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.