Contemporary British Painting
Late 20th Century UK Painters: Patrick Heron, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Bridget Riley, David Hockney.

Pin it



Naked Man with Rat (1977)
By Lucian Freud

TWENTIETH CENTURY ARTISTS
For a quick reference guide,
see: 20th Century Painters.

Contemporary British Painting (c.1960-2000)
A brief review of some modern UK painters

Contents

Background
American Influence
Patrick Heron
St Ives School
Euston Road School
Traditional Themes
Kitchen Sink School
British Pop Art
School of London
British Abstract Art
Op-Art
Howard Hodgkin
Lucian Freud
Young British Artists (YBAs)

• For more about modernism, see: Modern British Sculpture (1930-70).



A Bigger Splash (1967)
By David Hockney.

Background to British Art

The 1960s decade - the decade that gave birth to contemporary art - saw a great increase in national wealth, the spending power of the individual hugely enhanced. Air travel became available to everyone; gramophone records played for longer and every adolescent had the resources to buy them. War receded into the past, but its technological spin-offs were everywhere. The material world of the commercial artifact came to dominate everyone's perception of reality. Television was in most homes, and the commonplace images of daily life were more and more those provided by the news photographer, or invented by the advertising agent. Drug-taking, which had been common in bohemia for a century or more, became fashionable. The introduction of the contraceptive pill in 1963 rapidly rendered obsolete traditional constraints on behaviour between men and women.

TOP PAINTERS IN ENGLAND
For a list of the most important
portraitist, history painters and
landscape artists in oils and
watercolours, during the
eighteenth and nineteenth
centuries, (1700-1900) see:
Best English Painters.

BRITISH ART MUSEUMS
Works by Britain's best painters
can be seen in museums like:
the National Gallery London, and
the Tate Gallery, London.

EVOLUTION OF VISUAL ART
For details of art movements
see: Timeline for History of Art.
For styles, see: History of Art.

WORLD'S GREATEST ARTWORKS
For a list of the Top 10 painters/
sculptors: Best Artists of All Time.
For the Top 200 oils, watercolours
see: Greatest Modern Paintings.

"BRITISH" PAINTERS
L.S. Lowry (1887-1976)
Salford landscape/genre-painter.
Paul Nash (1889-1946)
War Artist, Surrealist.

American Influence

In all these matters, American life and culture came to represent a standard to be imitated. American servicemen, still stationed in Britain long after the War, helped to naturalize their way of life. American films were seen on television, American slang heard in the streets. Jimmy Porter, the anti-hero of John Osborne's play Look Back in Anger (1957), observes ruefully that he lives in 'the American age'. In the arts, that age was announced in the work of the 'Beat' poets and novelists round Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs, and the New York School of Abstract Expressionist painters, led by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. Pollock's grand canvases, articulated with all-embracing gestures of the painting arm, often using bucketfuls of paint splashed and dripped in swirls and spirals, are perhaps Existentialist exercises like the less titanic work of his contemporaries in Europe. But they are also positive, assertions of the energy of creativity, or, in Rothko's case, of the spiritual heights and depths to be plumbed in the contemplation of a coloured void.

Patrick Heron

This sort of positive energy was something that appealed to Patrick Heron (1920-99), who is one of the few British painters to have been associated directly with the New York group. In the later 1950s he abandoned the figure subjects and still-lifes inspired by Braque and Matisse that he had been painting and started to make large abstracts, often at first 'stripe paintings', tall piles of many-coloured brushstrokes, which were early reflections of the developments in New York; Heron himself claimed to have arrived at this point independently, and to have led the way for some of the Americans.

