18th-century British Art

Painting Sculpture
Historical background


The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was followed by a brief flowering of decorative painting under Sir James Thornhill, which was the closest that Britain ever approached to the developed Baroque style of the Continent. This process was in part due to the influx, following the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, of Italian painters, including the Venetians Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini and Jacopo Amigoni, and French ones, such as Charles de La Fosse. In the early 18th century there was a new freedom of design and an ambitious draughtsmanship under the influence of French conversation pieces by Philippe Mercier, Hubert Gravelot, Jean-Baptiste van Loo and others and of visiting Italian decorators (Verrio, Pellegrini, Bellucci, Sebastiano Ricci.) The results are evident in the work of Joseph Highmore (1692-1780), best remembered for his series of twelve scenes from Richardson's Pamela (c. 1745), and of Francis Hayman (1708-1776), whose small portrait groups influenced the young Gainsborough (Mr and Mrs Kirby, National Portrait Gallery). Hayman's most famous works were the decorations for Vauxhall Gardens (1740s).

Thornhill's son-in-law William Hogarth, the outstanding figure in English painting before Reynolds and Gainsborough, was, despite his chauvinism and virulently anti-French sentiments, heavily influenced by the continental Rococo style. Early in his career he succeeded in breaking away from the straitjacket of portraiture, and his moralizing paintings are superb evocations of life in the England of George I and George II. His rich, creamy paint handling and brilliant characterization of textures have a freshness and vitality unequaled in the work of any of his contemporaries. He invented a new form of secular narrative painting that imparts a moral. These paintings were often tragicomedies, although dependent upon no texts, and Hogarth's series of such works were always intended to be engraved for a large public as well as seen in a private picture gallery (just as plays were intended to be performed as well as read).

After an apprenticeship to a silversmith Hogarth began as an engraver of satirical prints for publishers (South Sea Bubble, c. 1721). By 1725 he was painting small conversation pieces; these he extended to full-scale portraits in Captain Coram (1740), the Painter's Servants (c. 1760), Self-portrait (1745), the Shrimp Girl (c. 1760) and The Actor Garrick and his Wife (1757). The Beggar's Opera (Tate Gallery) marked the transition from portraiture to his best known works, the series of moral subjects, influenced by Dutch models, in which he satirised the follies of the age: the Harlot's Progress (1732; burnt); the Rake's Progress (1735, Soane Museum, London); Marriage á la Mode (1745, National Gallery, London); Election series (1754, Soane Museum). In 1748 he went to France with Roubiliac (Calais Gate, Tate Gallery).

After Hogarth, the finest draughtsman and caricaturist of the manners of his time was Thomas Rowlandson. Robust humour, exuberance and flowing line are combined in his work, much of which was for the publisher of prints Ackermann.

Despite Hogarth's considerable knowledge of and borrowings from continental old masters, he remained in the last analysis English through and through. This, however, was not the case with all the next generation of painters; and the Scottish-born Allan Ramsay (1713-1784) studied in Rome and Naples in 1736-38 before settling in London in 1739. Until the return of Joshua Reynolds from Italy in 1752, Ramsay held undisputed sway as the most successful portrait painter in London; and to him must be given the credit for the initial marriage of the Italian "grand style" to English portraiture. Ramsay visited Italy again in 1755-57, and on his return his portraits took on a new delicacy and elegance and a silvery tonality.

Ramsay and Thomas Hudson (1701-1779) were both superseded in popularity by Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), historically the most important figure in British painting. He was a close friend of Johnson, Goldsmith, Burke and Garrick and was the first president of the Royal Academy and the author of Discourses on the Fine Arts, given to Royal Academy students (1769-1790); the essence of his portraiture is the appeal to the educated eye, above the needs of mere likeness. Born in Devon, he was a pupil of Hudson in London in 1740; he studied in Rome in 1750-1752, with the aim of reconciling the 'grand style' and portrait painting. His portraits include Augustus Keppel (1753-54, Greenwich); Anne, Countess of Albemarle (1759, National Gallery, London); Nelly O'Brien (1760-62); Lady Elizabeth Keppel (1761-62, Duke of Bedford Collection); Lady Cockburn and her Children (1773); the Duke of Marlborough and his Family (1778); Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse (1784). In 1781 he visited the Low Countries; the influence of Rubens can be seen in the Duchess of Devonshire and her Daughter (1786) and in Lord Heathfield (1788).

