Great Britain and Ireland in the twentieth century are marked by several wars: the Anglo-Boer War that opens the century, and the two world wars that follow. The first of these conflicts is part of the process of decolonization that other European nations also undergo early in the century. Later, World Wars I and II are separated by two decades that witness the rise of fascism and a worldwide economic depression. In the postwar period, as elsewhere in Western Europe and North America, demand for consumer goods that has gone unsatisfied during years of wartime deprivation fuels the production of commodities. A period of relative optimism crescendos when London becomes an icon of the “Swinging Sixties.” It is during that decade that British design, fashion, and music take on international preeminence. The late 1960s and ’70s are a time of economic and political instability that result in a return to conservative policies during the “Thatcher Years” of the 1980s.
From the vantage points of art, design, and architecture, the early decades of the century are characterized by projects that pursue the design reform begun in the nineteenth century by William Morris, a leader of the Arts and Crafts movement, and others. Somewhat isolated from mainstream modernist tendencies of the early twentieth century, Britain is nonetheless touched by such predominantly Continental movements as Cubism and Surrealism. Moreover, British artists play an important role in the development of Pop Art at mid-century. During the 1980s, Britain reemerges as an important center for the production of avant-garde art and architecture.
The Anglo-Boer War erupts from the long-standing conflict between the British and the Boers (South Africans of Dutch descent).
The Central Line of the London Underground opens. In 1906, Frank Pick (1878–1941) becomes managing director of the Underground and supports the development of a consistent visual identity for all elements of the system, from its buildings to its graphics. Pick commissions Edward Johnston (1872–1944) to design a simple and legible typeface that becomes identified with the Underground.
In Glasgow, Scotland, architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928) designs buildings, interiors, and furnishings that embody a concern with the total domestic environment. His aesthetic stems from the Arts and Crafts movement and includes naturalistic forms, often crafted from Industrial Age materials like iron, associated with Art Nouveau. Mackintosh himself shapes an entire house with its furnishings when he is commissioned in 1902 to design Hill House in the Glasgow suburb of Helensburgh.
Queen Victoria (1819–1901) dies and is succeeded by Edward, Prince of Wales (1841–1910). Edward VII will reign until his death in 1910, when he is succeeded by George V (1865–1936). Despite the short duration of his reign, the term “Edwardian” is widely used to describe a tendency toward opulent elegance in the visual arts of the period.
Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937) transmits the first telegraphic radio messages from Cornwall, England, to Newfoundland, Canada. The telegraph is one of the inventions that transforms communications in the twentieth century.
Archibald Knox (1864–1933) creates designs for the Tudric line of pewterware produced by Liberty & Co., in which he uses Runic patterns inspired by Celtic art. Over the next decade, Knox will create hundreds of textile, silver, pottery, and jewelry designs for Liberty, a company founded by merchant Arthur Lasenby Liberty (1843–1917) in the 1870s and a trendsetter in interior decoration.
Emmeline Pankhurst (1858–1928) forms the Women’s Social and Political Union in Britain. In 1928, the Equal Franchise Act grants the right to vote to all women and men over the age of twenty-one.
Construction begins on Letchworth, the first Garden City, designed by the architecture and urban-planning firm of Parker & Unwin. The Garden City movement, founded by social reformer Ebenezer Howard (1850–1928) in 1899, advocates a marriage of town and country to solve the problems of overcrowding, pollution, and substandard living conditions in the modern industrialized city.
The Labour Party is formed. The first Labour government is organized in 1924, the second in 1929, when Labour becomes the largest party. Along with the Conservatives, Labour is one of the two major parties in British politics.
Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens (1869–1944) designs Castle Drogo in Drewsteignton for Julius Drewe, a founder of the Home and Colonial Stores. Although Lutyens’ architecture is generally classical in feeling after 1900, Castle Drogo’s medieval-inspired elements harken back to his earlier Arts and Crafts houses. At Castle Drogo, as elsewhere, Lutyens collaborates with garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843–1932).
