“British Art” lay at the margins of art history until the 1980s – the very phrase an oxymoron, a Yale colleague told me, since there is no British art to speak of. A certain introspection haunted even brilliant interpretative essays such as The Englishness of English Art (1956), given as lectures on the BBC Home Service in 1955 by Nikolaus Pevsner. But since then, as the orthodox historiography of modernism has become moribund, the art of Britain and the former British Empire, from the age of Hogarth onwards, has been the site of methodologically lively revisionist thinking. Undoubtedly the collaboration between the Paul Mellon Centre and Yale University Press has spearheaded this development, with an extensive series of beautifully illustrated and often conceptually provocative volumes. Increasingly, other American university presses have published important work in this newly expanded field.
Marcia Pointon, Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England (1993)
Among the first challenges to conceptual orthodoxy in British art of what the Thatcherite heritage industry viewed as a “golden age,” lay in Marcia Pointon’s incendiary Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England. This book identified portraiture as a system of representation located in the emerging social structures of the period. Architectural and market contexts for portraiture emerged more clearly than before, as did practices of collecting and reproducing the genre. But the book’s finest effects lay in extended readings of individual acts of portrayal, such as Zoffany’s self-reflexive conversation pieces depicting the royal family in gilded rooms replete with mirrors and reflections.
Elizabeth Prettejohn, Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting (2008)
The resurrection of Victorian art as a subject of serious study has been one of the more remarkable historiographic reversals of recent decades. This has been led by Elizabeth Prettejohn, whose ambitious treatise Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting provides a rich intellectual context for the rise of Aesthetic painting in Britain. Eloquent interpretations of the key works of Rossetti, Whistler, Leighton and others stand alongside considerations of the writings of Algernon Swinburne and Walter Pater, forming an entirely persuasive account not only of the Aesthetic Movement’s historical importance, but, more importantly, of the irresistible aesthetic power of its finest productions in image and text.
Lisa Tickner, Modern Life & Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century (2000)
A slightly later period, the explosive Edwardian moment, is discussed in Lisa Tickner’s magisterial Modern Life & Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century. The experimental work of British artists such as Vanessa Bell and Wyndham Lewis is located in a cultural and political matrix that allows formal experimentation to carry a radical social valence in relation to the crumbling orthodoxies of gender and class.
Krista Thompson, An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque (2007)
Perhaps the most significant development has been the emergence of a new, theoretically informed and politically engaged historiography of image-making in the British Empire. One among many important titles, Krista Thompson’s An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque, grips the reader with its oscillation between lavish print series and opulent photographs of the plantation landscape, and the graphic culture of tourism: the juxtaposition of pleasure and trauma is vividly revealed. Scholarship in the Indian subcontinent has undertaken both formidable archival research and significant theoretical work in taking on the legacies of colonialism.
Tapati Guha-Thakurta, Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Post-colonial India (2004)
Tapati Guha-Thakurta’s formidable volume Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Post-colonial India, born of the colonial archive, offers a richly textured account of the museums and other institutions that became a space of contestation where arguments about India’s past could be played out in three dimensions. The author’s wry, sometimes elegiac, sometimes satiric, tone reveals the layers of ambivalence and complexity in colonial cultures.
The emergence of new multi-media online journals, notably the innovative British Art Studies, has provided a forum for the emergence of new work in this burgeoning field, which has embraced a far greater diversity of voices in recent years. This is the portal through which one will get first wind of the next great books on British art.
Tim Barringer is the Paul Mellon professor of the history of art at Yale University. He has authored, edited, and contributed to numerous books, including Unto This Last: Two Hundred Years of John Ruskin, Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, Picturesque and Sublime: Thomas Cole’s Trans-Atlantic Inheritance, Thomas Cole’s Journey: Atlantic Crossings, and Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain. His new book, forthcoming in November 2020, is On the Viewing Platform: The Panorama between Canvas and Screen.
Guha-Thakurta, Tapati , Monuments, Objects, Histories: Institutions of Art in Colonial and Post-colonial India. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.
Pointon, Marcia. Hanging the Head: Portraiture and Social Formation in Eighteenth-Century England. London and New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Yale University Press, 1993.
Prettejohn, Elizabeth. Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting. London and New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Yale University Press, 2008.
Thompson, Krista. An Eye for the Tropics: Tourism, Photography, and Framing the Caribbean Picturesque. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
Tickner, Lisa. Modern Life & Modern Subjects: British Art in the Early Twentieth Century. London and New Haven: Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and Yale University Press, 2000.