A history of art
British art and artists have been inspired and influenced by artistic developments across the world over many centuries and as part of western art has greatly effected how we live our lives and perceive the world around us. The art created during each period was shaped by historic social and cultural forces, as well as the tools and materials available.
One of the earliest recognized pieces of prehistoric art is the Venus of Willendorf, created around 30 000 BC by nomadic hunter gatherers. It is a fertility symbol in the form of a small female sculpture. Among the best known examples in Britain of prehistoric art are the chalk hill figures, such as the Uffington White Horse in Oxfordshire, which is believed to have been carved nearly three thousand years ago.
Ancient Egyptian Art
From approximately 6000 BC human developments began along the river Nile which culminated in the civilization of Ancient Egypt. Religion and a belief in the afterlife shaped ancient Egyptian art and culture, leading to the wealthy and powerful being wrapped as mummies and placed within pyramids, along with many of their accumulated works of art. Death masks ensured their spirit would recognize the coffin containing their body and the four sons of Horus guarded internal organs removed from the embalmed corpse, whilst wings provided the deceased with divine protection. During the eighteenth and nineteenth century British archaeologists were prominent among the Europeans who began digging in Egypt and uncovering long buried works of art, some of which can now be seen in places such as the British museum.
Classical Greek Art
The roots of Greek culture lie in the Aegean island of Crete, where from around 3000 BC, first Minoan and subsequently Mycenean civilization created great works of art and architecture. The period in Greece between 800 BC and 323 BC saw the flowering of its Classical period from when many of its greatest works in the arts and sciences date. British art and culture has been greatly influenced by the artistic works created in ancient Greece.
Roman art and architecture flourished in Italy from around 200 B.C. to the 4th century A.D. They were inspired by Classical Greek art and often created art to celebrate their leaders. The large scale of much of Roman art and architecture was designed to convey a sense of power over smaller structures around them. In the 5th century A.D. the destruction of the ancient city began and pagan temples were either torn down to be used as raw materials for new buildings or converted into Christian places of worship. However the influence of Roman art continues to be felt across Europe, particularly in countries such as Britain which once formed part of the Roman Empire and where evidence of such works can still be found.
During this period great cathedrals were built with decorative sculptures, paintings and mosaics depicting biblical events and characters and visions of the afterlife. Also decorated books of the Gospels known as illuminated manuscripts were created. In a sense the mentality of this period was closer to that of Prehistoric humans, who created art to represent their beliefs in magic, fertility and the hunt.
The revival of Classical learning known as the Renaissance began in Italy in 1400 AD, from where it spread across Europe, leading to a renewed interest in the art of Classical Greece and Rome. The years from 1420 to 1500 are called the Early Renaissance, whilst the the years from 1500 to 1530 are called the High Renaissance. During these years artists developed masterful control of their materials, creating works of balanced, classical harmony. Subsequently, the period known as Mannerism began, which although still technically part of the Renaissance was a phase during which elegance was the aim of artists. Between 1600 and 1700 Baroque artists such as Carravaggio and Rembrandt created realistic portrayals of all levels of society. After Rococo art between 1700 and 1750 became overly concerned with ornament, neo-classical work between 1750 and 1880 was inspired by Classical Greece and Rome. The Renaissance began to influence art in Britain later than on the continent, with the arrival in England of artists such as Hans Holbein during the Tudor period.
From the 1870s to 1940s, Modernism grew from the Renaissance rejection of a Medieval God centered world order and its replacement by a humanist Classical world view. Artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and Edvard Munch used vibrant colours and shapes in their work to describe emotions rather than realistic depictions of the world. Influential modern British artists include Henry Moore and John Nash.
Post Modern Art
Post-Modernism tended to reject broad human narratives in favour of personal expression. Photography was now seen as a better recorder of events in the real world than art. Conceptual artists use common everyday objects to make personal statements, whilst Minimalism reduces art to its simplest elements such as a line or blank canvas, which is intended to have no meaning beyond what the viewer might apply to it. Well known British artists that emerged during the late twentieth century include Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst.
