Narrative painting got off to a delayed and slow start in Britain, compared with France, Italy and other European countries. Reasons for this include:
- doctrinal suppression because of the religious beliefs of the Reformation, when the Church of England separated from the Pope and the Catholic Church in Europe;
- cultural shortcomings, in that the wealthy and powerful overvalued portraits of themselves and frequently lacked a classical education;
- lack of training, in the absence of any form of academy with royal support;
- short-term planning, by hiring established artists from continental Europe instead of developing home talent.
These are strikingly familiar failings over the subsequent centuries, and more relevant than ever today.
Before the Reformation, Britain had a rich vernacular tradition of religious wall paintings in most of its churches. The new Church of England reacted against that tradition, and Henry VIII, through Thomas Cromwell, had those paintings destroyed or covered, and dissolved the monasteries.
This example from a parish church just a few miles from where I live is one of only two surviving paintings of a Lily Crucifix, and is thought to date from about 1450. Cromwell’s men ordered that it was removed, but locals covered it with whitewash instead, and it was forgotten. It wasn’t rediscovered until the middle of the nineteenth century.
The great majority of surviving British paintings from before the eighteenth century are portraits of the wealthy and powerful, many of them painted not by native artists, but by those lured from the Low Countries, modern Belgium and the Netherlands. Among the most notable were:
- Hans Holbein the Younger (c 1497-1543), who painted in England from 1532 onwards for Thomas More, King Henry VIII, and Thomas Cromwell until 1540.
- Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), who painted for King Charles I between 1621-1630 and was knighted as a result.
- Anthony van Dyck (1599–1641), who was court painter to King Charles I from 1632 until his death in London in 1641.
Anthony van Dyck’s Cupid and Psyche from about 1638 was influenced by the paintings of Titian, and is thought to be the sole survivor of a series showing this classical myth for the Queen’s house at Greenwich. Others were painted by Jacob Jordaens and Peter Paul Rubens, but all van Dyck’s other narrative paintings from this later period have since been lost.
Van Dyck’s successor was Sir Peter Lely (1618-1680), who had been born in Westphalia and trained in Haarlem in the Netherlands. He started work painting portraits for King Charles I in about 1643, served Oliver Cromwell during the Civil War and Commonweath, and King Charles II after the Restoration in 1660. Following Lely’s death in 1680, the English court painter was Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), who had been born Gottfried Kniller in Lübeck, in modern Germany, and was a pupil of Ferdinand Bol and Rembrandt. Kneller came to England in 1676, and was soon painting portraits of the nobility.
In 1672-75, Kneller painted this narrative portrait of Lucretia caught in the act of suicide, one of his few works to show someone who wasn’t alive at the time.
The British pioneer painter of stories seems to have become so almost by accident. James Thornhill (1675–1734) was apprenticed to a decorative painter, and learned from two foreign decorative painters who happened to be working in London at the time. He won a series of commissions for what were primarily intended to be decorative wall and ceiling paintings.
He already intended to create more ‘serious’ art though, as seen in his easel painting of The Judgment of Paris from about 1704-05, soon after he had become a Freeman of the Painter-Stainers’ Company of London, the closest Britain had to Saint Luke’s Guild.
In 1707-08, Thornhill painted several walls and ceilings at Chatsworth House, the seat of the Duke of Devonshire (although it’s in Derbyshire, not Devon!). Among his finest work there is this ceiling in the Sabine Room, showing Hersilia Presented to Romulus in Olympus or the Assembly of the Gods (1708).
In 1707, he was also awarded a commission to paint the main hall of the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich, which remains his greatest achievement, and wasn’t completed until 1726. The section above is the ceiling of the Lower Hall, a breathtaking painting of Triumph of Peace and Liberty over Tyranny (1708–1712), shown in the detail below.
He went on to paint eight scenes in grisaille from the life of Saint Paul, inside the dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London, in 1716-19, and several large mansions and estates.
Thornhill was only too well aware of the factors limiting British narrative painting, and between 1716-20 was the governor of the art academy established in London by Sir Godfrey Kneller. He went on to establish two schools of his own, and one of the pupils at the second was William Hogarth, who in 1729 married Thornhill’s daughter, leading me on to the next article about Hogarth.