Does “British Art” Exist?


After walking through the recently reorganized permanent collection at the Tate Britain, which invites visitors to “Meet British Art,” James Polchin isn’t so sure:

What makes this work distinctly British is not so clear. Some of the earliest works are done by artists born outside of Britain. Consider the grand landscape of a newly formed St. James’ Park by the 18th century Venetian painter Giovanni Antonio Canal, known as Canaletto. His early paintings of architecturally precise palazzos of Venice became popular souvenirs for British tourists. In London, he continued his distinctive bird’s-eye view of the landscape with scenes in and around the city. But what makes St. James’ Park distinctively British, I wondered. It cannot be considered as part of “the British School.” The work is much more an import or rather an immigrant into the history of British Art. There are other such immigrant artists here, such as the Dutch born van Dyck, the American Whistler, and Zoffany, a German Romantic painter who, as a short text indicates, “Travelled to paint the Empire” in India in the early 19th century.

I thought perhaps it was subject matter that anchored a definition of British art in this collection, until I arrived at Joseph Wright of Derby’s “Vesuvius in Eruption” (1776-80), an imagined view of the volcano’s burst of brilliant molten light. This was a view of Naples, stuck here in the history of British Art. Or consider the more contemporary David Hockney’s “A Bigger Splash” (1967) offering the flat tones and minimalist forms of a Southern California house and pool, the flutter of a splash in the water breaking the painting’s geometry. These are not British subjects, but composed by British born artists. The term “British Art” remains in quotations throughout these galleries as both artists and subjects confuse any firm idea of what makes this art so British. As so often happens, nationalism is something we just have to believe in here, with little evidence of its meaning or importance. Instead, this collection is an imagined community of British art. But like any imagined community, constructed from fragments and ruins, from alien forces assimilated into a whole, it is fragile idea to hold together.

(Image: Vesuvius in Eruption by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1776, via Wikimedia Commons)