A Companion to British Art
1600 to the Present
Edited by Dana Arnold & David Peters Corbett
Blackwell Companions to Art History
Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013
Hardcover. 570 p. ISBN 978-1405136297. £120
Reviewed by Charlotte Gould
Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris 3
Alongside abounding canonical surveys of specific periods and centuries, many chronological overviews of the history of British art are available to researchers and the wider public: Andrew Graham-Dixon’s 1999 A History of British Art, for example, stemmed from his BBC series. A significant renewed interest in the field has been marked by the publication of the three-volume The History of British Art edited in 2008 by David Bindman – its definite article and array of contributors alluding to a more comprehensive approach. Dana Arnold and David Peters Corbett’s A Companion to British Art, though it covers the same period as volumes 2 and 3 of Bindman’s digest, and while also aiming to develop British art studies, shuns a chronological construction in favour of a series of detailed studies arranged in four sections which the editors feel have become the hot topics in recent scholarship: Institutions, Nationhood, Landscape, Men and Women. The book is presented as specifically targeting an undergraduate audience and teachers wanting to provide an introduction to British art in class. While this might be an accurate prevision of its possible readership, I feel the breadth and quality of the volume, with its 24 chapters, each one written by an authoritative voice, also makes it relevant for academics and specialists of the subject.
Central to this very comprehensive approach of recent trends in the historiography is the possible reassessment of the very value of British art, both aesthetic and historical. British art has indeed long been appraised as failing to compare with its Continental and then American contemporaries, its inferior state mainly attributed to the misguided taste of its bourgeois patrons. British art historians have themselves been the most unforgiving in labelling it derivative, parochial or mediocre. Colin Trodd’s comment that T.S.R. Boase belonged to “a school of writing, still active today, in which the history of British painting is the history of its ability to overcome the centralized system of French art”  confirms this mainly apologetic stance in traditional approaches to the subject. Yet, if one seeks to reconsider some of these judgements today, one also needs to question the uses of Englishness or Britishness as art categories quite simply because, in our more globalised times, the sociological appears to have become irrelevant in terms of value judgements. The book justifies a national approach and demonstrates that because of British art’s very exclusion from a canon which, over centuries, has marginalised it for social, historical and mainly economic reasons, it is not comparable with the art of other cultures.
Mark Cheetham gives the first and very convincing demonstration of how a supposed national fault turns into a national singularity by looking at Hogarth’s 1745 The Painter and his Pug. He argues that while, in the 18th century, theory was construed as a French or German import, artists like Hogarth devised a vernacular art theory inseparable from its presentation, something J.M. Mitchell might term an “imagetext”. According to Cheetham, the painting, composed at the same time as The Analysis of Beauty, represents “a practical theory of Englishness” . Well into the 20th century, an English exceptionalism survived, which was trumpeted by Herbert Read in the essentialising national displays of the Festival of Britain of 1951. This demonstration does not decide whether English art theory is still motivated today by the same search for national identity, but it does give an explanation for the centrality the national concept still occupies.
Similarly, modernism has been a moot point in the history of British art, whose take on it has invariably been deemed belated and undemonstrative. Janet Wolff stresses the essential questions of the universalism of modernism and the relativism of different modernities in reassessing a British art which was left out of what she calls the “MoMA narrative”  of modernist art. By accepting today that aesthetic value judgement is not based on universal standards, it is possible to embark on a revisionist project to reevaluate the artists of British modernity. Wolff goes as far as to wonder whether non-modernist modern art (realist or figurative art) might just as well be considered the art of modernity. Indeed, the case she makes is also that of many of the contributors to the volume who wish to “Retriev[e], Remap[…] and Rewrit[e] Histories of British Art” (the title of Dorothy Rowe’s chapter): that “aesthetic evaluation is always situational, and a product of its contemporary culture and its values” . By accepting that a 21st-century point of view is one which embraces the different qualities of different visual cultures, the authors open up to alternative aesthetic regimes in which the decorative, the narrative – Pamela Fletcher makes a strong case for the experimental and oppositional functions of 19th-c. problem pictures –, portraiture – with the miniature acquiring a monumental role post-Reformation according to Dympna Callaghan – and landscape painting can take pride of place. Editor David Peters Corbett’s own chapter in the book looks into how the notion of a British modern art can be recalibrated, especially in terms of periodisation: he calls for more attention to be paid to a “micro-history” , to the way the moments of transition between one accepted historical period and another might be considered afresh.
Cynthia Roman demonstrates how the structural predominance of portraiture against 18th-century aspirations to history painting came to embody an idea of nationhood. Jo Applin points to a British “spatial turn”  during the 1960s British art scene’s fraught encounter with American modernism following a small but influential exhibition entitled “Situation” which managed the curious feat of both pledging allegiance to American autonomy and self-referentiality, and usher in more national considerations of scale which allowed for the creation of situations involving the whole body of the spectator. When addressing British Pop and the high/low divide, Simon Faulkner argues for a nuanced understanding of the movement and, rather than rely on the rehashed notion of “rebellion”, he explains how, over the past three decades, a debate on individual human agency has brought to the fore a critique of the notion of the artist as isolated originator of artistic meaning. Indeed, artistic agency is always enmeshed with the institutional structures of art which may not have actual agency, but which allow agency. These complex cultural contexts and codes of practice derive mainly from the specific forms of patronage and promotion a country has established for itself. In this regard, Ruskin’s ideal of meaningful cultural communities seems a major reference in investigating the contribution of the Royal Academy not merely as a “polite space of interaction” , but also in its planned support given to the emergence of a national school of art. This programmatic national school has been reinvigorated rather than compromised by more regional movements, with the crucial example of what contemporary artist Douglas Gordon has dubbed “Scotia Nostra” whose roots Tom Normand finds in the 19th-century emergence of the Glasgow Boys, and by the post-colonial Black Arts Movement.
The development of landscape painting holds a special status as a cultural episode in British art, having risen from the lower hierarchies of painting to replace portraiture and history painting. Sam Miles looks into the cultural agencies which have favoured this valorisation and ascendancy, while Dana Arnold argues that it allowed for a promotion of the doctrine of popular freedom. In the process, the authors adopt the same joint approach as the other contributors, looking into how the social and the cultural engage with one another. This is the project perfectly connecting the numerous chapters in a very dense book, which manages the feat of including no weaker contributions. The editors have brought together the latest conclusions of prominent specialists of each period to build a fascinating panorama which is more than the sum of its parts and will delight both newcomers to the field and specialists of British art who will appreciate its coherence and thorough enjoyability. A Companion to British Art should feature in all good libraries covering British and art history.
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