British art - our best kept secret

Shoved aside in old vegetable crates, shut away in broom cupboards, strung up in gloomy galleries - much of the best of Britain's visual heritage has been kept out of sight, and out of mind, for far too long. Now, in his six-part series A History of British Art, to be shown on BBC2 this month, Andrew Graham-Dixon (above), the Independent's art critic, argues that our island story can only really be told in pictures
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
A few months ago I was browsing in a secondhand bookshop, when I came across a slim and somewhat the worse-for-wear Pelican paperback called Art in England. Published on the eve of the Second World War, "with 32 photogravure plates", it was a rather depressing, grey little anthology of essays which seemed to me to sum up the spirit in which the British have historically treated British art. It contained, among other things, a brisk four-page account of painting in England from the Middle Ages to the end of the 19th century, written by Kenneth Clark, in which the then director of the National Gallery justified his brevity by asserting that "we are, after all, a literary people". A few pages later, Douglas Lord concluded a yet briefer piece with the remark that "there is no tradition of English art, no continuity: but occasionally a meteor blazes its trail across the sky." Lord was referring, I think, to Turner.

Having spent more than the best part of three years working on A History of British Art for the BBC, I now consider myself an expert in preconception on the subject. An air of abjectness and a consciousness of failure has for centuries hung over the discussion of art not just in England but in Britain as a whole. Many of my abiding memories from the journeys through British art that I have made during the past three years are memories of seeing tremendous things treated with astonishing neglect.

I remember visiting Westminster Abbey's great medieval retable painting of the 1390s and finding that it had been slapped on a wall behind an ageing blue curtain of synthetic 1960s design, hung on white plastic runners; I remember coming across what I now regard as among the finest surviving examples of English 15th-century figurative stone carving in the vestry of a church in the West Country, simply piled together in some vegetable crates marked with fine irony "They're fresh, they're British" (they still languish there, unseen and unknown); I remember coming across great works of art by Stubbs, by Constable and by Turner - works that might well revolutionise the general public's view of those artists - which have not been placed on general exhibition for years; I remember finding one of the great masterpieces of European Dadaism, created by the naturalised Englishman Kurt Schwitters in the 1940s, hidden away in a kind of broom cupboard in Newcastle University's Hatton Gallery. In any other country, Schwitters's great masterpiece would be treated like a national treasure - but not here.

It may seem odd, to some, that the British Broadcasting Corporation should have taken so long to get around to making a series charting the history of British art. It is odd, but it is also part of the pattern of national neglect and ignorance about the visual arts. This ignorance is still very much a part of our culture: I know lots of people who can talk in a reasonably informed way about the works, say, of Jane Austen, and their place in our cultural history; but I know very, very few people able to discuss the works of Reynolds, Gainsborough or Stubbs with much intelligence or knowledge. The problem lies deep within society, and it is reflected in the fact that the history of English literature is taught in every school, while the history of art is taught in very few. This is all the more peculiar in the light of the huge growth, in recent years, of general interest in the visual arts.

Some remedy has been made by our museums and galleries, where much has been done to supply the large gaps in most people's knowledge of art. Many extraordinary and brilliant exhibitions have been staged in recent years. Yet while we live in a golden age of exhibitions, here, too, there is enormous scope for improvement when it comes to British art. British art institutions have done a tremendous job of opening the eyes of the public to the painting and sculpture of Italy, Spain, France and America; but their track record in awakening people in this country to the achievements of British artists is far less impressive.

Turner is one of the greatest artists of all time (a much more brilliant and original artist than his follower, the brilliant but deeply indebted Monet) - yet his pictures are hung, at the Clore Gallery, in a way that makes him look like an academic artist. Constable's great masterpieces are hung at the V&A as if they were a study collection, when they are among the most powerful, disturbing and radical pictorial creations in Western art. Between them, Turner and Constable (and certainly not Cezanne, great painter though he was) are the true fathers of modern art. Without Turner, there could have been no Monet, no Matisse; without Constable, the first painter to make a place his own, the first painter to restrict himself deliberately to the landscape of his youth and affections, the first Expressionist, and the first Action painter, there could have been no Cezanne, no Van Gogh and no Jackson Pollock. But our museums sadly fail to communicate the extent of our greatest painters' originality.

This will soon become all the more glaring if nothing is done about it. It is all very well to trumpet the advent of a new Tate Gallery for international modern art on Bankside, but what is to become of the national collections on Millbank when they have to exist on their own? Will anyone go to see them, unless the British people's awareness of the values and quality of British art is raised? I hope (however arrogant the hope may be) that A History of British Art may do something to shake us as a nation out of our complacent and ignorant disregard for our national art traditions. Britain, it seems to me, is in need of angry as well as industrious art historians. To put it bluntly, it's about time the British woke up to the brilliance of British art tradition, and whether it has the desired effect or not, A History of British Art is meant as a wake-up call.

