Some Famous Illuminated Manuscripts

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It is usual to regard English painting as beginning with the Tudor period and for this are several reasons. Yet the fact remains that painting was practised in England for many hundred years before the first Tudors came to the throne.
The development of the linear design in which English artists have always excelled can be traced back to the earliest illuminations brilliantly evolved in irish monastic centres and brought to Northumbria in the seventh century. Its principal feature is that wonderful elaboration of interlaced ornament derived from the patterns of metal-work in the Celtic Iron Age, which is to be found in the Book of Kells and Lindesfarne Gospel, its Northumbrian equivalent.

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1) Some Famous Illuminated Manuscripts.

It is usual to regard English painting as beginning with the Tudor period and for this are several reasons.  Yet the fact remains that painting was practised in England for many hundred years before the first Tudors came to the throne. 

The development of the linear design in which English artists have always excelled can be traced back to the earliest illuminations brilliantly evolved in irish monastic centres and brought to Northumbria in the seventh century. Its principal feature is that wonderful elaboration of interlaced ornament derived from the patterns of metal-work in the Celtic Iron Age, which is to be found in the Book of Kells and Lindesfarne Gospel, its Northumbrian equivalent. 

The greatest achievement in Irish manuscript illumination, the Book of Kells is now generally assigned to the late eighth or early ninth century.  The Book of Kells is a manuscrept of the gospes of rather large size(33*24 cm)written on thick glazed vellum. Its pages were originally still larger; but a binder, a century or so ago, clipped away their margins, cutting even into edges of the illuminations.  Otherwise the manuscript is in relatively good condition, in spite of another earlier misadventure.  The great gospel, on account of its wrought shrine, was wickedly stolen  in the night from the sacresty of the church and was found a few months later stripped of its gold, under a sod.  Finally the manuscript passed to trinity college, where it is today. 

No manuscript approaches the book of kells for elaborate ornamentation.  A continuous chain of ornamentation runs through the text.  The capitals at the beginning of each paragraph--two, three, cour to a page--are made of brightly coloured entwinements of birds, snakes, destorted men and quadrupeds, fighting or performing all sorts of acrebatic feats.  Other animals wander about the pages between the lines or on top of them. 

The thirteenth century had been the century of the great cathedrals, in which nearly all branches of art had their share.  Work on these immense enterprises contunued into the fourteenth century and even beyond, but they were no longer the main focus of art.  We must remember that the world had changed a great deal during that peiod.  In the middle of the twelfth century Europe was still a thinly populated continent of peasants with moasteries and baron's castles as the main centres of power and learning.  But a hundred and fifty years later towns had grown into centres of trade whose burghers felt increasingly independent of the poweof the Church and the fuedal lords.  Even the nobles no longer lived a life of grim seclusion in their fortified manors, but moved to the cities with their comfort and fashionable luxury there to display their wealth at the courts of the mighty.  We can get a very vivid idea of what life in the fourteenth century was like if we remember the works of Chaucer, with his knights and squires, friars and artisans. 

The love of fourteenth-century painters for graceful and delicate details is seen in such famous illustrated manuscripts as the English Psalter known as Queen Mary's Psalter(about 1310).  One of the pages shows Christ in the temple, conversing with the learned scribes.  They have put him on a high chair, and he is seen explaining some point of doctrine with the characteristic gesture used by medieval artists when they wanted to draw a teacher.  The scribes raise their hands in attitude of awe and astonishment, and so do Christ's parents, who are just coming on to the scene, looking at each other wonderingly.  The method of telling the story is still rather unreal.  The artist has evidently not yet heard of Giotto's discovery of the way in which to stage a scene so as to give it life.  Christ is minute in comparison with the grown-ups, and there is no attempt on the part of the artist to give us any idea of the space between the fugures.  Moreover we can see that all the faces are more of less drawn according to one simple formula, with the curved eyebrows, the mouth drawn downwards and the curly hair and beard.  It is all the more surprising to look down the same page and to see that another scene has been added, which has nothing to do with the sacred text.  It is a theme from the daily life of the time, the hunting of ducks with a hawk.  Much to the delight of the man and woman on horseback, and of the boy in front of them, the hawk has just got hold of a duck, while tow others are flying away.  The artist may not have looked at real boys when he painted the scene above, but he had undoubtedly looked at real hawks and ducks when he painted the scene below.  Perhaps he had too much reverence for the biblical narrative to bring his observationn of actual life into it.  He preferred to keep the two things apart:  the clear symbolic way of telling a story with easily readable gestures and no distracting details, and on the margin of the page, the piece from real life, which reminds us once more that this is Chaucer's century.  It was only in the cours of the fourteenth century that the two elements of this art, the graceful narrative and the faithful observation, were gradually fused.  Perhaps this would not have happened so soon without the influence of Italian art. 


