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British Art History II

A bone to pick with Sir Roy
Below is a modification of his epigraph in The Spirit of Britain, 1999
I found an image more attractive to me than the one he employs

Sir Roy's epigraph possibly holds the key to what some of us detect as signally provocative in the attitudes of the average British art historian. A country's actual cultural roots are seemingly invisible to its indigenous connoisseurs. "Foreign ornamentation", in Walpole's phrase, was irresistible to the dilettanti of his day. It evidently remains so, for those of Sir Roy's persuasion, and others who believe that Britiish and English cultural roots are to be found in Rome. Britain's cultural roots are quite certainly not classical, however, and, if Christian, equally certainly, at least since the days of excommunicated Elizabeth, not Roman Christian. Ralegh and Drake, as later Blake, might disagree with Sir Roy's conception of British culture. Shiploads of dead Christs, and boatloads of doomed and unfortunate Inquisition dogs and dons; that's what failed to arrive in those former days. Three keels earlier brought the country's deep cultural roots from Eastern Angeln, followed by the Vikings of York and the Danelaw.

The following passage is so breath-taking, it begs to be re-visited. It ironically even begins with a maritime metaphor, before invoking the nation's land-locked patriotic emblems. Irony piles on irony. Sir Roy's reading apparently does not extend beyond William Langland and William Wordswoth. Does he appreciate that while bucolic England may be a precious stone, it is set in a silver sea ? As a William put it. Nowhere in Britain is more than 60 miles from the sea. Time to advance our sails, in Harry's wake, and raise the meteor flag of England.

"No great literature of the sea". !!! Say that again. !!! The Spirit of Britain. !!! Homer, true, was classical. He, or his namesake, did, however, author The Odyssey. Did Sir Roy, in his voyages in the realms of gold, ever hear Chapman speak out loud and bold ? Chapman asked to be given a different spirit, one that sailed on this life's rough sea. But perhaps he was not great enough in literary annals. Perhaps a lustier tempest is needed, if the cloud-capp'd towers are to fall. Let us not be afraid to be controversial. I'll identify with a grey-beard loon, and buttonhole this splendid guest at Britannia's wedding. Like others before me, I'll endure and stick it out, day after day, nor breath nor motion, as steadfast as a painted ship, upon a painted ocean. Set Alfred T against William W. Is not Ulysses more memorable than Tintern Abbey ? Oops ! There we go classical again. What about The Revenge ? Last resort of the scoundrelly Grenville. Somewhere I read that Masefield's Sea-Fever had been voted, in some survey of the British people, the most popular poem in the English language. Closely followed by Crossing the Bar.

Wordsworth's awareness of earth's eternal rotundity was established beyond argument by the intrepidity of sailors. Conrad, of course, was not British, and Rudyard was, essentially, multi-national. Billy Budd and Moby Dick ? American, if British-tainted.. Greatness in literature, and art, is thrust upon some, and not upon others. By connoisseurs. I was once told that a group of art aficionados, coming upon a display of marine paintings at an exhibition, immediately turned their backs on that collection of offensive nauticality.

Is there not a conspiracy afoot, with 90% of its paid-up members unaware of its existence, to suppress and ignore, erase and obliterate British marine painting ? Inculcated by the subtle and sleazy laundering techniques of the revered Courtauld Institute, and Walpole Society, in manner reminiscent of the treacherous Stuarts ? Is not the Vicar of Bray himself, and his multiple Jesuit forebears, engaged in a truly long-term rearguard action to reinstate the Inquisition mentality, and revenge the eclipse of the Papacy, and the Roman and Spanish Empires ?


Francis Holman, d .1790. From Ellis Waterhouse: The Dictionary of British 18th Century Painters. 1981.

Sample comments:

Andrew Graham-Dixon. A History of British Art, 1996. No mention whatsoever of marine or maritime painting in any way, shape or form by this utterly acclaimed author. Scour his index in vain. Sea paintings are non-existent.

Isabella Steer: Essential History of British Art, 2001. One sentence. "Marine painting. A genre emerging in England in the 1730s as exemplified by Samuel Scott and reaching its apogee with de Loutherbourg and Turner." Scott captured "the tranquil tone of the sea --- it was not until Turner that the waters would be troubled pictorially." p 64. Apart from possibly de Loutherbourg, there is no mention of any genuine marine painter, since Scott and Turner barely qualify. Isabella is deluded into assuming that these two have something in common. See pictorially untroubled waters.

David Bindman (ed.). The History of British Art, 1600-1870, 2008. No mention of marine or maritime scenes as fit for pictorial representation. No mention of Brooking or Scott, let alone Monamy. Occasional peripheral references to Britain's maritime heritage. Highly marginal.

It may not be quite fair to cite a publication issued as long ago as the Penguin Dictionary of Art and Artists, in 1959, but here goes, nevertheless. The only Briton mentioned by name is Samuel Scott, in spite of his questionable qualifications as a genuine marine painter. The authors, Peter & Linda Murray, advisedly include topography among Scott's predilections. Thus:

The dictionary's authors were dedicated graduates and adminstrators of the Courtauld Institute, and were evidently instructed under its auspices to ignore sea painting, the most popular British art genre. Not even de Loutherbourg, an awkward figure, is mentioned. It is worth recalling the comments of the Redgraves, in 1866: "Scott ..... was indeed a good draftsman, and painted some tolerable topographical views, as well as marine pieces, but his works do not show any original treatment; they are now little known or esteemed." The Redgraves also alert their readers to the position of the van de Veldes, in these words: "two foreigners, the Vandeveldes, found much employment under the last two sovereigns of the Stuart family, and fostered a few pupils and followers". A century later the Younger van de Velde was "the father of all English marine painting" (P & L Murray). Is British art history beyond redemption ?

Art aside, ahead looms an exploration of The Origins of the British, 2006, a solid tome by Stephen Oppenheimer. But of interest for its linguistics, not its genetics. The two disciplines are totally unconnected.

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"The greatest historical heresy that a writer can commit in the eyes of many English readers
is to tell them the truth."
Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, 1747 - 1813, author, translator and lawyer.


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A naive domestic painter without any breeding, but I think you may be amused by his insouciance.

The Devil bubbles below the keel: "It's crude, but is it Art?"

"Scholars belong to guilds held together by common opinions, attitudes, and methods.
As a rule, innovation is welcome only when it is confined to surface details
and does not modify the structure as a whole."
Cyrus H.Gordon, 1982

"History is something to be created rather than learned".
George Orwell.

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2015
all rights reserved

.... by industrious valour climb
To ruin the great work of time
And cast the kingdom old
Into another mould


from The London Gazetteer, 9th February, 1749.


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