Portraiture has played a dominant role in England since the Renaissance, when the arts declaimed the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty, while the Protestant Reformation effected a drastic decline in commissions for religious images. A relatively stable monarchy in concert with a powerful landed aristocracy provided continuity and patronage. The portrait miniature flourished. Portraits and caricatures accounted for a significant percentage of the prints made for sale or as book illustrations. Ceramics, silhouettes, coins, medals, and waxes bore likenesses. Portraits in exceptionally large numbers figured in interiors, where they were arranged to convey domestic as well as political and dynastic messages.
The Tudor (1485–1603) and Stuart (1603–49, 1660–1714) Periods
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many portraitists who worked in England were not native born. During the reign of Henry VIII (r. 1509–47), the most distinguished artist in London was Hans Holbein the Younger of Augsburg. By 1526, when he made his first trip to England, he had achieved unparalleled mastery of the means by which to create the illusion of the physical presence of a sitter. His clients in the 1530s included the German merchants of the Hanseatic League who resided in London (50.135.4) as well as royalty, courtiers, and their household servants (50.145.24).
Most distinguished of the Tudor miniaturists was Nicholas Hilliard, whose delicate, finely wrought technique reflects his training as a goldsmith (35.89.4, 32.100.311). The early work of Samuel Cooper demonstrates the broader handling typical of the Stuart period as well as the sobriety that characterizes the art of the Commonwealth. Cooper’s uncle was John Hoskins, whose supple style and fine characterizations betray an awareness of Anthony van Dyck. The Flemish artist also influenced the Dutch-born portraitist Peter Lely, who became Charles II’s principal painter. Lely’s work is notable for its depth of tone, richness of color, and sensual elegance (39.65.3). Both Cooper and Lely flourished not only under the Puritans but also after the Restoration.
The Georgian (1714–1830) Era
The major Georgian portraitists worked primarily in London, where they catered to a flourishing market and, from 1768, exhibited at the Royal Academy. Patronized by the aristocracy, the demi-monde, and the middle classes, they were lionized or chastised in the press. Chief among them was Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Academy, author of the influential Discourses on Art, and principal painter to George III (r. 1760–1820). Reynolds, master of the perfectly calibrated pose and gesture, had a sure sense of what was appropriate to a sitter’s age (50.238.2), sex (20.155.3), and social or political position. By contrast, Thomas Gainsborough was a natural painter, with a fluid, assured technique and a sharp eye for the particular characteristic of the great beauties of his age (20.155.1). Both Gainsborough and George Romney were also skilled draftsmen, while Romney practiced a classicizing painting style (49.7.57). John Hoppner was thought to have been a truthful painter. A father of five, he was particularly good at capturing childish traits (53.59.3). In 1792, Thomas Lawrence succeeded Reynolds as painter to George III. Lawrence’s vivid, increasingly romantic images are characterized by flawless, exuberant handling (50.135.5).
Baetjer, Katharine. “Portrait Painting in England, 1600–1800.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/bpor/hd_bpor.htm (October 2003)
Egerton, Judy. The British School. London: National Gallery Publications, 1998.
Hayes, John. British Paintings of the Sixteenth through Nineteenth Centuries. Washington, D.C.: The National Gallery of Art, 1992.
Saywell, David, and Jacob Simon, eds. Complete Illustrated Catalogue: National Portrait Gallery, London. London: Unicorn Press, 2004.