The Irish Home Rule crisis intensifies in Britain. In 1913, when the Third Irish Home Rule Bill is rejected by House of Lords, civil war is threatened in Ireland. In 1916, the Easter Rising in Dublin is a failed attempt by an armed Irish force of between 1,000 and 1,500 to seize the city and destroy British rule. In 1921, the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland are formed, although this division hardly resolves the political conflict over British involvement in Ireland. In 1969, civil disturbances in Ulster prompt the British to send troops to support the civil authorities.
The Omega Workshops are founded at Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury, by art critic Roger Fry (1866–1934), artist Vanessa Bell (1879–1961), and Duncan Grant (1885–1978). Members include many figures associated with the Bohemian “Bloomsbury” literary group. Inspired by William Morris (1834–1896), Post-Impressionism, and African art, the members design brightly colored furnishings and other objects that are an antidote to staid late-Victorian design.
Painter and writer Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957) founds Vorticism—the first art movement in England committed to abstraction—along with other members of the Rebel Art Centre, a splinter group from the Omega Workshops. Vorticists include painter and illustrator Jessica Dismorr (1885–1939), painter and designer Cuthbert Hamilton (1884–1959), and sculptor Jacob Epstein (1880–1959). The group’s ideas are avidly supported by poet Ezra Pound (1885–1972). Influenced especially by Italian Futurism, Vorticism celebrates industrial and technological progress and the machine age, and strives to capture the dynamic flux of urban life. The Vorticist manifesto is published in the first issue of the group’s journal, Blast (June 1914).
American-born graphic artist Edward McKnight Kauffer (1890–1954) receives his first major commission, a poster for the London Underground. Influenced by Vorticism and Surrealism, Kauffer will create hundreds of attention-grabbing posters for public and private entities, primarily in Britain, over the next three decades.
Irish author James Joyce (1882–1941) publishes the autobiographical novel Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce’s modernist novel Ulysses is published in Paris in 1922 and challenges many of the narrative conventions of the genre.
American-born Nancy Witcher Langhorne, Viscountess Astor (1879–1964), becomes the first woman member of the House of Commons and serves until 1945.
The first roadside gas station opens in Britain, in Aldermaston on the Bath Road. Not until 1959 will the first section of the M1 motorway (or highway) open. As in other parts of the industrialized world, in Great Britain the landscape will be transformed by the advent of widespread automobile ownership.
T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) publishes The Waste Land. Although born in the United States, Eliot lives in England from 1914 and obtains British citizenship in 1927. In The Waste Land, Eliot is credited with radically reinventing the poetic form.
The British Broadcasting Company (BBC) begins radio transmissions and in 1929 launches television programming on an experimental basis. The state-supported BBC will play an important role internationally in providing high-quality radio and television programs throughout the century.
British Egyptologist Howard Carter (1873–1939) discovers King Tutankhamun’s tomb. The discovery launches an enormous vogue for Egyptian-inspired design in jewelry, furniture, and other decorative arts.
British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946) publishes A Tract on Monetary Reform. His most influential work, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, will be published in 1936. Keynes is credited with the origination of the “New Economics.”
British sculptor Henry Moore (1898–1986) receives his first public commission, a relief to be installed in a London Transport facility. From diverse influences including Abstraction, Surrealism, and Primitivism, Moore develops a unique aesthetic that eventually makes him one of the most well known and admired sculptors of the twentieth century.
D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930) publishes Lady Chatterley’s Lover, one of the works in which he suggests that sexuality, the subconscious, and nature can ease human beings’ relationship to the modern world.
German-born photographer Bill Brandt (1904–1983), whose work is informed by contact with the Surrealists, settles in London, where he becomes the preeminent British photographer of the twentieth century.
The British Union of Fascists is founded by Sir Oswald Mosley (1896–1980) to implement a program of social, political, and economic reconstruction in Great Britain modeled on Fascist Italy, outlined in his book The Greater Britain (1932).
Russian émigré architect Berthold Lubetkin (1901–1990) designs the Penguin Pool at the London Zoo in which he explores the expressive possibilities of reinforced concrete.