Tools of the art trade
1. Palette: This flat surface, traditionally made of wood, allows artists to mix paints. By blending colours on the palette, artists can achieve the desired shade or hue for their work.
2. Easel: Typically crafted from wood, the easel holds canvases or paper in place. With the help of an easel, artists can work at an appropriate height and angle, ensuring comfort and precision.
3. Brushes: These tools, with bristles made often from animal hair or synthetic materials, apply paint or ink to surfaces. Brushes come in various shapes and sizes, allowing for different strokes and textures.
4. Chisel: Used primarily in sculpture, the chisel helps artists carve and shape materials like wood or stone. With a chisel, intricate details can be etched, and forms can be defined.
5. Palette Knife: This thin, flexible blade assists artists in mixing paint or applying it in a thick, impasto technique. The palette knife can create unique textures and layers in a painting.
6. Charcoal: This carbon-rich medium allows artists to create sketches or finished drawings. With charcoal, varying degrees of darkness or smudginess can be achieved.
7. Mahl Stick: A rod, often with a padded end, provides stability for artists, especially when working on detailed sections. By resting a hand on the mahl stick, artists can avoid smudging or damaging their work.
8. Etching Needle: Used in printmaking, this tool etches lines onto metal plates. Once inked, these plates can be used to make prints, reproducing the artists original etching multiple times.
9. Printing Press: A machine that applies pressure to inked surfaces, transferring the image or design to paper. In traditional art, the printing press revolutionised the distribution of images and ideas.
10. Stretcher Bars: Wooden frames onto which canvas is stretched to create a tight working surface. With the canvas secured on stretcher bars, artists can ensure their work remains free from wrinkles or sagging.
Historically, these tools have played pivotal roles in the creation and dissemination of art within the UK and beyond. Their significance transcends mere utility, often symbolising the rich tradition and heritage of artistry.
Materials used in art
1. Clay: Sourced from the earth, clay is a malleable material. In the UK, it has been sculpted into pottery and ceramics for centuries, with places like Stoke-on-Trent being renowned for their ceramic heritage.
2. Wood: A versatile medium, wood can be carved, sculpted, or used as a canvas. British woodcraft ranges from intricate furniture designs to traditional shipbuilding.
3. Wool: Often sheared from sheep, wool serves as a foundational material for textile arts. British artists and craftsmen weave, knit, and felt wool into garments, tapestries, and more.
4. Stone: Durable and timeless, stone is chiselled and shaped into sculptures and monuments. Britain boasts many historic structures and statues, crafted meticulously from native stones.
5. Feathers: Often sourced from birds like geese or swans, feathers are used for embellishments or as integral parts of artworks. Historically, they were also utilised in the UK for quill pens.
6. Bone: With its robust structure, bone has been carved into intricate pieces of art, tools, or jewellery. Anglo-Saxon and Viking artefacts in British museums often showcase bone craftsmanship.
7. Leather: Derived from animal hides, leather is treated and crafted into a range of art pieces from bound books to decorative wall hangings. Traditional British leatherwork remains a testament to its enduring appeal.
8. Plant Fibres: Materials like flax, hemp, or nettles are woven into textiles or used for papermaking. The UK has a rich history of producing linens and handmade papers.
9. Shell: Often sourced from coastal regions, shells are incorporated into art pieces for their natural beauty or transformed into tools and decorative items. British coastal artists frequently employ shells in their creations.
10. Beeswax: A pliable and organic substance, beeswax serves as the base for encaustic painting, wherein artists fuse pigmented wax onto surfaces. Beeswax also plays a role in traditional candle making across the British Isles.
The rich tapestry of British art and craft has long been intertwined with the bounties of nature. These natural materials, each with its unique properties and history, have helped mould the artistic narrative of the nation.
Techniques of art
A range of art forms have been developed over the centuries and across cultures, such as painting, sculpture and photography. They can be defined by the characteristics of the materials used and the techniques employed to create them. For example, a photographer could spend time carefully studying a subject, changing their position to observe how the elements work together and the effects of light falling upon them. A painter might practice composing pictures by creating collages from different shaped pieces of coloured paper and images cut from old magazines or photographs that they have taken and printed out onto paper.