It is often said that the British are a tribe of writers, not painters, and that while there are honourable exceptions to the rule (Turner is most often cited, although sometimes it is Constable, sometimes Gainsborough) there is little historical evidence that we have ever been truly possessed of a native visual imagination. This has always struck me as a peculiar and eccentric piece of self-directed racism. Besides, it is simply not true. The British have loved and hated art as passionately and as vengefully as any of the peoples of the world. The BBC series is, among other things, an attempt to piece together the story of that widely misunderstood, much suppressed obsession.

We begin by exploring two extraordinary and largely forgotten legacies. The first is that tradition of Catholic religious art that thrived in the British Isles for several centuries until the Reformation. For far too long, discussion of British religious art (and by implication the British medieval imagination) has been based on the extremely partial evidence of surviving medieval manuscript illuminations. To give just two instances of this, almost everything that Kenneth Clark had to say on the matter of British art in the Middle Ages was based on analogy with manuscripts; and the same is true of Nikolaus Pevsner in his rather disappointing book, The Englishness of English Art. Almost no serious consideration had been given to the brilliant traditions of large-scale figurative carving and sculpting in Britain that the Reformation snuffed out, to prove that the British once lived lives as visually rich and profound as those of any other people in Europe.

The second forgotten legacy of the past which lies at the centre of our history is that tradition of anti-art that dominated Britain for more than a century after the start of the Reformation. A purge of minds as well as of art took place in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries. For more than a hundred years the entire culture was convulsed (as no other culture in Christendom has ever been, to quite the same extent) by iconoclasm. We have tried to anatomise the complex passions and terrors that lay behind the Protestant need to smash and blind and deface (literally to strip the faces off or remove the heads from) figurative works of art. The smashing of images, the destruction of all figurative art ("papal trash" in the eyes of Protestant reformers) has generally been considered, by art historians, as an improper subject for art history, an episode of our past best passed over in discreet silence. I have taken the different view that, unless we can understand what lay behind the fervency of the British hatred of art during the Reformation, we can never hope to understand the curious, devious course taken by art in Britain after it.

The main body of A History of British Art is an attempt to anatomise the nation's love-hate relationship with art and to understand the huge struggles and schisms that lie behind the development of later indigenous traditions of painting, sculpture, architecture and design. In the immediate aftermath of the Reformation, the native British artist became temporarily paralysed. The baton of invention was passed to foreign artists, and to two foreign artists in particular, Hans Holbein and Anthony van Dyck, whose unbroken influence may be traced from the 16th and 17th centuries right through to the present.

The extent to which the British art tradition has been moulded by those who are not, strictly speaking, entirely British should never be underestimated. Jingoistic types have counted this a weakness. I personally think it one of the great strengths of British art, that it should be so difficult to define in strict relationship to a people of one racial origin. The Britishness of British art - the Britishness of the British nation, indeed - lies in its essentially patchwork quality. There is a nice paradox here. What makes British art so quintessentially British is the fact that it has been created so raucously and discontinuously by so many people of so many different national origins: not only Welsh, Scottish, Irish and English - which are themselves rather broad and questionable terms of racial definition - but also French, German, Flemish and Dutch (I could go on).

The heterogeneity of British art has been a constant for many centuries. Religion, rather than race, has in my view been the chief determining factor in shaping the course of the visual imagination in this country. The wholesale destruction of art during the Reformation severed the British decisively from the European Catholic art traditions and took the British visual imagination down a different route. Quick summary of the arguments that follow is beyond me, but as I have pursued the British art tradition along its idiosyncratic course, I hope I have done some form of justice to the greatest British artists. I have also tried to shed light on some of the less frequented byways of the British art tradition. Above all, I have tried to demonstrate not only that there has been a great, vital and continuing tradition of visual thought in Britain, but also that the truest route to a broad and profound understanding of British culture itself - in its religious, political, philosophical and historical dimensions - lies in an understanding of that tradition.

The history of art in Britain has too often been told as if it were a marginal one. It is in my opinion one of the most revealing of all our cultural stories. The chief ambition behind the project, as far as I am concerned, has been simple enough: to help myself and others to understand the British visual imagination and, perhaps, to love British art just a little bit more.

n `A History of British Art' will be shown on Sundays at 7.30pm on BBC2, starting on 21 April

Comments