2) 16th and 17th Centuries.

When Henry VII abolished Papal authority in England in 1534 and ordered the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 he automatically brought to an end the tradition of religious art as it had been practised in the middle ages and in monastic centres.  The break was so complete that painting before and after seem entirely different thing, in subject, style and medium.  The local centres of culture having vanished, the tendency of painting to be centralized in London and in the service of the court was affirmed.  Secular patronage now insisted on portraiture, and the habit grew up of useng foreign painters--an artificial replacement of the old, international interchange of artists and craftsmen.  Yet the sixteenth century was the age of Humanism which had created a new interest in the human personality.


3)  Painting In The 16th --17th Centuries.

In the sixteenth century Holbein came to England, bringing with him a much more highly developed pictorial tradition with a much fuller sense of plastic relief.  Holbein himself was a supreme master of linear design; he could draw patterns for embroidery and jewellery as no one else, but he never entirely sacrificed the plastic feeling for form to that, and in his early work he modelled in full light and shade.  Still, it was not difficult for him to adapt himself somewhat to the English fondness for flat linear pattern.  Particularly in hes royal portraits, e.g. the portrait of Henry VIII, we find and insistence on the details of the embroidered patterns of the clothes and the jewellery, which is out of key with the careful modelling of hands and face. 

Finally, by Elizabeth's reign almost all trace of Holbein's plastic feeling was swept away and the English instinct for linear description had triumphed completely. 

But the English were not left long in peace with their linear style.  Charles I, who had travelled abroad was bound to see that Rubens represented a much higher conception of art than anything England possessed, and invited him over.  He was followed by Van Dyck, who came to stay.  And although he too could not help feeling the influence of the bias of English taste and learned to make his images more flatly decorative and less powerfully modelled, than had been his wont, none the less, he set a new standard of plastic design, and this was carried on by Lely.  Lely was not a great artist, but he was thoroughly imbued with the principles of three demensional plastic design.  Though his portraits lack psychological subtlety, and fail to reveal clearly the sitter's individuality, they are firmly and consistently constructed. 

Kneller of the next generation caried on the same tradition.

What of native English talent? The approach of the Civil war stripped away the polish and brought out a sterner strain of character no less in the aristocratic opponents.  In the realism with which he depicted the militant Cavalier, William Dobson(1610-46) marks a breakaway from Van Dyckian elegance.  Born in London, Dobson comes suddenly into prominence in royalist Oxford after the Civil War had broken out. 

The painting of Endymion Porter, thefriend and agent of Charles I in the purchase of works of art, is generally accounted Dobson's masterpiece.  The most striking aspect of the work is its realism.  Though Endymion Porter is portrayed as a sportsman who has just shot a hare, there is a stern look about his features which seems to convey that this is wartime.

The solemnity of the times is also reflected in the portraiture produced during the Commonwealth period and one would naturally expect an even greater refection of elegance than that of Dobson during the Puritan dominance.  Indeed a prospect of unsparing realism is set out in Cromwell's admonition--to "remark all these ruffness, pimples, warts" and paint " everything as you see in me".

The corresponding painter to Dobson  on the Parliamentary side, however, Robert Walker, was a much less original artist and still closely imitated Van Dyck's graceful style. 

A number of other portrait painters are of interest by reason of their subjects.  John Greenhill (c. 1644--76) is of some note as one of the first artists to depict English actors in costume.  John Riley (1646--91) was an artist  whose work is distinguished by a grave reticence.  In succession to Lely he painted many eminent people, including Dryden, and some minor folk, as for example the aged housemaid Bridget Holmes.  He was described by Horace Walpole as "one of the best native painters who have flourished in England". 


4)  Painting In The 18th Century.

The eighteenth century was the great age of British painting.  It was in this  period that British art attained a distinct national character.  In the seventeenth century, art in Britain had been dominated largely by the Flemish artist, Anthony van Dyck.  In the early eighteenth century, although influenced by Continental movements, particularly by French rococo, British art began to develop nindependently.  William Hogarth, born just before the turn of the century, was the first major aritst to reject foreign influence and establish a kind of art whose themes and subjects were thoroughly British.  His penetrating, witty portrayal of the contemporary scene, his protest against social injustice and his attack on the vulgtarities of fashianable society make him one of the most original and significant of British artists. 

