Privilege, pleasure and the picturesque: Painting in England from Van Dyck to Turner

Dr David Oldfield

PaintingPrincely patronage was a hallmark of the rise in painting’s fortunes during the English 17th century. King Charles I was an avid collector of Old Master paintings and his lavish expenditure on the arts attracted the most outstanding portrait painter of his time, Anthony van Dyck, to his court. Van Dyck’s flattering likenesses continued to set the standard for portraits for the next two hundred years. In 18th century England, painting became an increasingly popular interest enjoyed by the many rather than the preserve of the few. A wealthy and diverse class of patrons increasingly favoured British artists whose skill and inventiveness soon equalled and often surpassed the quality of their foreign rivals.

This change in artistic fortunes will be traced through four of England’s most talented artists: William Hogarth, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough and J.M.W. Turner. Hogarth was particularly keen to promote indigenous talent.  His Marriage à la Mode and Rake’s Progress can be seen as a triumph in satirical humour as well as a serious attempt to establish a new narrative tradition in British art. Reynolds was more of an establishment figure, an elitist in his art but a nationalist in his promotion of the Royal Academy. His portraits are renowned for their idealized portrayals and demonstrated a serious understanding of Old Master traditions.  Gainsborough was Reynolds’s great rival in portraiture but was equally important for his development of the landscape genre. Turner’s early landscapes took their inspiration from the British countryside and represent a poetic mixture of the actual and the sublime which continues to enchant us.

In studying the contribution of these and other artists to the English pictorial tradition, particular use will be made of the paintings in the neighbouring Fitzwilliam Museum. We will also travel to Tate Britain in London to enjoy that museum’s sumptuous range of pictures from the period.

Teaching Methods

Teaching is by means of lectures plus tutorial classes (seminars) for the period of the course. The lectures aim to present the general background material, while the seminars are devoted largely to on-site visits to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Tate Britian and Cambridge College collections.

Pre-Arrival Reading:

E. Waterhouse, Painting in Britain 1530-1790

J. Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination

D. Bindman, Hogarth

J. Reynolds, Discourses

J. Gage, J.M.W. Turner ‘A Wonderful Range of Mind’


1 Final Essay (2,500-3,000 words): 50%

1 Final Exam: 50%

Lecture Hours: 12 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 15 hours)

Seminar Hours: 8 x 1 hour 15 minutes (total 10 hours)