Heron lived for much of his life in or near St Ives, which had been home to many of the most perceptive landscape painters of the pre-war years, notably Ben Nicholson (1894-1982). His pictures of the late 1950s and early 1960s are like blurred, strongly coloured reminiscences of Nicholson's neat geometries. They have something in common with the work of another painter associated with St Ives, the Northern Irish artist William Scott (1913-89), who was preoccupied with the abstract implications of the still life: a pan or jug on a table is seen in plan, as if from the air, and becomes the basis of a much simplified arrangement of colours and shapes. Heron's abstractions became very large indeed in the 1970s and 1980s. They consist of cheerfully coloured pink, blue or yellow patches floating in and out of each other, managing to graft their Americanness onto an unforced freshness and sense of natural beauty that is entirely English.

See also: Famous Paintings Analyzed.

 

St Ives School

Many English painters - as well as the influential critic Herbert Read - continued to find inspiration at St Ives, and developed a tradition of abstraction (see also Vorticism) that deserves more recognition. Roger Hilton (1911-75) and Terry Frost (b.1915) are among the distinguished artists to have worked there since the war. The joie de vivre that characterizes much of their work testifies to a mood of contentment, if not optimism, that pervades much St Ives School art. In Peter Lanyon (1918-64) the town had a native son, trained in Cornwall, who like Nicholson was happy to blend fine art painting and 3-D sculpture in a free, expressive way that led him naturally to large abstract works, drawing on the characteristics of the local landscape. He met Rothko in New York in 1957, and in scale and breadth his work has links with the New York artists. But his paintings typically have the colours of the English country and seaside - swirling greens and browns shot through with blue and white, the paint thick and energetically applied in big, open-air strokes. These pictures physically embody Lanyon's concern with the organic cycle of life, death and rebirth, and they evoke the outdoors, the rush of fresh wind. It is perhaps poetically appropriate that Lanyon died as the result of a gliding accident.

St Ives, with its white, slate-roofed cottages and narrow streets, intricately winding harbour front and wide bays, seems to have possessed an extraordinary capacity to lead artists forward in the search for a language to express their strong sense of these eloquent surroundings. The inspiration was crucial, since the question of abstraction had not been resolved. Was it an inevitable development, the goal to which every serious painter and sculptor must tend? Or was there always to be an underlying reference to that demanding reality outside? In St Ives it was possible to have it both ways. The place was a kind of abstraction of itself, asking to be drawn and painted.

The English painter Victor Pasmore (1908-98) visited the town in 1950, and about that time broke decisively with representational art, abandoning his delicately coloured, poetic Thames scenes and solidly modelled figure-studies for pure abstraction, which he pursued with evangelical vigour as Director of Painting at the Art School of the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He adopted the new international language of non-representational art, in which he was at once word perfect. But he deliberately allowed his pieces, whether paintings, collages or relief sculptures, to bear the marks of 'do-it-yourself' construction - splintered edges, visible glueing - that are a stamp of authenticity running counter to the ostensibly 'mechanical' quality of these pared-down, ingenious exercises in pure composition.

 

Euston Road School

Before all this, back in 1937, Pasmore had been a founder of the Euston Road School with William Coldstream (1908-87) and Claude Rogers (1907-79) in an attempt to get away from the uncertainty about abstraction and representation. Although they admired much of what had been achieved recently, they felt that painting should be comprehensible to the uninitiated. Coldstream was much affected by the social problems raised by the economic depression of the 1930s. He felt that a truly left-wing art must be generally accessible, not the rarefied intellectuality of abstraction. "I became convinced that art ought to be directed towards a wider public", Coldstream wrote. "Whereas all ideas I had learned to be artistically revolutionary ran in the opposite direction." His own method of dealing with the problem was to subject reality to a careful scrutiny, a measuring by eye, which was transferred to the canvas by means of a half-notional, half-real grid. The grid, which a Euston Road pupil, Lawrence Gowing (1918-91), referred to as a 'scan', gives the pictures a faintly mechanical look that perhaps helps to validate an appeal to modernity if not Modernism. Gowing talked of "an aesthetic of verification", and it is apt that contemporary British philosophy was much taken up with 'Verificationism'. A pragmatic need to state only what is confirmably true permeates Euston Road pictures.

