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Art in Britain, 1660-1815


David H. Solkin


The Yale University Press Pelican History of Art Series

London: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art/Yale University Press, 2015

Hardcover. 378 p. ISBN 978-0300215564. £55/$80.00


Reviewed by Isabelle Baudino

École Normale Supérieure de Lyon



The latest addition to the Yale Pelican History of Art Series is the brainchild of Professor David Solkin. It is an impressive volume, an ambitious study which does not merely offer a revised version of Ellis Waterhouse’s classic landmark but can be read as a compelling analysis of the rise of the British school of art in the eighteenth century. This first social history of British art appears as an authoritative sum that integrates the contributions from New Art Historywhile including all the indispensable references to individual works and artists required in such a volume. Solkin has lost none of the innovative strength that made The Landscape of Reaction (1982) such a seminal work, Painting for Money (1993) so wide-ranging and Painting out of the Ordinary (2008)] so thought-provoking. True to his “long-standing belief that the art historian’s first duty is to produce a critical analysis of how visual culture has operated within a social field structured by relationships of power [1] and to Pierre Bourdieu’s theories, Solkin adopts a cultural-materialist perspective to map out the material culture that painting formed part of, from the points of view of producers, buyers and viewers alike. This sociological rationale allows him to account fully for the political, economic and institutional forces that underpinned the evolution of all pictorial genres in Britain and of British visual culture in general.

This narrative of British Art aptly revolves around images, around three hundred and twenty carefully selected art works. It comes as no surprise that some of these images already featured in Ellis Waterhouse’s Painting in Britain 1530-1790; but the real novelty lies in their well-orchestrated choreography. Every single image is both commented upon and inserted in the general demonstration; none has been dropped into the discussion merely for illustrative purposes so that even the best-known Knellers are seen in a new light and the addition of John Michael Wright’s backward-looking portrait of Charles II proves stimulating [19]. Working his way through famous and familiar paintings to less-known works, Solkin emphasises their distinguishing characteristics without losing sight of how they connect to one another, thus analysing how new features emerge, travel and evolve [a case in point being that of the hand in waistcoat portrait from Michael Dahl to Joshua Reynolds through to Francis Hayman, Jean-Baptiste Van Loo, Thomas Hudson and Allan Ramsay [86-87,112, 126, 130, 132]].


Drawing on visual studies, Solkin plays down the traditional hierarchies between major and minor painters, high and low genres, as in his discussion of Mary Beale’s style of portraits [20-21]. Each image – whether an engraved plate or a monumental mural – is beautifully photographed and laid out: it is discussed as an element of the whole argument and always presented next to the text it is related to. From this point of view, certain pairings prove particularly enlightening. The joint presentation of Samuel Scott’s and Canaletto’s views of the Thames [121], for example, drives home Solkin’s point on the former’s pasty solidity and on his English translation of Canaletto’s Venetian manner. Tellingly, the presentation on facing pages of the portraits of Norman, 22nd Chief of Macleod by Allan Ramsay and of Captain Augustus Keppel by Reynolds, although taken from Waterhouse’s Painting in Britain, is given an altogether broader and more substantial scope [134-135]. The comparison addresses the well-known topic of quotations from ancient statues in British portrait painting and helps characterize Reynolds’s specific use of those prototypes. It actually shows how Reynolds’s mastery consisted in departing from Ramsay’s reliance on sculptural models and in trusting to his painterly technique in order to enhance the dynamic narrativity of his composition. Solkin’s engagement with visual sources is best exemplified when he allows paintings to anticipate on his text, for instance when Burke’s sublime is introduced through the commentary of Stubbs’s Horse Frightened by a Lion [158]. 