George V (1865–1936) dies on January 20 and Edward VIII (1894–1972) succeeds him as king. Edward VIII abdicates on December 5 to marry American socialite Bessie Wallis Simpson (1896–1986). He is succeeded by his brother George VI (1895–1952).
The ocean liner Queen Mary makes her maiden voyage. The Queen Elizabeth, at that time the largest ocean liner ever built, is launched in 1937.
Neville Chamberlain (1869–1940) becomes prime minister of Britain and pursues a policy of appeasement toward Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). In the following year (1938), Britain and France sign the Munich Pact accepting Hitler’s claims to predominantly German territories in Czechoslovakia.
World War II begins when German troops invade Poland. France and Britain declare war on Germany. In 1940, Italy declares war on Britain and France. A National Government is formed under the leadership of Winston Churchill (1874–1965). The “Blitz” bombing of Britain by Germany begins.
Following the bombing of the American military installation at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the U.S. and Britain declare war on Japan. In 1943, the U.S. and Britain join forces in North Africa, leading to the surrender of Germany in Tunisia. In May 1945, Allied troops surround Berlin and Germany is forced to surrender. In August 1945, the U.S. drops atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima; Japan surrenders shortly afterward.
Noël Coward’s (1899–1973) play Blithe Spirit premiers in London. It is one of the works in which the actor, playwright, and songwriter satirizes the English upper class.
Alan Turing (1912–1954) and M. H. A. Newman (1897–1984) develop the world’s first programmable computer, which is used to crack German codes during the war. The computer will have enormous implications for business, leisure, and the arts in the postwar period.
Francis Bacon (1909–1992) paints Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion(Tate Gallery, London), a rumination on the savagery of World War II. Bacon’s renowned figure paintings, produced up to the time of his death in 1992, will provocatively blend religious, violent, and homoerotic themes.
George Orwell (1903–1950) publishes Animal Farm, a satire of the Russian Revolution set in a barnyard. In 1949, Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is published. The book conveys the author’s fear of both right- and left-wing ideologies and the totalitarian states he believes they have the potential to produce.
The first General Assembly of the new United Nations Organization convenes in Central Hall, Westminster, London, with fifty-one nations sending representatives. It is intended to promote international cooperation and peace.
Winston Churchill (1874–1965) uses the term “Iron Curtain” for the first time to describe the influence of the Soviet Union over Eastern Europe. The term is used during the Cold War to suggest an imaginary barrier between the Soviet-dominated East, and the West in which the United States is the major power.
The New Towns Act is passed. Eventually, twenty-eight New Towns will be built to house people who had been displaced by the destruction of World War II.
India gains independence from Britain and the subcontinent is partitioned to form India and Pakistan.
Nancy Mitford (1904–1973) publishes Love in a Cold Climate, one of several novels in which she satirizes her own upper-class family and English social life more generally.
The Festival of Britain is held in London to celebrate the centennial of the great Crystal Palace exhibition of 1851. Among the structures included in the fairgrounds are the saucer-shaped Dome of Discovery designed by Ralph Tubbs (1912–1996) and the needle-shaped Skylon designed by Philip Powell (1921–2003) and Hidalgo Moya (1920–1994). These structures are likely intended to recall the famous Trylon and Perisphere of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.
Lucian Freud (born 1922) wins a prize at the Festival of Britain for his painting Interior at Paddington (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), which signals his emergence as one of the foremost British figural painters of the postwar period.
George VI (1895–1952) dies and Elizabeth II (born 1926) is coronated June 2, 1953. Her reign will continue through the end of the century. Elizabeth’s son, Charles (born 1948), is made Prince of Wales in 1958.
The structure of DNA is discovered by two University of Cambridge scientists, the American James Watson (born 1928) and the British Francis Crick (1916–2004). Their discovery will transform science and medicine during the second half of the century.
Architects Alison (1928–1993) and Peter (born 1923) Smithson bring about the establishment of Team X. This group of young architects develops a critical perspective on modernist architecture in anticipation of the tenth CIAM (Congrès Internationaux de l’Architecture Moderne) conference of 1956.
