition of English art, no continuity: but occasionally a meteor blazes across its sky.’ He was presumably thinking of Constable, or perhaps Turner.
The most insidious myths usually contain a kernel of truth. The idea that the British are essentially a literary people is a direct legacy of the Protestant Reformation; so too is the belief that the English (or British) art tradition somehow lacks a pattern of continuity.
During the 1530s, the commissioners of the reformed Church of England were uniquely hardline in putting into practice the newfound Protestant enthusiasm for the second commandment, with its proscription on graven images (the Scots and Welsh soon followed suit). The result was the wholesale destruction of an entire national tradition of art, for which there would be no parallel anywhere else in Europe. Indeed, not until Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China would there be another such determined attempt to eradicate the visual fabric of a nation’s supposedly decadent past.
Under the direction of the Church of England’s militant and radicalised bishops, everything had to go: wooden roodscreens, together with carved images of the Crucifixion, were pulled from churches and burned in their thousands; sculptures were obliterated; paintings were destroyed and defaced; stained-glass windows were smashed. At a conservative estimate, less than half of one per cent of all the works of art that were seen and admired by visitors to English churches at the end of the 15th century still existed 100 years later.
These things happened, and they happened all across Britain; and they certainly made the British a less evidently ‘visual’ and more evidently verbal, or ‘literary’ people – as Kenneth Clark would have it – than they had once been. But it would be wrong to think that this was somehow a natural expression of the national psyche. It was, rather, an attempt to force the spirit of the nation in a certain direction – away from false images of the divine, as the Protestants saw them, and towards God’s truth as manifest in his word.
Yet despite the great turn away from the image marked by the Reformation in this country, and despite the great schism or void that it created in British history, a brilliant tradition of British art did indeed develop in its turbulent aftermath – a tradition that might be regarded as a defiant underdog among the other European traditions of painting and sculpture, one with a great deal of bark and a bite to match.
The smart money is on British art. And soon there’ll even be an artist on British money
The 18th century was the period during which this most stubborn and recalcitrant of traditions was nurtured and incubated; and it came into existence very much against the grain of the society that produced it. The Georgian period was dominated by the aristocracy, and that aristocracy firmly believed that its own homegrown artists were little better than tradesmen. For a century and more, the British artist would toil to free himself from the shackles of aristocratic preconception, and the result would be at once a great flowering and a quiet revolution in ways of painting, thinking and seeing.
Some artists worked in open defiance of the existing patronage system, notably William Hogarth, whose series A Rake’s Progress might be seen as a kind of low-life fresco cycle created in the medium of the printmaker: bypassing aristocratic taste altogether, he appealed to a new mass market brought into being by London’s coffee-house society, freeing himself to become the first truly great narrative artist to work in England since the dissolution of the monasteries. Most of the other great 18th-century British painters worked within the system, expressing their ambitions to work on a grander scale and with bigger ideas than their patrons would allow them by creating pictures that have something of the character of Trojan horses.
Sir Joshua Reynolds, who in his youth had dreamed of following in the footsteps of Michelangelo, found his way to such ambitions thwarted by a complete lack of patronage for paintings on grand narrative themes. So what did he do? He painted the lords and ladies of aristocratic England as if they were the gods and goddesses of Renaissance mythology, or posed them as Michelangelesque sibyls and prophets.
Gainsborough, his great contemporary, who was similarly entranced by the mythological art of the past — although his focus was more on Eros than drama — turned the ladies of Georgian England into sirens and Venuses, and even managed to smuggle one full-blown mythological masterpiece into his oeuvre: his Diana and Actaeon, one of the greatest English paintings in the Royal Collection today.
The achievement of George Stubbs is best understood when seen in a similar light. Stubbs was required by his patrons to paint their racehorses, symbols of wealth and, to an aristocratic mind, of impeccable breeding. But the art that he made to fulfill such requirements rose far above the humble journey-work of the horse-painter.
The quiet revolutions would continue well into the 19th century. There we find Constable, the forefather of abstract expressionism, turning the depiction of mere landscape — which owed its origins, in Britain, to an aristocratic desire for depictions of grand estates and gardens — into a cartography of human emotions. There, too, we find Turner, equally radical and influential, inventing a new approach to light which would transform the art and thought of the 19th century (as well as helping to birth that minor French art movement known as Impressionism).
Through such irregular surges and wellings up, rather than calm linear progressions, did the British art tradition develop. Discontinuity, it might be said, was its own form of continuity. By the 20th century, the unruly, irregular and defiantly mongrel character of British art was sufficiently well established to be trumpeted by Walter Richard Sickert. ‘No one could be more English than I am,’ he once said. ‘Born in Munich in 1860, of pure Danish descent!’
Francis Bacon, an Anglo-Irishman, and Lucian Freud, himself a Jewish émigré of Austrian descent, have continued this proud tradition of dissonant heterogeneity. Their achievements, along with those of several younger generations of British artists, may finally have laid to rest the notion that art is something for which the British have no innate talent.
So to return to where I began, I think it is immensely cheering that Christie’s has chosen to mark its 250th anniversary with a celebration of British art from the past three centuries. James Christie, after all, could never have dreamed of holding such a sale. The market wouldn’t have stood for it. Nowadays, all that really has changed. British art is on the map, and in demand.
To cap it all, Turner has just been selected as the next great Briton to be depicted on the English £20 note: a decision for which I may personally take a modest degree of credit, as a member of the Bank of England’s Banknote Character Advisory Committee. So the long and the short of it is that maybe I don’t need to enrage myself with that old copy of Art in England any more. Maybe I can put it back on the shelf, to gather dust. The smart money is on British art. And soon there’ll even be an artist on British money.