Is British art really as bad as it is painted?

A recent exhibition of British art at the Louvre will have done little to change French views of those across the Channel. Iain Gale reports

Two hundred and fifty years after Hogarth, we are still, to the French, a nation of "rosbifs". Xenophobic and visually illiterate, our appreciation of art, the thesis runs, is limited to the class-indicators of the landscape and the portrait. Who , afterall, invented modern art? Why, the French and the Americans, of course. Constable and Turner might have unwittingly stumbled across the germ of an idea - but it took Monet, Duchamp and Pollock to realise the true meaning of art.

Such wisdom has been lent credence by our own art critics, who have consistently, under the tired spell of Fry and Bell, tended to admit all too readily to the foreign inspiration of their nation's art. Anything indigenous must be second-rate. Our finestyoung artists are denied patronage and honour at home. It's traditional.

This abiding attitude was underwritten by a recent exhibition at the Louvre. Billed as an attempt to alert the French public to the riches of British art from the 17th to the early 19th century - this country's "great age of painting" - D'Outre Manche soundly subverted this aim in its basic lack of important paintings, and provided an opportunity not for learning but for self-congratulation. The curator surely must have realised that there are simply not enough major works in his country's publ ic collections - and certainly not in the vaults of the Louvre, which is clearly where most of the pictures on show had been dusted off - with which to adequately illustrate such a progression.

Whether or not it was intentional, the result was profound and pernicious. Any Frenchman, or indeed any unenlightened visitor, wandering from this show to the Musee d'Orsay or through the Louvre's collection of French painting, would have felt reassured that Britain's contribution to world art has traditionally been that of an also-ran.

To any artistically aware British viewer, however, the show's disingenuousness was immediately apparent. In an exhibition of over 200 works there were a mere dozen masterpieces. It is telling that the finest image, Gainsborough's Lady Alston, should havebeen used for the poster. This alone, along with a few works by Raeburn, Wright of Derby, Linnel, Tilly Kettle and a single Turner watercolour, were worthy of attention. The largest presences were, predictably, of Reynolds and Lawrence, but in neither case did the juxtaposition of these works reveal the range of the one artist or the appeal of the other. Hogarth was present only in engraving, and Blake and Palmer, both quintessentially British and yet of acknowledged international significance, were ab sent altogether. As for the Scottish - this was a show of British painting, remember - they were mainly represented, extraordinarily, by a single Wilkie "self-portrait" in which the hand of that internationally influential genre painter clearly had no pa rt whatsoever.

Foreign eyes need to be opened to the British 18th-century masters, to the fantasias and histories of Runciman and Barry, to the latent symbolism of the Pre-Raphaelites, to the Aesthetes, to the innovators of the early 20th century and the vast range of worthwhile contemporary art currently being produced in this country. But this embarrassing hotch-potch of third-rate copies and engravings will, if anything, close French eyes for good.

Certainly, the British public takes time to appreciate its home-grown talent, but we are not a nation of boors. In the 1950s the British Council set up an "occasional repeated" precedent in its touring shows of contemporary British artists - not least Henry Moore.

Until a similar initiative can reveal to overseas audiences the true wealth of Britain's artistic heritage, we will have to live with the image reinforced by this patronising and ill-conceived exhibition.

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