Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
July 21, 2010
David Bindman, ed. The History of British Art, Volume 2: 1600–1870 New Haven and London: Yale Center for British Art and Tate Britain, 2008. 248 pp.; 149 color ills. Cloth $50.00 (9780300116717)

In his magisterial survey of British art, commissioned for the gold standard Pelican History of Art and first published in 1953, Ellis Waterhouse paused in his discussion of Thomas Gainsborough and made the following admission: “Unpleasant as it still is for some of us to introduce the shade of Marx into the history of art, it may contribute to the understanding of Gainsborough” (261). This passage attests to the anxiety of the art historian in introducing even the most innocuous hint of social analysis into the study of art during the post-war period. Waterhouse’s colleague and contemporary Anthony Blunt would find another, more furtive, way around this problem. This squeamishness over allowing “the shade of Marx” to haunt so fleetingly the pages of his survey book itself shows Waterhouse’s sensitivity to one of the most powerful and renowned images in Marxist political discourse—the “specter of communism” with which the Communist Manifesto opened and that would later be exorcised through the deconstructive logic of Derrida’s “specters of Marx.”

A couple of generations later and the history of British art finds itself still contending with “the shade of Marx.” But this shade has become considerably more tangible and omnipresent—in fact, it has now become mainstreamed. This is surely evident in the second volume from the recent three-volume survey entitled The History of British Art. Under the capable and expert editorial direction of David Bindman, who is also a contributor to this volume, which covers the Restoration period to the Victorian age, the series seeks to incorporate recent currents in art-historical academic research and cultural theory in its sweeping overview of large swathes of British art and society. Co-sponsored by the Yale Center for British Art and Tate Britain (not exactly cultural bastions of revolutionary discontent), this new survey wants to shake off the dusty tedium associated with older forms of British art history that were structured around the chronology of royal patronage, the tyranny of genre, and the evolution of artistic style. The challenge, which is not without peril and contradiction, is to present a more theoretically complex and politically engaged art history of the kind that has been flourishing in academic circles for the last two decades in a manner that would be accessible to the museum-going public visiting the Yale Center and the Tate.

It is a difficult balancing act, but one carried off with admirable success in volume two of this series. Authored by an accomplished team of scholars and curators (one can also be the other), the book consists of six major essays that variously address issues of national identity and British art; the role of artistic representation in connection with the imperial and colonial ambitions of Britain; and the social, institutional, and professional formation of the British artist. Smaller “in focus” sections are interspersed that offer synoptic accounts of specific artists, the development of artistic media, and notable themes in the visual culture of the periods. These almanac-like entries tend to be more informational and neutral in tone, though no less perceptive, than the larger essays. Each essay spans the chronological scope of the book, so that historical epochs, shifts in the socio-economics of patronage, and artistic encounters with political crises and new philosophical and scientific paradigms are revisited by several authors. Eschewing a sequential “master narrative,” the essays nevertheless collectively reinforce one another while also implying a more dynamic constellation of contesting opinions.

One prevailing mission of this volume is to challenge the insular conception of a unique “Englishness” in British art (in allusion to Nikolaus Pevsner’s radio lectures and book of 1955–56). Bindman’s opening essay explores the propagandistic fictions of Great Britain that informed absolutist courtly iconography and the gradual dismantling of a unitary ideal of “Britain” that emerges in the eighteenth century. Primitivism and regionalism encouraged a cultural reclamation of the seemingly uncultured realms of Wales, Scotland, and Ireland in both genre painting and landscape art without undermining “the dominance of London” as the epicenter of artistic production. The relative internationalism of British art is addressed in William Vaughan’s lucid and elegant essay on the artistic dialogue between the English schools and Continental art. The responsiveness of Hogarth and Gainsborough to the aristocratic rococo style is refreshingly explored; the rich exchange between German and English artistic movements during the Victorian period is reviewed (a prevalent theme in Vaughan’s earlier scholarship); and the eventual exile of British art from the emerging narratives of artistic modernism is cogently explained.