Reynolds possessed great ambitions and a more profound acquaintance with the old masters than any of his contemporaries. His colouring and handling can be compared with Rembrandt, Rubens, and Veronese, and his poses are indebted to the sculpture of antiquity and to Michelangelo. The Discourses that he delivered to the Royal Academy (founded in 1768 with Reynolds as its first president) are the most impressive statement in English of the central ideas of European art theory from the time of Leon Battista Alberti's treatise. Reynolds' own painting gained a genuine heroic power and elevated grace from his frustrated ambition to be a history painter, although for that very reason he occasionally tumbled into bathos.

The third major British painter of the period to study in Italy was a Welshman, Richard Wilson, who worked there from 1750 to about 1757 before settling in London. His landscape style was formed on Claude, Gaspard Dughet, and Cuyp; but the clear golden lighting of his Italian landscapes carries the conviction of an artist saturated with the Mediterranean tradition. A cooler clarity and classical simplicity pervade his northern landscapes; and, despite the uneven quality of his work, Wilson was the first British painter to lift the pure landscape above mere decorative painting and topography.

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788), with his quality of rhythmic line, his gift of seizing a likeness and his love of landscape painting and music, was in every way the antithesis to Reynolds. Trained entirely in England, he had no wish to visit Italy. Instead of the 'grand style,' his tastes in portraiture lay in the delicate flickering brushwork and evanescent qualities of the Rococo. He preferred landscape painting to portraiture, and the strong Dutch influence in his earliest works later gave way to spontaneous landscapes composed from models.

Gainsborough worked under Hubert Gravelot in London in 1740; from Hayman he adopted the type of small portrait group in a realistic landscape as in the Artist with his Wife and Child (c. 1751). His early landscapes reflect the influence of Wynants and Ruisdael (the Charterhouse; Cornard Wood). About 1750 he moved to Ipswich (Mr and Mrs Andrews, National Gallery, London; the Painter's Daughters with a Cat, National Gallery, London (unfinished]). In 1759-1774, in Bath, his works took on a larger scale and a new sense of fashionable elegance under the influence of van Dyck he saw in the neighbouring country houses; examples of this period are: Countess Howe (c. 1760, Kenwood, London); Blue Boy (c. 1779, San Marino, California). Under the influence of Rubens's work, he painted landscapes which were more Arcadian in mood and were composed rather than observed: the Harvest Wagon (1771, Barber Institute, Birmingham); Watering Place (1777, National Gallery, London). In 1774-1788 he was in London, in a rivalry with Reynolds, but he was the favourite painter of the Royal Family. His best works have a poetic quality combined with rhythmic line and a personal technique, for example: Mrs Síddons (1785, National Gallery, London); the Morning Walk (1785, National Gallery, London). His late popular pictures are an extension of his interest in landscape (Girl feeding Pigs, 1782; the Cottage Door.) This aspect of picturesque rustic genre was carried on by George Morland (1763-1804), whose works were popularised through engravings.

In the 1760s Francis Cotes was the most important fashionable London portrait painter after Reynolds and Gainsborough, a position succeeded to by George Romney (1734-1802), who, on returning to London from Italy in 1775, took over Cotes's studio. Born in Lancashire, he was in London by 1762 (Peter and James Romney, 1766; Sir George Warren and His Family, 1769; Mrs Carwardine and her Child, 1771). In 1773-1775 he was in Italy, where his admiration for the antique resulted in aspirations towards the 'grand style', for which he was ill equipped. He is best known for his studies of Lady Hamilton (as Circe, as a spinstress and as a bacchante). Romney's portraits deteriorated sadly in quality during the 1780s when the young Sir Thomas Lawrence began to make his mark.

Painting outside London were Joseph Wright and Raeburn. Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) shows, in his candlelight pictures, affinities with the Utrecht school. His moonlit landscapes recall Vernet. Patronage by Wedgwood and Arkwright, pioneers of science allied to industry, resulted in new subjects (Orrery, 1766; Experiment with an Air Pump, 1768). Henry Raeburn (1756-1823) was the painter of the personalities of the great age of his native Edinburgh. In 1784 in London he came under the influence of Reynolds. In 1785-87 he was in Italy. His best works are marked by a vigorous and virtuoso handling of paint.

Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), born in Bristol, was a child prodigy and enjoyed a lifetime of success. In 1792 he was successor to Reynolds as court painter. He was in London after 1786 (Queen Charlotte, 1789; Nellie Farren, 1790). His European reputation came about through the Prince Regent's commission to paint the personalities of the struggle against Napoleon (Waterloo Chamber, Windsor, 1814-20); the finest of these anticipate Delacroix (Archduke Charles of Austria; Pius VII). Empty flashiness increasingly marred his later work (Calmady Children, 1824).

Throughout the 18th century, portraiture remained the most important genre of British painting, despite the efforts of Reynolds and Gainsborough in their 'fancy pictures.' Even the taste for large-scale scenes illustrating Shakespeare and other themes - which were commissioned toward the end of the century from James Barry, James Northcote, and Edward Penny, among others - never spread far beyond a few patrons. Sporting and animal painting, however, took on an entirely new dimension in the work of George Stubbs. Johann Zoffany was born in Germany but moved to Britain about 1761 and became a founder-member of the Royal Academy, specializing in elaborate group portraits and theatrical scenes.

English landscape painting had its beginnings in the 18th century. Ultimately it was to have considerable influence on the Barbizon school and on the Impressionists. Samuel Scott (1700-1772) painted views along the Thames at London (Old London Bridge; Old Westminster Bridge); Richard Wilson idealised the Roman countryside and painted evocative landscapes in England (Valley in Wales; Cader Idris). Alexander Nasmyth, and George Barret also expressed the charm of the English countryside; John Crome (1768-1821), also known as Old Crome, exalted the sense of space and was a precursor of Romantic art.

During the second half of the 18th century the evolution of British oil painting was to a great extent paralleled by the extraordinary flowering in watercolours. The early topographical drawings of Paul Sandby gave way to the delicate linear drawings of Francis Towne, with their patches of colour resembling maps, and, at the close of the century, to the atmospheric unity of the landscapes of John Robert Cozens.

British patrons in the 18th century sometimes collected paintings on religious or mythical themes by foreign artists, but at home they rarely commissioned anything other than portraits, landscapes, and marine paintings, although there was in the early 18th century a vogue for grand allegorical decorations in aristocratic houses. The Protestant church, however, did little to encourage painting. In fact, the preponderance of portraits is the most distinctive characteristic of old British collections.

See the list of 18th-century British painters and browse their paintings.


Pieter Scheemaker (1691-1770) of Antwerp and Laurent Delvaux of Ghent carved a number of tombs in Westminster abbey, but it was not until John Michael Rysbrack from Antwerp settled in England in c. 1720, followed by the Frenchman Louis-François Roubiliac in c. 1732, that two sculptors of European stature were active in England. The busts and tombs of Rysbrack and Roubiliac have a power and vitality previously unknown in English sculpture; they were responsible for the revival that took place in the 18th century.

The finest sculpture in England during the 18th century was done by Roubiliac. In 1737 he made his reputation with his statue of Handel for Vauxhall Gardens; towards 1750 he worked as a modeller at the Chelsea china factory (fine terra-cotta busts of Alexander Pope, Colly Cibber and Hogarth, and Martin Folkes (1749). His tombs in Westminster abbey include those of the 2nd Duke of Argyll (1748) and Lady Elizabeth Nightingale (1761).

At the end of the century there was a return to the antique and a number of English sculptors went to Rome; among these Joseph Wilton (1722-1803), a pupil of Roubillac (monuments for General Wolfe, Stephen Hales and Admiral Holmes), showed originality. Thomas Banks (1735-1805) was more uneven (Thetis and her Nymphs, tomb of Sir Eyre Coote, 1783). Joseph Nollekens (1737-1823) produced competent portrait busts (bust of Dr Johnson in Westminster abbey) and executed a number of tombs of classical inspiration. The elder John Bacon (1740-1799) executed the Chatham monument in Westminster abbey and that of Dr Johnson in St Paul's. John Flaxman (1755-1826) enjoyed a European reputation in his own day as the finest sculptor after Canova. In 1775-1787 he worked for Wedgwood, who was popularising Neoclassical designs in his new 'Etruscan' ware. Funerary sculpture formed the majority of his later work (Monument to Agnes Cromwell, 1797, Chichester Cathedral).

See the list of 17th-18th-century British sculptors and browse their works.