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Naturalised Talents
January/February 2012

Sir Peter Lely's "Susanna and the Elders": His work influenced the British national school (Tate) 

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.

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