Ian Fleming (1908–1964) publishes the first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. The suave Bond is the perfect postwar character: a debonair playboy who battles the forces of evil with the assistance of preposterous futuristic gadgetry.
Food rationing, begun during World War II, officially ends in Britain. An era of material deprivation is thus coming to an end.
Fashion designer Mary Quant (born 1934) opens a shop called Bazaar, which is patronized by the “Chelsea Set” of “Swinging Sixties” London. The city eventually supercedes Paris as the center of fashion design as Quant, whose skirt designs start getting shorter in 1958, is credited by some with inventing the miniskirt.
Look Back in Anger, a play by John Osborne (1929–1994), opens in London. Osborne’s work is at the center of a literary movement that includes novelists Kingsley Amis (1922–1995), John Braine (1922–1986), Alan Sillitoe (born 1928), and others, collectively referred to as the “angry young men.” In works such as Lucky Jim (Amis, 1953), Room at the Top (Braine, 1957), and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Sillitoe, 1959), they challenge bourgeois elitism and champion the working classes. Many of their works are translated to film by members of the Free Cinema movement, inspired by Italian Neorealism.
Britain and France invade Suez to defend Israeli interests in the Canal, which had been nationalized by Egypt. The Suez-Sinai War ends with the withdrawal of Britain and France under pressure from the United Nations and the Soviet Union.
The Independent Group organizes its exhibition This Is Tomorrow at Whitechapel Art Gallery, London. Among the works included is member Richard Hamilton’s (1922–2011) collage entitled Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing? (Kunsthalle, Tübingen). This parody of the postwar marketing of household goods is a key work in the development of Pop Art.
The Young Contemporaries exhibition in London brings further public awareness of Pop Art. Painter David Hockney (born 1937) gains recognition with this exhibition.
British musicians revitalize rock ‘n’ roll when the Beatles release their first single, “Love Me Do” and the group becomes an international sensation. Along with the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Birds, Cream, Donovan, Van Morrison, the Who, and dozens of others, their arrival on the U.S. music scene constitutes a “British Invasion.”
Various Fluxus artists organize the Festival of Misfits exhibition at Gallery One in London. The highlight of the show is the installation/performance piece Living Sculpture, in which the artist Ben Vautier (born 1935) moves into the display window of the gallery for two weeks and offers himself for sale for the price of £250.
Kenya gains independence from Britain as part of a general move of former British colonies toward political autonomy.
The Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies opens at the University of Birmingham. Through the work of scholars such as Raymond Williams (1921–1988) and Stuart Hall (born 1932), the Centre will pioneer an interdisciplinary approach to the study of media and popular culture, drawing from the disciplines of history, sociology, and ethnography, and the theoretical models of Marxism, poststructuralism, feminism, and critical race theory.
Britain enacts the Race Relations Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race in public places such as restaurants and on public transportation. The scope of the prohibitions is expanded in amendments made in 1968 and 1976.
London Bridge is sold and moved to Arizona. Since the 1920s, Americans had been avid purchasers of English houses, barns, and other architectural monuments.
Art & Language is formed by Terry Atkinson (born 1939), David Bainbridge (born 1941), Michael Baldwin (born 1945), and Harold Hurrell (born 1940), who produce collaborative works under the group name addressing in particular the relationship between art, society, and the market. Later joined by American Joseph Kosuth (born 1945) and Australian Ian Burn (1939–1993), among others, the group has a significant influence on the production of Conceptual art in Britain and the United States through its journal Art-Language.
As in other European countries and in North America, art movements that challenge traditional definitions of the media have an impact in Great Britain and Ireland. Conceptual Art, Happenings, and Performance Art will all find resonance in the collaborative works of Gilbert (Proesch) and George (Passmore) (born 1943 and 1942 respectively). One of their first works is The Singing Sculpture (1970), in which they stand on a table with their faces painted and make movements for periods as long as eight hours.
Parliament votes to join the Common Market. British membership is part of a larger movement toward European economic cooperation.
In Derry, Ireland, British soldiers open fire on a civil rights protest, killing thirteen demonstrators and wounding many others. The event becomes known as “Bloody Sunday.”