Hogarth was followed by a row of illustrious painters:  Thomas Cainsborough, with his lyrical landscapes, "fancy pictures" and portraits; the intellectual Sir Joshua Reynolds, who painted charming society portraits and became the first president of the Royal Academy; and George Stubbs, who is only now being recognized as an artist of the greatest visual perception and sensitivity.  There are many others, including Wright of Derby, Wilson, Lawrence, Ramsay, Raeburn, Romney, Wheatley, and the young Turner.


5)  Satirical Genre Painting

5.1) William Hogarth(1697--1764)

William Hogarth was unquestionably one of the greatest of English artists and a man of remarkably individual character and thought.  It was his achievement to give a comprehensive view of  social life within the framework of moralistic and dramatic narrative.  He produced portraits which brought a fresh vitality and truth into the jaded profession of what he called "phizmongering".  He observed both high life and low with a keen and critical eye and his range of observation was accompanied by an exceptional capacity for dramatic composition, and in painting by a technical quality which adds beauty to pictures containing an element of satire of caricature. 

A small stocky man with blunt pugnacious features and alert blue eyes, he had all the sharp-wittedness of the born Cockney and an insular pride which led to his vigorous attacks on the exaggerated respect for fereign artists and the taste of would-be connoisseurs who brought over (as he said) "shiploads of dead Christs, Madonnas and Holy Families" by inferior hands.  Thereis no reason to suppose he had anything but respect for the great Italian masters, though he deliberately took a provocative attitude.  What he objected to as much as anything was the absurd veneration of the darkness produced by time and varnish as well as the assumption that English painters were necessarily inferior to others.  A forthrightness of statement may perhaps be related to hes North-country inheritance, for his father came to London from West-morland, but was in any case the expression of a democratic outlook and unswervingly honest intelligence. 

The fact that he was apprenticed as a boy to a silver-plate engraver has a considerable bearing on Hogarth's development.  It instilled a decorative sense which is never absent from his most realistic productions.  It introduced him to the world of prints, after famous masters or by the satirical commentators of an earlier day.  It is the engraver's sense of line coupled with a regard for the value of Rococo curvature which governs his essay on aesthetics, The Analysis of Beauty. 

As a painter Hogarth may be assumed to have learned the craft in Thornhill's "academy", though his freshness of colour and feeling for the creamy substance of oil paint suggest more acquaintance than he admitted to with the technique of his French contemporaries.  His first success as a painter was in the "conversation pieces" in which his bent as an artist found a logical beginning.  These informal groups of family and friends surrounded by the customary necessariesof their day-to-day life were congenial in permitting him to treat a pictureas astage.  He was not the inventor of the genre, which can be traced back to Dutch and Flemish art of the seventeenth century and in which he had contemporary rivals.  Many were produced when he was about thirty and soon after he made his clandestine match with Thornhill's daughter in 1729, when extraefforts to gain a livelihood became necessary.  With many felicities of detail and arrangement they show Hogarth still in a restrained and decorous mood.  A step nearer to the comprehensive view of life was the picture of an actual stage, the scene from The Beggar's Opera with which he scored a great success about 1730, making sveral versions of the painting.  Two prospects must have been revealed to him as a result, the idea of constructing his own pictorial drama comprising various scenes of social life, and that of reaching a wider public through the means of engraving.  The first successful siries:  "The Harlot's Progress, " of which only the engraving now exist, was immediately followed by the tremendous verve and riot of "The Rake's Progress", c.  1732; the masterpiece of the story series the "Marriage à la Mode" followed after an interval of twelve years. 

As a painter of social life, Hogarth shows the benefit of the system of memory training which he made a self-discipine.  London was his universe and he displayed his mastery in painting every aspect of its people and architecture, from the mansion in Arlington Street, the interior of which provided the setting for the disillusioned couple in the second scene of the "Marriage à la Mode", to the dreadful aspect of Bedlam.  Yet he was not content with one line of development only and the work of his mature years takes a varied course.  He could not resist the temptation to attempt a revalry with the history painters, though with little successs.  The Biblical compositions for St. Bartholomew's Hospital on which he embarked after "The Rake's Progress" were not of a kind to convey his real genius.  He is sometimes satirical as in "The March of the Guards towards Scotland", and the "Oh the Roast Beef of Old England!(Calais Gate)", which was a product of his single expeditionabroad with its John Bull comment on the condition of France, and also the "Election"series of 1755 with its richness of comedy.  In portraiture he displays a great variety.  The charm of childhood, the ability to compose a vivid group, a delightful delicacy of colour appear in the "Graham Children" of 1742.  The portrait heads of his servants are penetrating studies of character.  The painting of Captain Coram, the philanthropic sea captain who took a leading part in the foundation of the Foundling Hospital, adapts the formality of the ceremonial portrait to a democratic level with a singularlyengaging effects. The quality of Hogarth as an artist is seen to advantage in his sketches and one sketch in particular, the famous "Shrimp Girl" quickly executed with a limited range of colour, stands alone in his work, taking its place among the masterpieces of the world in its harmonyof form and content, its freshness and vitality. 

