James Hall

Striking Poses

The Face of Britain: The Nation through Its Portraits

By Simon Schama

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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,

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