The Arab Oil Embargo against the U.S. brings 70 percent price hikes to Great Britain. The resulting oil crisis and a miners’ strike leads the government to enact a three-day week from December 1973 to March 1974.
The Sex Pistols’ first single, “Anarchy in the U.K.,” launches the punk rock phenomenon. Rejecting the commercialism and fake sentimentality of early ’70s pop music, the punk rock sound is abrasive and dissonant, the lyrics antiromantic and often political. The music, as well as the severe hairstyles and bargain-bin fashions associated with punk rockers, will influence U.S. youth.
Norman Foster (born 1935) designs the Lloyds Building, London, which embodies the architect’s “high-tech” approach to modern architecture.
The first test-tube baby, Louise Brown, is born in the United Kingdom. The new technology will be extensively used by the end of the century to remedy infertility.
The Conservative party wins the general election and Margaret Thatcher (born 1925) becomes prime minister, the first woman to hold that office. She will serve until 1990, making her the longest continually serving prime minister in 150 years. Thatcher will forge close ties to U.S. President Ronald Reagan (born 1911) and, like him, will support a regime of conservative policy making.
Six Iranian dissidents, opposed to the Ayatollah Khomeini, hold twenty-six people hostage in the Iranian embassy in London. The British SAS storms the embassy and frees the hostages.
Prince Charles (born 1948) marries Lady Diana Spencer (1961–1997) in London. Diana will have an important influence on design in the last two decades of the twentieth century as a patron of young British couturiers, including Catherine Walker (born 1945), Bruce Oldfield (born 1950), and others. In 1997, Diana is killed in a car crash in Paris.
A New Spirit in Painting, an exhibition held at the Royal Academy in London, showcases Neo-Expressionist works that are richly textural and directly convey the subjectivity of the artists’ visions.
Israeli-born architect and designer Ron Arad (born 1951) establishes One Off in London, a studio and showroom where he produces “art furniture” in a High-Tech style. Two of his most innovative designs are the Tom Vac vacuum-formed aluminum chair and the Fantastic Plastic Elastic chair (both 1998).
The Falklands War between Great Britain and Argentina takes place when Argentina invades and takes control of the Falkland Islands following seventeen years of negotiations.
The stock market crashes in London on October 19, “Black Monday.” This is part of a worldwide precipitous decline in stock values that signals the end of a period of prosperity and the beginning of a recession.
The Maastricht Treaty establishing the European Union (EU) is ratified, leading to the creation of the Euro as a common currency. Great Britain retains the use of the pound sterling as its unit of currency.
Construction begins on Poundbury New Town, designed by architect Leon Krier (born 1946) to embody the traditionalist positions of Prince Charles on planning and architecture.
Completion of the “Chunnel” under the English Channel, connecting England and France. The Chunnel facilitates transportation between Great Britain and the Continent and contributes to a new pan-European interconnectedness.
The Labour Party wins in a landslide victory, taking 418 seats in Parliament in the general elections. The party’s leader, Tony Blair (born 1953), becomes prime minister.
Scottish geneticists successfully clone a sheep named Dolly. While offering the possibility of species preservation in a period of dwindling biodiversity, cloning also becomes morally controversial to some.
The Sensation exhibition of the collection of Charles Saatchi (born 1943) at the Royal Academy of Arts introduces “Young British Art” to the public. It is largely the work of artists trained at Goldsmiths’ College in South London in the late 1980s who went on to practice in London and Glasgow, including Damien Hirst (born 1965). The exhibition will later travel to New York, where some of the works generate public controversy.
Actress Kate Winslet (born 1975) wears the Titanic dress designed by Alexander McQueen (born 1969) to the Academy Awards Ceremony in Los Angeles. During the 1990s, McQueen emerges as one of the foremost British avant-garde designers of women’s fashion.
The Millennium Dome at Greenwich, the Millennium Wheel, and the Millennium Footbridge over the Thames in London are opened. The dome, considered the largest in the world, is designed by architect Richard Rogers (born 1933).
“Great Britain and Ireland, 1900 A.D.–present.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/ht/?period=11®ion=euwb (October 2004)