Another Euston Road painter, Euan Uglow (1930-2000), solved the problem by drawing the human body with a ruthlessly systematic objectivity. His 'scan' measures and partitions out head, limbs, torso as elements in a space which seems to imply that there is an exact answer to the question: how do all these parts relate to each other? There is no room for chance; the results are breathlessly balanced, ordained by an inexorable intellectual process. Despite the presence of the figure, this is essentially abstract painting.

Traditional Themes

The master who bestrode the modernist and traditional worlds was Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), and it isn't surprising that some artists found his example valuable in the struggle to forge a workable personal style. Norman Blarney (1914-2000) made Spencer's monumental figure compositions his starting-point, working out complex spatial designs in a bold, simplified language. He also followed on from Spencer's profound religious involvement. His life's work was dominated by a series of paintings recording the rituals of the High Anglican Church. His Scene during the Deanery Mass at St Pancras Old Church, (1960) is a powerful example. Religious themes have not been by any means dead in 20th-century Britain. Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, in the latter part of their careers no longer avant-garde, made large-scale murals for Berwick church, near Charleston, their house under the South Downs. In Kent, at the little country parish of Challock, John Ward (b.1918) executed a lyrical series of Scenes from the Life of Christ (1958), set in the local countryside and with a cast of local people. For many years the walls of the Royal Academy showed paintings by Carel Weight (1908-97) which give voice to a more uneasy, late 20th-century spirituality, setting events of a vaguely transcendental nature in the drab landscapes of suburban London.

Kitchen Sink School

These singular artists found their respective voices largely by opting out of the intellectual battles of the period, and by ignoring its glossy commercialism. For those who engaged in the debate it was this that provided the inspiration for a more complete grasp of reality. In the 1950s the so-called Kitchen Sink School - perhaps the most realistic of all modern art movements - had appeared which took Sickert's love of domestic squalor a stage further: the coarsely handled pictures of John Bratby (1928-92) and Jack Smith (b.1928) glory in the actuality of stub-filled ash-trays, bathroom fittings and messy kitchens. In both America and England a wealth of messages from the street - road signs, advertisements, newspaper photographs - was finding its way into the images of what quickly became known as Pop Art - one of the first international contemporary art movements. And while oil paint did not go out of fashion, the new, industrially produced acrylic painting, with its clean, smooth texture and easy application, offered an appropriately shiny alternative.

British Pop Art

During the mid-1950s, the English painter Peter Blake (b.1932) began to incorporate postcards and magazine covers into his pictures, creating a hybrid of painting and collage - a technique that has its roots in Cubism. From the beginning Pop Art embodied the tensions of the new Anglo-American culture. Blake's Girls and their Hero, 1959 (Elvis), painted in acrylic, records in images borrowed from newspapers and popular magazines the overwhelming British enthusiasm for American commercial music, Rock 'n' Roll and Elvis Presley. In Self-portrait with Badges (1961) Blake identified himself in terms of his current affiliations, interests and loyalties as affirmed by the collection of iconic tin badges he shows pinned on his clothes. The self-conscious youthfulness of artist and accoutrements is representative of the moment.

The growing Pop art movement received a powerful impetus from the friendship of an English and an American artist. R.B. Kitaj (b.1932) had come to London from the States in 1957 and entered the Royal College of Art where he met David Hockney (b.1937). Hockney's student work was in a conscientious Euston Road School vein. His adoption of a Pop manner towards the end of the decade was a striking transformation. Smeared surfaces like old urban walls, covered with random graffiti, become the back-drops to louche encounters, or sometimes constitute the entire picture. Tea Painting in an Illusionistic Style (1961) incorporates the homely Ty-phoo tea packet, placing this version of Pop, for all its Francis Bacon-like ambiguities of space and image, unmistakably in a cosy lower middle-class England rather than in the nervy streets of Manhattan. Kitaj, by contrast, was a cosmopolitan, combining ideas taken from literature, philosophy and art history into kaleidoscopic satires on the modern world that are shot through nonetheless with human compassion. This sympathy warms his beautifully drawn and thoughtful portraits. Hockney too is a fine draughtsman and during the 1970s produced a succession of sensitive studies of his friends and their contrasting domestic surroundings in London and Los Angeles. He quickly succumbed to the attractions of American life and moved to California, where he made pictures that evoke with an entirely appropriate obviousness the sun-drenched, leisurely lifestyle of pool side and palm-lined boulevard. The transformation from muddy, slurred pigment to brilliant, primary-coloured clarity is a remarkable response to the changed environment.

