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.
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.