The genius of Hogarth is such that he is often regarded as a solitary rebel against a decaying artificiality, and yet though he had no pupils, he had contemporaries who, while of lesser stature in one way and another, tended in the same direction.

William Hogarth expressed in his art the new mood of national elation, the critical spirit of the self-confident bourgeoisie and the liberal humanitarianism of his age.  He was the first native-born English painter to become a hero of the Enlightenment.  One reason for his popularity was that the genius of the age found its highest expression in wit.  From Molière to Votaire, from Congreve through Swift and Pope to Fielding, the literature of wit was enriched on a scale unprecedent since antiquity.  The great comic writers of the century exposed folly, scarified pretension and lashed hypocrisy and cruelty. 

It was the great and single-handed achievement of Hogarth to establish comedy as a category in art to be rated as highly as comedy in literature.  According to the hierarchy of artistic categories that  was inherited from the Renaissance, istoria, --the narrative description of elevated themes, especially from the Bible and antiquity --was the highest branch of art measured by a scale which placed low-life genre at the bottom. 

Hogarth was actually sensitive to the categorical deprecation of comic art, and with his friend Henry Fielding set about a campaign to raise its standing.

In a number of works and statements Hogarth identified his cause with comic literature.  In his self -portrait of 1745 the oval canvas rests on the works of Shakespeare, Milton and Swift.  Because his reasons for invoking literature were misunderstood, Hogarth exposed himself to the charge of being a "literary" artist.  The legend of the literary painter can be traced back to his own age.  "Other pictures we look at, "wrote Charles Lamb, "his prints we read."  Some of the blame for aesthetic deprecation must be placed on the shoulders of Hogarth himself.  He seems to have even encouraged an image which mystified his critics.  He remarked of the connoisseurs "Because I hate them, they think I hate Titian and let them!"  He outraged Horace Walpole by saying that he could paint a portrait as well as Van Dyck.  He compared nature with art, to the desadvantage of the latter. 

If his statements are examined carefully, it becomes apparent that he did not attack foreign art as such, that he passionately admired the Old Masters. 

What manner of man was he who executed thse portraits--so various, so faithful, and so admirable? In the London National Gallery most of us have seen the best and most carefully finished series of his comic paintings, and the portrait of his own honest face, of which the bright blue eyes shine out from the canvas and give you an idea of that keen and brave look with which William Hogarth regarded the world.  No man was ever less of a hero; you see him before you, and can fancy what he was --a jovial, honest London citizen, stout and sturdy; a hearly, plain-spoken man, loving his laugh, his friend, his glass, his roast-beef of Old England, and having a proper bourgeois scorn for foreign fiddlers, foregn singers, and, above all, for foreign painters, whom he held in the most amusing contempt. 

Hogarth's "Portraits of Captain Coram"

Hogarth painted his portrait of Capitain Coram in 1740, and donated it the same year to the Foundling Hospital.

It was painted on Hogarth's own initiative, without having been commissioned, and was presented to a charitable institution in the making, one of whose founder members Hogarth was, and it depicts a friend of his, the prime mover of the whole undertaking.  The very format of the picture shows that Hogarth was exerting all his powers to produce a masterpiece.  It measures about 2.4 by 1.5 metres, the biggest portrait Hogarth ever painted. 

In producing a work like this, of monumental proportions, where there was no purchaser to sistort the artist's intentions, Hogarth mst have had a definite aim or aims, and it is probable that he desired his work to express something of significance to him at this period of time. 

The portrait is conceived in the great style, with foreground plus repoussoir, middle-ground, background, classical column and drapery.  Coram is depicted sitting on a chair, which is placed on a platform with two steps leading up to it. 