As explained in the introduction, the book covers a shorter period than did the inaugural 1953 Pelican volume and its subsequent editions. Whereas Waterhouse dealt with British painting between the Henrician Reformation and the French Revolution, Solkin’s study spans the transformations of the British art world between 1660 and 1815. This tightened chronology still comprises an ever longer eighteenth century and, most crucially, encompasses the recent developments in the art-historical field. Shunning the biographical approach centred on the grand gallery of individual male artists in favour of discussions of class, gender and race, the book examines the changing ways of making, seeing, consuming, ranking British art over that period. It is divided into five chronologically arranged parts, and these are further subdivided into four (or five in the last part) chapters. While the five parts provide the general historical framework, the chapters outline the major traits of each period and discuss the evolution of pictorial genres and conventions.

The first part deals with the reigns of Charles II and James II and, while acknowledging the limited patronage and religious hindrances, explains how decorative history painting, portraits, landscapes and prints were called upon to re-establish the monarchy. Spanning the arrival of William and Mary on the English throne, the reign of Queen Anne and, after the Hanoverian succession, that of George I, the second part focuses on the new ruling class, and brings us to consider how the court relinquished its position of cultural dominance in favour of the country and the town. After history painting was used to represent the "Glorious Revolution", the case for the autonomy of the morally significant narrative image and for the respectability of painters was made in country houses as well as in London clubs and early artists’ academies. The third part tackles the anxieties brought about by commercial refinement and the pursuit of wealth during George II’s reign, thus looking at new polite trends in portraiture and landscape painting, at the development of conversation pieces and fancy pictures and, also, at the growing cosmopolitanism of both art-lovers and painters.


The fourth part begins with the reign of George III and the discussion hinges on that pivotal date, since 1760 also marks the advent of a new exhibition culture in Britain. There is no more important date in the entire history of British art [151] is Solkin's bold assertion midway into his demonstration: from that year on, British artists set up regular public displays of their works and these exhibitions had a profound and long-lasting impact on their practice and on their status, encouraging them to experiment and diversify. Indeed, the organisation of annual exhibitions in London, and the revenues drawn from them, encouraged a group of prominent artists to approach the King in 1768, and to establish the Royal Academy of Arts in December that year. Containing the seeds of a revolution in history painting, exhibitions fostered the emergence of simplified narrative images, illustrating public and private virtues alike, and the evolution of politeness into the promotion of virtuous feelings in both portraits and landscapes. Set in the context of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the fifth and final part opens up onto the making of a national visual culture. It highlights the domestic turn in history [with the creation of an historical imagery], landscape [with the flourishing of the picturesque] and genre [with the reassuring representations of everyday life] paintings, analysing also the growing gap between upper- and middle-class portraiture and further outlining the imperial transformation of British visual culture.   


This is a detailed and accurate volume, and one that is not deprived of humour, and hence pleasant to read. Closely knitting each significant contribution into the general narrative, the book does not leave an impression of fragmentation and offers a more balanced overview of British art in the eighteenth century: a world teeming with talents and skills, full of arresting canvases and compositional endeavours appears stripped of the supposedly dominance of portrait and landscape, and emerges out of the shadow of towering figures constructed by past art-historical discourses. Solkin revises the tale of the dependence of British art on foreign artists into a much more dynamic story of transnational dialogue and interactions, showing the constant interplay of forces in the artistic field.


The book is structured in such a way as to address the evolution of all pictorial genres and visual productions throughout the period. Solkin’s discussion of the growth of the historical genre is particularly remarkable as it makes up for previously patchy accounts about that overlooked topic. Piecing together his own research as well as classic and recent works by others, Solkin offers a synthesis on the transformations of British history painting between the reigns of Charles II and George III. His analysis integrates and revises Edward Croft-Murray’s, filling the gaps in the study of decorative history painting, producing an illuminating analysis on the move away from illusionist ceiling painting towards the growth of the historical genre through the overlap between history, portrait, landscape and even genre paintings. Setting his study against the backcloth of the specific representational challenges posed by historical realities in Britain, Solkin highlights how the taste for paintings of historical events evolved over the period.


The text is supplemented by appropriate bibliographies. It includes first a list of selected readings for each chapter. Amounting to more than two hundred references, these provide milestones for the study of British art, true to the original function of the Pelican series. They are followed by twenty-nine additional pages with references arranged by topics, genres and artists making it a formidable guide for research in British art.


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