Naturalised Talents

British art has a rich European heritage. Tate Britain’s new show explores its Continental seam

Michael Prodger

For the best part of two centuries there was precious little that was British about British art. In 1531 the courtier Sir Thomas Elyot complained that: “If we wyll have any thinge well paynted, kerved, or embrawdred, to abandon our own countrymen and resort unto straungers.” Chief among the “straungers” — or foreigners — he had in mind was Hans Holbein, who had arrived in England from Germany in 1526 aged 29. Holbein died on these shores too, an honorary Englishman, and because his work was so far removed from and so superior to anything being painted by native limners, he is the fons et origo of British art.

Holbein also set the pattern that was repeated down the centuries of the foreign painter who came here trailing cross-Channel sophistication in their wake. And this is the subject of Tate Britain’s new exhibition, Migrations, which traces the effect on our art of the foreigners who shipped up in England, whether for economic gain or religious freedom. The list is an extraordinary one: almost every painter of note working here during the 16th and 17th centuries was a foreigner — from Isaac Oliver (French) and Van Dyck (Flemish) to Peter Lely (Dutch) and Godfrey Kneller (German). Indeed large sections of Tate Britain are so non-indigenous that the gallery could be renamed Tate Continental.

There was naturally a degree of fashion involved in the predominance of foreign artists; to patrons they were simply more chic. They were also, with the honourable exception of the underrated William Dobson (1610-46), simply more accomplished than British painters and more innovative too. Some genres that now seem distinctively English were not native. Our marine painting, for example, stems from the work of Willem van de Velde, father and son, invited to live and work here by Charles II in 1672. Our landscape tradition also had its origins in the Netherlands, with the work of Golden Age artists such as Cuyp, Ruisdael and Hobbema.

England had a way of naturalising artists just as it subsumed other immigrants too. In 1700 Daniel Defoe listed the various races to be found in England and noted: “Fate jumbled them together, God knows how;/ Whate’re they were, they’re True Born English now.” In succeeding centuries the artists jumbled together included Zoffany, Fuseli, Benjamin West, Alma-Tadema, John Singer Sargent and Jacob Epstein. Even the most John Bullishly nationalistic of painters, William Hogarth, was strongly influenced by the work of a London-based foreigner, the French engraver Hubert Gravelot.

The exhibition also looks at the various influxes that coincided with traumatic events on the Continent. The reimposition of Spanish Habsburg rule in the Low Countries in 1567 sent a batch of Protestant painters hurrying across the North Sea; the pogroms in 19th-century Eastern Europe meant that Jewish painters such as David Bomberg and Mark Gertler were born here; refugees from the Nazis included Naum Gabo and Oskar Kokoschka; and among contemporary artists Mona Hatoum came here courtesy of the Israel-Palestine conflict while Steve McQueen is an example of artists of West Indian origins.

There is a temptation with the Tate’s survey to think that all the artists who settled in Britain were somehow exceptional. But a look at who was at work in Europe at various times gives this the lie. Marcus Gheeraerts arrived in England c. 1567 and courtesy of his stiff, formal portraits became Elizabeth I’s principal painter but Italian patrons at the same time could call on the suppleness and dynamism of the likes of Annibale Carracci, Tintoretto and Veronese. While we had the pale-faced court women of Lely, the Spanish had the flesh and blood painted by Velázquez and everyone else had Rubens (including briefly Charles I).  

Nevertheless, the British national school founded by Reynolds, Gainsborough, Turner et al would have been impossible without the example of such earlier workmanlike painters: they were the foundation too of our modern internationalism. What this exhibition makes clear, without overplaying the parallels between immigrant painters and the current arguments about the role and value of economic migrants, is just how much we owe our artistic wealth to our porous borders. 

The subject of Tate Britain’s second new year show picks up on the subject, in this case Picasso and Modern British Art. While Picasso never spent much time here he did strongly influence a variety of British artists — just as he influenced artists everywhere — and this exhibition is an attempt to isolate traces of his DNA in artists as disparate as Ben Nicholson, Graham Sutherland, Francis Bacon, Henry Moore and David Hockney.

From the first, Picasso divided opinion in Britain: when Roger Fry first exhibited his paintings at his ground-breaking Post-Impressionist exhibitions in 1910 and 1912 the public hooted with laughter; Evelyn Waugh took to signing off his letters with the exclamation “Death to Picasso”; and Alfred Munnings, the President of the RA, asked Churchill: “If you met Picasso coming down the street would you join me in kicking his…something, something?”

However, the Tate first showed his work in 1926 and there were specialist exhibitions of his drawings in London as early as 1912 and the first retrospective of his work was held in 1931, before there was one in Paris. He also had a faithful and influential group of British collectors and supporters that included Herbert Read, Roland Penrose and Douglas Cooper. These men and artists such as Wyndham Lewis understood Picasso’s importance before he was widely recognised as 20th-century art’s biggest beast.

To make its point, 60 of Picasso’s paintings are among the 150 works on show, an exercise in compare and contrast that suggests no 20th-century British artist of note was immune to his influence. Even though Picasso chose to migrate to France rather than Britain, the idea of him made a new life here.

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