Hogarth makes use of the conventional scheme, traditional in portraits of rulers and noblemen, with its column, drapery and platform as laudatory symbols to stress the subject's dignity, a composition, which in the England of that time, was usually associated with Van Dyck's much admired but old-fashioned protraits of kings and noblemen.  Hogarth's painting, with its attributes and symbols is not far removed form history painting.  But the subject is a sea-captain, whose social position did not, by the fixed conventions for this category of picture, entitle him to this kind of portrayal.  His relatively modest position in society is emphasized by his simple dress, a broad-coat of cloth, by the absence of the wig obligatory for every parson of standing, and by the intimace and realism with which the artist has depicted this figure with his broad, stocky body, shose short, bent legs do not  reach the floor. 

The mode of depiction refers back to , and creates in the beholder an expectation of a somewhat schematized and idealized manner of human portrayal.  But by depicting Coram in an intimate and realistic fashion Hogarth breaks the mould.  In one and the same work he has made use of the means of expression of both the great and the low style.  By making apparent the low social status of his subject, Hogarth seems also to wish to breach the classic doctrine, whose scale of values provided the foundation of the theories about the division of painting into distinct categories, where the nature of the theme determined a picture's place on the scale "high" to "low".


5.2) Sir Joshua Reynolds(1723-1792)

To feel to the full the contrast between Reynolds and Hodarth, there is no better way than to look at their self-portraits.  Hogarth's of 1745 in the Tate Gallery, Reynolds's  of 1773 in the Royal Academy.  Hogarth had a round face, with sensuous lips, and in his pictures looks you straight in face.  He is accompanied by a pug-dog licking his lip and looking very much like his master.  The dog sits in front of the painted oval frame in which the portrait appears--that is the Baroque trick of a picture within a picture.  Reynolds scorns suck tricks.  His official self-portrait shows him in an elegant pose with his glove in his hand, the body fitting nicely into the noble triangular outline which Raphael and Titian had favoured, and behind him on the right appears a bust of Michelangelo. 

This portrait is clearly as programmatic as Hogarth's.  Reynolds's promramme is known to us in the greatest detail.  He gave altogether fifteen discourses to the students of the Academy, and they were all printed.  And whereas Hogarth's Analysis of Beaty was admired by few and neglected by most--Reynolds's Discourses were international reading. 

What did Reynolds plead for? His is on the whole a con sistent theory.  "Study the great masters...who have stood the test of ages, " and especially "study the works to notice"; for "it is by being conversant with the invention of others that we learn to invent".  Don't be "a mere copier of nature", don't "amuse mankind with the minute neatness of your imitations, endeavour to impress them by the grandeur of [...] ideas". Don't strive for "dazzling elegancies" of brushwork either, form is superior to colour, as idea is to ornament. The history painter is the painter of the highest order; for a subject ought to be "generally interesting". It is his right and duty to "deviate from vulgar and strict historical truth". So Reynolds would not have been tempted by the reporter's attitude to the painting of important con-temporary events. With such views on vulgar truth and general ideas, the portrait painter is ipso facto inferior to the history painter. Genre, and landscape and still life rank even lower. The student ought to keep his "principal attention fixed upon the higher excellencies. If you compass them, and compass nothing more, you are still first, class... You may be very imperfect, but still you are an imperfect artist of the highest order".

This is clearly a consistent theory, and it is that of the Italian and even more of the French seventeenth century. There is nothing specifically English in it. But what is eminently English about Reynolds and his Discourses is the contrast between what he preached and what he did. History painting and the Grand Manner, he told the stu-dents, is what they ought to aim at, but he was a portrait painter most exclusively, and an extremely successful one.

Reynold's "Mrs Siddons as the Tragic

Muse": the Grand Manner Taken 

       For anyone coming to the painting with a fresh eye the first impression must surely be one of dignity and solem-nity. It is an impression created not only by the pose and bearing of the central figure herself, and her costume, but also by the attitude of her two shadowy attendants, by the arrangement of the figures, and by the colour. The colour must appear as one of the most remarkable features of the painting. To the casual glance the picture seems monochromatic. The dominant tone is a rich golden brown, interrupted only by the creamy areas of the face and arms and by the deep velvety shadows of the background. On closer examination a much greater variety in the colour is appar-ent, but the first impression remains valid for the painting as a unit.

The central figure sits on a thronelike chair. She does not look at the spectator but appearsan deep contemplation; her expression is one of melancholy musing. Her gestures aptly reinforce the meditative air of the head and also contribute to the regal quality of the whole figure. A great pendent cluster of pearls adorns the front of her dress. In the heavy, sweeping draperies that envelop the figure there are no frivolous elements of feminine costume to conflict with the initial effect of solemn grandeur.

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