 

The overall gentle irony of these artists gives way to a fiercer satire in the work of Allen Jones (b.1937), who has been obsessed by the use of the female figure in commercial art. The obviously suggestive purpose of these images is satirized in his sharp-breasted, fishnet-legged but often significantly faceless figures with their gaudy colour and slick outlines. There is irony, too, in the social comment of Richard Hamilton (b.1922), whose images, often based on press photographs and advertisements, distil the ethos of the anti-Conservative satire that spread through the media in the 1960s.

School of London

It is worth remembering that the British painter and etcher Walter Sickert (1860-1942) had pioneered the use of newspaper photographs as the basis for pictures back in the 1930s. The identification of a recognizable 'London' quality in painting owes much to the presiding genius of Sickert, though the so-called 'School of London' that flourished in the 1970s couldn't be said to have a single style or approach. Under its umbrella have been grouped many of the artists discussed in different places here according to their preoccupations. Perhaps the coarsely handled swimming-bath or tube-station scenes of Leon Kossoff (b. 1926), with their very heavy impasto and urgent spontaneity, continue to see London through Sickertian eyes. We encounter similarly dense paint in the work of Frank Auerbach (b. 1931), whose technique, like Kossoff's, derives from the later style of Bomberg, who taught them both at the Borough Polytechnic. Like Kossoff too, he chooses London subjects - its people and its landscapes. It is a rewarding experience to penetrate the apparent confusion of Auerbach's contorted surfaces to discover the firm, tautly disciplined structures beneath, whether of a face or of a tree on Hampstead Heath. Michael Andrews (1928-90) by contrast uses paint with great delicacy, specializing in the traditional subject matter of urban daily life, group portraiture and topographical landscape, albeit working on canvases that are sometimes very large.

British Abstract Art

Most of these developments had their parallels in abstract art. The careful scrutiny and measurement of Coldstream's studies of the everyday world are matched in the work of Kenneth Martin (1905-84) and his wife Mary Martin (1907-69), whose paintings and reliefs are a development from Piet Mondrian and Russian Constructivism. They built up their compositions by means of mathematical calculations, placing minimal marks - lines, blocks or spaces - on the canvas not as a consequence of aesthetic decisions but following a carefully planned sequence of 'sums'. The resulting patterns are cool and dry but, in Kenneth Martin's case, surprising and sometimes highly expressive in their understated way. They extend themselves naturally into three dimensions in the form of delicately balanced mobile sculptures. The paintings of Mary Martin, equally coolly calculated, possess a rare stillness and equilibrium.

Op-Art

In the same way, the commentaries of Pop Art on the imagery of commerce and the media found a counterpart in the abstractions of Bridget Riley (b.1931). Riley has been a single-minded exponent of the international Op Art movement that enjoyed its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. This was an approach to abstraction that concentrated on rigid but subtle geometry and optically startling colour combinations. Riley began painting in black and white alone, titillating the eye with finely modulated stripes or dots that seem to flicker, fade or fold out of view as one looks. Her cool, hard objectivity took her so far as to employ assistants in the actual application of paint: the artist's personality, and all representational reference, are deliberately eliminated to an extent that has been unusual in British abstraction - compare Pasmore's anxiety to retain his personal imprint. Mondrian's grids lie at the root of Riley's approach, but it is interesting that when she attempted to make a copy of his Broadway Boogie Woogie she abandoned it, unable to feel her way into Mondrian's creative processes. Her own abstract language is, then, essentially different, and it is one of the most original of the post-war period.