The global reach of British art as a powerful and often contradictory exponent of the British Empire is the subject of a wide-ranging essay by Romita Ray and Angela Rosenthal. This has been an incredibly productive area of research over the last decade, and the co-authors of this section have done a remarkable job of synthesizing and consolidating the multifaceted strains of their subject. The topographic rendering of exotic landscapes, the collecting habits of both the social elite and emerging museums (encompassing natural-historical specimens and the importation of global styles associated with the ornamental), and the theatrical staging of India and the South Pacific within the London art world are all surveyed in an intelligent and critically minded manner. Half of this essay is concerned with abolitionist iconography found in a wide spectrum of art forms and imagery, in which, as the authors argue, a moral high-mindedness and paternalistic authority are often leavened by a pleasurable frisson around the very conditions of subjugation and injustice that the artists and their patrons sought to overthrow or ameliorate.

Successive essays by Nicholas Grindle and Frédéric Ogée address two of the most distinctive genres associated with British art, landscape painting and portrait painting (including the conversation piece), respectively. In both, there is an emphasis on the influence of natural philosophy and scientific principles of empiricism and individual knowledge on artistic practice that complicate and undermine the professional aesthetic categories of art, and on the inherent conflict between maintaining distinctions of social class in the production and enjoyment of art while also asserting the formation of a national taste or comprehensive cultural identity for the nation. The essays converge around the problem of how the “polite imagination” and the cultured spectator were posited, defined, and at times dismantled by aestheticians and artists during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The changing professional roles and social affiliations of the “British Artist” lie at the center of Martin Myrone’s ambitious essay, which concludes the book. From the “gentility” of the court artist in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries to the increasing professionalization of the artist and the rise of London-based academies in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this survey offers a superb social history of the institutions of art and the symbiotic struggle between academic “high” art and the commercialization of the fine arts that peaked after the Napoleonic Wars. Despite the dominant though often enfeebled efforts of the Royal Academy to mediate the claims of art within an increasingly commercial society, the vaunted idea of artistic freedom, Myrone argues, fell prey to the inchoate and fluctuating demands of commerce and fashion. This is by way of questioning why the conditions of modernity in nineteenth-century Britain did not yield the artistic forms of modernism along the model of the French avant-garde. The culprits, the author suggests, are “free enterprise” and “capitalist principles,” which at once treated and condemned the British artist to the destructive freedom of the market place. Instructive case studies of William Etty, John Constable, and J. M. W. Turner take the reader deeper into the historiography and hagiography of British art than is perhaps necessary.

The professional art historian predisposed to a leftist cultural position will find much to admire in this volume. It is consistently illuminating and inquisitive, speaking to manifold concerns about the status of the visual arts in and through the complex fabric of British social history. Cogent citations from literary, political, scientific, and aesthetic writings of the various periods are revealingly integrated into the larger historical arguments. Categorical imperatives about history, society, and art are duly called into question in knowledgeable and edifying ways, and a lively self-critical tone about the nature of art history itself is evident throughout. There are many valuable, piecemeal insights about the works of art or images instantiated throughout the book; but what is missing, I would have to say, is any sustained analysis of a painting or print or sculpture that is particularly captivating or compelling to the reader (let alone a reader who is delving into a survey of British art for the first time). I appreciate that a survey volume such as this, with a concerted aim to advance an ideologically charged reevaluation of its subject, may not have the luxury to accommodate rhapsodic passages of visual analysis. But some occasion for a deeper formal understanding of the work of art would not have been antithetical to the overall project. The object/history dichotomy, and the question of how art and society produce and exchange meaning at certain historical moments, will elude any further resolution if the material and visual properties of the art object are not more vitally engaged within a text as intelligent and well intentioned as this one.

Brian Lukacher
Professor, Department of Art, Vassar College