British Art  

Love in a Cold Climate

Borrowed from Nancy Mitford, the most French of twentieth-century English novelists, this title sums up perfectly the sometimes surprising links that have always existed between the two Channel countries. From the invasion of England by William the Conqueror to the battlefields of two World Wars, the history of the relations between the two nations is better seen as one of brotherhood rather than mere neighborliness.
Shot through with periods of violence, admiration, exasperation and reciprocal influence, this long history has rarely been assessed in terms of artistic relations. French ignorance of British art is often taken for granted, and Turner aside, English artists with a reputation in France are few and far between. Yet when we pause to examine the place of British art in French collections, the affection of our compatriots for the painting of Reynolds, Lawrence, and Constable, and for Bonington's watercolors, Wedgwood's ceramics and Romney's drawings points to something much more than mere exceptions that prove the rule.
Since the mid-eighteenth century there has been in France a fascination, sometimes acknowledged but often veiled, with British art. It permeates the arts here. The painter Jacques Louis David—to take just one of our great national figures—drew all kinds of inspiration from across the Channel. And to write a history of French Neoclassicism without acknowledging its debt to earlier English innovations would be no easy matter—just as it would seem impossible to explain the Barbizon School without John Constable.
This fascination is reflected in the impressive number of works in French collections. True, there can be no comparison with the quantity of Italian and Dutch art, but the British category—at once so often disavowed and so often brought back into the foreground—would seem to have had very many admirers.
In the eighteenth century Sir Joshua Reynolds was already being collected by Frenchmen like Harenc de Presles, Maréchal de Broglie and the Duc d’Orléans; Paris collectors subsequently developed a passion for John Constable that preceded acclaim in his homeland; and later still came the influence of the second generation of Pre-Raphaelites, and of William Morris and Romney, all of them to be found today in extensive collections still awaiting comprehensive study. Indications of this ongoing interest are to be found in the Louvre, the Musée d'Orsay, the Musée Condé in Chantilly, the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, and the Musée Bonnat in Bayonne, as well as in museums in Dijon, Rouen, Bordeaux, and elsewhere.
The database is the first attempt to provide a more accurate overview of this oft-concealed passion.


Olivier Meslay