Howard Hodgkin

At the opposite end of the artistic spectrum from Riley and the Martins is the lushly sensuous painting of Howard Hodgkin (b.1932), who has sustained the native tradition of abstraction founded on representation: the nudes and still lifes of Sir Matthew Smith (1879-1959) and the watery landscapes of Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979) all seem to have influenced him. He has painted portraits, interiors, landscapes, all transformed into glowing cauldrons of colour, variegated with polka dots and molten rainbows, in which the very glossiness of the paint contributes to the luxuriant effect. He has spent much time in India, and the brilliant patterns of Indian fabrics play an important part in his work. Even his frames are painted, extending the opulent breadth of his brushwork beyond the picture space and into the room. A younger exponent of the values of lusciously applied colour pigment is Therese Oulton (b.1953), whose often large canvases are inundated by tides of rippling paint, floods of rich, sombre colour illuminated by intermittent flashes of fitful light.

Another abstract painter of Oulton's generation, Christopher Le Brun (b.1951), reflected some of the preoccupations of the New York school in his large, brooding, loosely painted canvases; though his shadowy spaces usually evoke the transcendental in more concrete ways. Recently, especially, he has introduced strong representational elements, often taken from those Symbolist favourites Wagner and Dante. The abstract merges effortlessly into the musical expressionist. Le Brun's move away from the wholly abstract to a representational account of the more ineffable aspects of human longing, nostalgia or pain is symptomatic of an increasing plurality of approach in the last years of the century.

Lucian Freud

Perhaps it is no accident that the presiding genius of painting in Britain at the end of the century is an older artist who has insisted repeatedly on the virtues of the art school- an institution that had seemed seriously threatened in the iconoclastic 1960s and 1970s. Lucian Freud (1922-2011) came from Vienna with his family in the 1930s, and his early work breathes Surrealism and themes of German Expressionism, shot through with the tense anxiety of the early post-war years. But already in his portraits of the 1950s there is an uncompromising fascination - obsession is not too strong a word - with the minute details of the human body. Over the years the scrutiny has become more microscopic, drawing remorseless attention to every vein and pore. We are sometimes reminded of Spencer's earthy nudes, and of his explicit comparison of human with dead animal meat - not perhaps as far from the preoccupations of Francis Bacon (1909-92) as might at first appear. In the long run it has never been necessary for Freud to leave the art school: all his materials are there. The willing model, candidly exposing him- or herself to the artist's intense observation, the significantly unimportant surroundings - a sofa, a roughly draped bed, bare boards. All of this is of ancient lineage, and Freud makes no attempt to dress his subject matter up as modern. Yet it is modern by the very nature of his gaze - uncensoring, unshockable, compassionate. These are the qualities on which we pride ourselves in the aftermath of a liberation that we are still trying fully to understand.

Freud has painted many portraits, though he is not a portrait painter in the old-fashioned sense: he does not cater to self-love, and wishes to flatter no one, least of all himself. It was his grandfather, Sigmund Freud, who made the metier of society portrait painter almost impossible in the 20th century. Now the painter of the human face is almost obliged to set forth his own psychology whatever his ostensible subject. The portraits of Auerbach with their tortured, heavily worked paint are a case in point. But for this reason we should give credit to the many artists who continue to fulfil the function of social portrait painter. They do so in a world that makes it increasingly difficult to respect the old agendas of power, status and wealth that dictated the parameters of portraiture. It is typical of British patronage of painting that portraiture remains a preference. The desire for a recognizable likeness is as strong as ever. Blarney and Ward are among those who have produced technically accomplished portraits for purposes of record, and Howard Morgan (b.1949) has reworked the tradition of glossy flattery so effectively exploited by Thomas Lawrence and John Singer Sargent to create a style very much of its media-conscious moment.

