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British art comes of age: 18th century

In the 18th century native British artists at last make their mark. The first to do so is William Hogarth, but he is quirky and untypical, standing outside any school.

Portrait painting is the more characteristic theme of British art, in England and also in Scotland. A Scot, Allan Ramsay, is the first full-scale portraitist of great distinction but he is soon followed by others both north and south of the border. Meanwhile another very British theme develops, from the second half of the century, in the tradition of landscape watercolours.

Hogarth and the English scene: 1728-1764

The first English painter on a grand scale is also the most English of painters. Hogarth observes London life with the keenest of eyes, and makes his main contribution by presenting the bustling scene in vivid narrative paintings.

His first great success is a picture in 1728 of the stage of the Lincoln's Inn Fields theatre during a performance of John Gay's Beggar's Opera, the smash hit of the day (over the next three years he paints several versions of the same picture). In 1731 Hogarth completes the six paintings which make up A Harlot's Progress, the first of his very successful narrative sequences in which a contemporary moral tale is told as if in a series of satirical scenes on a stage.

Hogarth engraves a version of the Harlot's Progress himself (his original trade is engraving) and publishes the six plates with great success in 1732. In this combination of narrative satirical paintings, followed by the publication of a set of engravings, Hogarth finds his natural medium. Subsequent series are A Rake's Progress (1735), Marriage à la Mode (1742-4) and The Election (1754).

From the 1730s Hogarth also paints portraits. They tend to have a delightfully rough informality (such as the infants of the Grey family in 1740, cheerfully tormenting a puppy) or a sturdy masculinity (Captain Coram of the same year). But by this time a painter of more elegant portraits, Allan Ramsay, has set up shop in London.

British portraits: 1739-1830

Allan Ramsay, born in Edinburgh in 1713, studies in Rome and Naples during the 1730s before opening a studio in London in 1739 (together with another in Edinburgh). He brings to British portraiture a delicacy previously lacking, as seen to brilliant effect in his 1759 portrait of his wife (now in the National Gallery of Scotland).

By the 1750s Ramsay has a younger rival, of considerable skill and soaring ambition, with whom he finds it hard to compete. Joshua Reynolds, who establishes himself in London in 1753 after two years in Italy, has a high notion of the dignity of art and the artist. He is the natural first president of the Royal Academy, when it is founded in 1768, and he endows his sitters with an equivalent sense of importance.

Reynolds often paints his subjects full length, in splendid poses and in close proximity to a classical column or urn. These are the sort of people who go on the Grand Tour. Their easy self-confidence in Reynolds's canvases revives the great tradition of the English portraits of van Dyck.

If anything is missing in these powerful images by Reynolds, it is perhaps the fleeting quality of fashion - a quality abundantly supplied by his slightly younger rival Thomas Gainsborough. When Gainsborough catches William and Elizabeth Hallett on their Morning Walk (in London's National Gallery), the couple may not have the air of lasting importance which Reynolds would give them; but on this particular morning there is no one to match them.

Gainsborough maintains a studio in fashionable Bath from 1759 to 1774, and then moves to London. The rich English gentry who pose in town for him and for Reynolds have country seats where they are intensely interested in horses. These splendid animals also deserve a good portrait. England has just the man in George Stubbs.

Stubbs's wonderfully calm and elegant images of sleek horses with their grooms, huntsmen or jockeys in neatly tailored landscapes, or of conversation pieces with the family sitting proud and upright in their carriages, are in their own way as significant a part of the portraiture of prosperous 18th-century England as the work of Reynolds and Gainsborough.

The generation after Reynolds, Gainsborough and Stubbs produces two artists who round off in dramatic style the great period of British portrait painting. Henry Raeburn stays almost exclusively north of the border in Scotland, usually depicting his sitters in dramatic lighting against dark sketchy backgrounds. His striking image of The Reverend Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch (early 1790s) is Scotland's most famous painting but is untypical.

Thomas Lawrence, the youngest of this group, is also the most flamboyant and free in the brilliant facility of his brush strokes. As Holbein immortalizes Henry VIII, so Lawrence does the same for the prince regent, or George IV. He and his most famous subject die in the same year, 1830.

British watercolours: 18th - 19th century

In 1771 the topographical artist Paul Sandby sets off with a wealthy patron for a tour of Wales. Sandby's job is to sketch the magnificent scenery, now coming into fashion with the beginning of the Romantic movement. This new interest will be popularized a decade later by the Rev. William Gilpin, an indefatigable pilgrim in pursuit of the picturesque who publishes accounts of his own sketching tours, beginning with Observations on the River Wye, relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (1782).

Watercolour is the natural medium for sketches of this kind. The passion for the picturesque therefore lies behind the development of the most distinctively British strand in art history - that of the landscape watercolour.

The use of watercolour as the occasional medium for a rapid sketch goes back as far as Dürer, and many artists in the 17th century use monochrome wash drawings as studies for paintings. The difference in Britain in the 18th century is that specialists emerge who paint watercolours for their patrons (and later for a wider market) and in many cases restrict their work to this one medium.

This development coincides with a fortunate new discovery in printmaking, that of the aquatint - which for the first time can provide in printed form something very close to the tones of a wash drawing. Again Paul Sandby is a pioneer. His Welsh trips result in the publication, in 1776-7, of thirty-six Views in Aquatinta taken on the Spot in Wales.

Soon British watercolour artists are travelling abroad to bring back views from regions such as the Alps which have scenery even more picturesque than Wales can provide. In a nice paradox, classical ruins in Italy are also now found to be romantic.

From the start very individual styles emerge among these artists. Many attempt a neat topographical precision, particularly in subjects such as ruins. Others go for much bolder effects. John Robert Cozens, touring in Switzerland and Italy in 1776, brings back wonderfully misty and evocative images. Francis Towne, in the same regions in 1781, turns landscape into simple blocks of wash so bold that the effect is almost abstract.

Other leading watercolourists who develop their own personal vision of the British landscape include Thomas Girtin, John Sell Cotman, David Cox and Peter de Wint. Vision tips over into visionary in the richly intimate views painted by Samuel Palmer at Shoreham in Kent (under the influence of William Blake, a master of watercolour in his own visionary scenes).

One figure above all personifies the development of the watercolour in England. Turner in his twenties paints brilliantly in the detailed topographical style. Later in his life he produces bright shimmering washes as bold as his large canvases of the same period. Constable says that they seem to be painted 'with tinted steam, so evanescent and so airy'.

This History is as yet incomplete.

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