British Art  

British art and the fantastic

In the second half of the eighteenth century British artists, influenced by their own writers and philosophers, took up a new, "Gothic" vein featuring ghostly beings in contexts of a disturbing unreality. This development is explicable in terms of a certain English literary tradition: plays by Shakespeare (1564–1616) such as The Tempest (1611) and A Midsummer Night's Dream (1600) use faery creatures drawn from a parallel world; and later, in his 1667 epic Paradise Lost, John Milton (1608–1674) presented Lucifer, Prince of Darkness, and his vast army in their battle against God. Almost a century later, in 1757, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful by the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke (1729–1797) gained immense popularity for a notion of the sublime that would leave its mark on artists and art theoreticians for decades to come. "The sublime" here is that feeling of amazement and terror induced by a sight at once awesome and distressing; and taken onto the plane of aesthetic contemplation the concept offered the West an alternative to the classical, serenely harmonious ideal of beauty inherited from the Renaissance.
Inspired by Burke, then, and by a Gothic literary tradition soon reinforced by The Monk (1796) by Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818) and Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley (1797–1851), British artists set about producing a plethora of works in this vein. Considered the first English Gothic masterpiece, The Nightmare (1781) by Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) created a sensation when shown at the Royal Academy. Fuseli went on to specialize in depictions of the fantastic often taking their inspiration from Shakespeare or Germanic mythology. The draftsman, engraver and poet William Blake (1757-1827) specialized in similarly inspired engravings and illustrations. Throughout the first half of the nineteenth century painters like Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851), John Martin (1789–1854) and Francis Danby (1793–1861) worked a distinctive lode of sublime landscapes for the most part involving floods and other natural upheavals. Another singular genre was that of "fairy paintings", of which Richard Dadd (1817–1886) can perhaps be considered the leading exponent.
France's public collections have recently begun to provide a more faithful reflection of this specifically English phenomenon. Fuseli, for example, is well represented in the Louvre with a particularly striking, Shakespeare-inspired Lady Macbeth (1784, acquired 1970) and a group of drawings. Also worthy of note is the portrait of Fuseli by Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) in the Musée Bonnat in Bayonne. In the same vein and from roughly the same period, the Louvre offers a remarkable set of drawings by George Romney (1734–1802), including The Lappish Witch Watching a Shipwreck in a Storm, acquired in 1991, and Lawrence's striking Satan and Beelzebub, a preparatory work for a large painting presented at the Royal Academy in 1797 (acquired 1980). It was not until 2006 that the Louvre bought its first Blake watercolor drawing, Death of the Strong Wicked Man, and its first painting by John Martin, the 1841 masterpiece Pandemonium. Richard Dadd's Titania Sleeping has been on show there since 1997.
Guillaume Faroult