Freud's example has stimulated a fresh interest in the figure, and indeed the last decades of the century saw a revival of subject painting, as in the enigmatic, often Surrealist landscapes and interiors of the Irish artist Stephen McKenna (b.1939), and the fantasies of Ken Kiff (1935-2001), whose fairy-tale stories, some with a Grimm-like horror to them, some comic, are told in simple, childlike forms and vibrant, unmixed hues, often using a dense yet luminous watercolour.

Young British Artists (YBAs)

We have seen how some 20th-century painting - by Nicholson, Martin and others - has tended to lead naturally to sculpture. In recent decades the boundaries between the various media have become increasingly blurred, many artists working in several together. The camera has played a more and more prominent role: still photography, film and video have all entered the arena of mixed-media creativity. Conceptual art has tended to steal the limelight, notably among the 'Britpack', a highly publicized group of enfants terribles led by Damien Hirst who emerged in the 1990s, reinventing in their Britart the old techniques of the avant-garde: bizarre incongruities, everyday objects or erotica are deployed to explore the increasingly diverse experience of modern life. Yet despite this explosion of technical means, many younger artists have adopted painting as an appropriate medium for their reflections on the world. But the mood of the time has been shot through with a self-conscious awareness of the art of past epochs, and there is a steady undercurrent of ironic borrowing, a post-modern love of deconstructing traditional concepts and methods of working.

One of the more overtly traditional of these younger contemporary artists is Peter Doig (b. 1959), who reverts to the recognizable language of the landscape with figures, playing with the patterns of trees against snow (winter sports are a frequent theme), or the inter-relationship of natural and architectural forms. Gary Hume (b.1962) revives some of the brasher aspects of the Pop movement in images that draw much of their effect from a boldly simplified abstraction, projected in the attention-grabbing colours and shapes of advertising.

The desire to offer a critique of recent art-history takes an interesting form in the abstractions of Fiona Rae (b.1963). Her compositions can be read as deconstructions of many 20th-century movements, and allude variously to Picasso, to Bacon, to Pollock. They are built from motifs connected by what appears to be chance. The effect is of taking the possibilities of abstraction to their limit.

Starting from a very different position, Jenny Saville (b.1970) takes Freud's 183 anatomies of the human frame a step further, presenting her vast female nudes in Brobdingnagian close-up, distorted and sometimes deformed like mutants.

By contrast, the Scottish painter Jack Vettriano (b.1951) has achieved enormous commercial success with his formulaic genre painting portraying nostalgic, if somewhat suggestive, man-meets-woman scenes, as exemplified by The Singing Butler (1992, Private Collection).

Despite the prophecies of its imminent demise that have been current for nearly a hundred and fifty years, painting is not yet dislodged from its unique position among the visual arts, and continues to attract serious practitioners while reflecting, with the due thoughtfulness of an older sibling, many of the innovations of contemporary multi-media art. Abstraction pursues its mission to probe the more ineffable aspects of thought and experience, while in a revitalized figurative tradition our humanity is once again examined in terms of individuals and their interaction. Things are rarely exactly what they seem: these artists draw attention to the oddness of life, and of the people who live it: of ourselves. A searching engagement with human reality is vital for the recharging of the batteries of art, and there can be no end to that encounter.

References: we gratefully acknowledge the use of materials from Five Centuries of British Painting (Thames & Hudson, 2001) written by Andrew Wilton. This magnificent work contains a wealth of beautiful images together with an erudite and perceptive explanation of the evolution of British art from 1960-2000: essential reading for any students of UK painting.

 

• For more about the evolution of British painting, see: Homepage.
• For more about 20th century painting and sculpture, see Modern Art, and Postmodernist Art.


Art Movements
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART HISTORY
© visual-arts-cork.com. All rights reserved.