Books: Great leaps backward

The Spirit of Britain: a narrative history of the arts by Roy Strong Hutchinson, pounds 40, 708pp; Do the arts in Britain really thrive best when they look back in nostalgia?

Having given us The Story of Britain, a linear overview of British history, in 1996, Sir Roy Strong now offers what he says is the first ever "continuous unfolding narrative" of Britain's arts. In his closing pages he hints darkly that this is not only the first narrative history, but probably the last, since the geopolitical concept that frames it is breaking up with the growing independence of Scotland and Wales. Strong's cultural pessimism, however, has deeper roots than modest constitutional reform.

To have covered a thousand years of anything in the moderate depth that Strong has done is a considerable achievement. This is by no means a coffee- table book, and its generous and well-captioned illustrations support a serious text. The project demanded self-confidence, and a point of view - attributes Strong has never lacked. He describes himself as "not only an unashamed elitist but also a monarchist, a practising Christian, and a committed European". With the exception of the last, Strong must feel he embodies his definition of the "spirit of Britain".

This confident self-definition leads to an equally confident delineation of his subject. Though he tries to pretend otherwise, "Britain" means "England". The Scottish Enlightenment gets a single chapter, Wales is hardly mentioned and Ireland - though certain writers are co-opted - is "outside my terms of reference". It is a pity he did not call it "The Englishness of English Art", but Pevsner, who attempted something similar, and from a sharper intellectual perspective, used that for his Reith lectures published in 1956.

The second crucial definition is what constitutes "the arts". Though this is in effect a cultural history, embracing religion, philosophy and science, and grounded in ideology, Strong uses "culture" as an adjectival noun, rather than a critical concept. His territory goes beyond what he calls "the high arts: opera, ballet, drama, literature, music, painting and sculpture" to take in architecture and the decorative arts.

In the light of his predilections, it is not surprising that he is good on gardening and the lost art of the masque. Photography, cinema and television are hardly mentioned. Though there is a reference to the invention of childhood as a distinct phase of life at the close of the 18th century, the arts - while recognised as essential to ideas of national identity - are not considered within such a broader definition of culture. Because the Puritans and their successors, the Philistines, are hostile to art, they tend to be excluded from "the spirit of Britain" - even though, from another viewpoint, they define it.

Within his self-delineated field, Strong moves confidently between the art forms as their significance rises and falls. He is particularly good at integrating the non-verbal, non-visual art of music. He summarises well, repeats himself only occasionally and his compression of ideas is rarely forced. To avoid the feeling that this kind of history is one damn thing after another, he interrupts his mellifluous flow with chapters on individuals, though significantly more patrons than artists: William of Wykeham, Cardinal Wolsey, the Earl of Arundel, Horace Walpole, Prince Albert (who in an inappropriate slip into demotic he calls a "dynastic stud").

Strong's fundamental problem, however, is with the idea of an "unfolding narrative". This implies both continuity and progression, that Whig world- view for which narrative history was invented. But in the light of his opinions on the 20th century, "a saga of almost continuous decline", any idea of progress must be questioned.

After 482 pages, Strong admits to himself: "History always pulls two ways. It can either be a lament for what has gone or give testimony as to just how far society has advanced." Until the 20th century, Strong is never sure which way he is facing. He deplores the destruction of the visual splendour of parish churches by the Reformation, for instance, but has to admit the advantages of the word-based culture that then arose.

Far from being an unfolding narrative, the history of the arts in Britain turns out to be a series of leaps backwards, punctuated by catastrophes whose effects are mitigated by these returns to the past. The Heritage Industry of the 1980s - to which he regularly alludes, obliterating his own part in it as director of the Victoria & Albert Museum - was only the latest in a series of retreats to an imagined past. The Tudors recreated medieval chivalry, the Stuarts looked to pre-Reformation England and ancient Rome, Palladio was revived to cure the excesses of the baroque, the Romantics discovered Nature just as it was being lost to the Industrial revolution, and the Victorians managed dynamic change by returning both to the Classical and the Gothic. Even William Morris's radicalism came wrapped in notions of a return to an earlier, purer way of life.

Strong, because he now positions himself as a critic of the Heritage Industry, has difficulty in coming to terms with a culture that moves forward by looking back. When we reach the 20th century this confusion becomes clear. In his closing 100 pages his smooth narrative breaks up; repetitions appear. He is reluctant to pass direct judgement. On modernism (a movement without a past), he writes, vulgarly and weakly, "the jury is still out". Nonetheless, he plainly detests the "consensus culture" that emerged after the two world wars, and the "consumer culture" now replacing it.

His objection to late 20th-century art is that it has become a responsibility of the state. The subsidised arts are "overwhelmingly conservative, the re-enactment and transmission to a wider spectrum of the community of vanished aristocratic society". Yet paradoxically that is precisely the programme of The Spirit of Britain, a top-down celebration of royal and aristocratic patronage, tempered by occasional references to failures of "leadership". Strong does not appear to realise that in their day his heroes were "the State" and that now, at least, the possibility exists of a common culture which yet can accommodate judgements about art.

Significantly, the final individual to be celebrated is Kenneth Clark - Lord Clark of Civilisation. Strong, the meritocrat, must see himself as a successor to an aristocrat whose fortune, in British tradition, came "from trade". Strong calls the mandarin Clark a failure, yet he has attempted to do what Clark did, and shares his conservative pessimism. Once again, we are left nobly looking backwards, more in sorrow than in anger.

Robert Hewison is the curator of "Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites", at the Tate Gallery from March 2000

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links