18th Century

Much painting had been done in England, even by native British artists, before the middle of the 18th century, but a native tradition, both original and monumental and capable of forming a background of native styles to be handed down from one generation to another, is not found in England before Hogarth.

There was a strong movement during the course of the 18th century towards a national school - a desire for academies of art where the latent English genius could be nurtured. Until the middle of the century, the walls of the Foundling Hospital supplied a limited venue for artists to exhibit their works, and the Vauxhall pleasure gardens provided another audience. The artists themselves founded the Society of Artists in 1760, which began to hold annual exhibitions open to the public, and in 1768 a breakaway group of artists from this society obtained royal approval for a Royal Academy, which would provide, not only annual exhibitions, but also a school of art. The Royal Academy succeeded from the start:

  • It had the best artists, with Joshua Reynolds as president until his death in 1792
  • It secured royal patronage
  • It helped to raise the status of the artist and encouraged a sense of professional corporate identity amongst the members
  • It gave to the work of English painters at the annual exhibitions a sense of national purpose and to their lives and careers a social cachet
It is because their art was formative of the art of later generations that Hogarth and Reynolds and Gainsborough (with his landscapes) are the real founders of an English school. Romanticism, a fundamental shift of consciousness, the result of a preliminary change of sensibility - an emotional response to nature, which centred on the idea of the "picturesque' became a stronger movement toward the end of the 18th century. It was with the inspiration of Gainsborough that the Romantic painters - Turner and Constable would fully develop the English style, and the religion of Romanticism, the belief in the divinity of nature and allow the revolt of the soul against the intellect, led to the great 19th century Romantic movement.

Modern Moral Subject

William Hogarth dominates English art in the first half of the century. Scornful of portraiture, he single-handedly created a new genre, the 'Modern Moral Subject', and introduced the original practice of paintings and engravings in series, telling a story.

William Hogarth


John Crome

Thomas Gainsborough

Richard Wilson


Although the art of landscape is particularly associated with Britain, 18th century academic theorists condemned landscapes as inferior because, as Richardson declared "they cannot Improve the Mind, they excite no Noble Sentiments". That is why the Royal Academy and its first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds, ranked landscape low in their strict hierarchy of subject matter (at the very top of which came "History Painting" - those pictures of mythological or Biblical events which supposedly did improve the mind and excite noble sentiments). Developments however were taking place which led up to the magnificently original work of Turner and Constable.

The taste for 17th century Italianate classical landscape was already, by the middle of the century, deeply embedded in the English consciousness (so long as it was 'historical landscape' - landscape portraying the Italian countryside in all its nobility and harmony, with the addition, needless to say, of some picturesque ruins). The first English artists who ventured to depict their own countryside were treated with indifference or even contempt. Richard Wilson spent most of his life in abject poverty, while Gainsborough, who liked nothing better than painting landscapes, had to abandon them and turn to portraits to earn a living. It is noteworthy, though, that the 18th century painters (Wilson, Gainsborough, Crome) already displayed those tendencies which were to characterise English landscape-painting in the years to come: fidelity to natural appearance combined with a poetic feeling for the English countryside, finding expression through the medium of colour.


Portraiture in England

British aristocrats usually employed foreign artists to paint their portraits and bought Italian or Dutch pictures to brighten their town and country houses. They seldom admired British paintings, and sitting for portraits had been a rather boring duty. During the 18th century, however, it had become both interesting and fashionable. Britain at last had painters who could make a lord look like a lord, and a lady look like a lady (and beautiful as well). A finished portrait need no longer depart at once for some remote country mansion, to be seen only by the family and a trickle of guests. Having one's portrait painted by a famous British artist had become a social adventure.

Sir Henry Raeburn

Allan Ramsay

Sir Joshua Reynolds

George Romney


George Stubbs

Sir James Thornhill

Joseph Wright of Derby

English Genre

Founded to celebrate and confirm the generally accepted doctrines of art: the concept of a hierarchy of genres, of morally and intellectually ennobling art, of the ascendancy of History. Behind this academic hierarchy of genres lay a feeling that the value of art depends on its embodiment of some interpretation of life, whether religious or philosophical or poetic. Genre paintings - neither ideal in style, nor elevated in subject - were admired for their skill, ingenuity, and even humour, but never confused with high art.