The Face of Britain: The Nation through Its Portraits by Simon Schama - review by James Hall

James Hall

Striking Poses

The Face of Britain: The Nation through Its Portraits


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The Henrician Reformation, which ended religious painting in England, was a catalyst for portraiture’s dominance of the country’s visual culture. After Holbein moved from Basel to the court of Henry VIII in London, he became almost exclusively a portrait painter, avoiding virtually every other genre (though he did produce the occasional political allegory and created designs for the decorative arts). The same can be said of Van Dyck after he left Antwerp for the court of Charles I. However, this concentration on a single field of painting was not unique to artists working in England. In the same way, Anthonis Mor and Diego Velázquez came almost exclusively to portray the Spanish court.

It was in the 18th century that portraiture was enshrined as the quintessential English art form, for better and for worse. The mediocre portrait painter but brilliant art writer Jonathan Richardson the Elder (1667–1745) tried single-handedly to create an ‘English School’ of painting. A central plank of his argument was that since Van Dyck, English artists had ruled the roost in portraiture. Empirical philosophy, rooted in

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