What is Englishness?

Stourhead garden.

Stourhead garden.

I believe it’s fair to say that English artists, especially those predating modernism, are seldom thought of in the same breadth as their past French and Italian counterparts for example. We think of excellent artists such as Michaelangelo, Da Vinci and Raphael, and realize, there were no artists of that stature in England at that time; there was little display of that iconography that was so despised by Henry VIII, which was typified by his ordering the wreckage of Catholic monasteries in England during the English Reformation.

Yet, ever since that dissolution of the monasteries where much art was lost, the English have responded by producing many wondrous and haunting works of art. Indeed, they have cultivated such a fertile imagination, that several facets of it have become synonymous with how people view English culture. In point of fact, outside the realm of painting, it would be hard to separate the sporty and jovial prose of P.G. Wodehouse, the sweet Baroque fountains and greens of “Brideshead Revisited,” and England’s picturesque countryside from our perception of that umbrella term that is Englishness.

To think of Englishness though, we have to go back to one of the earliest images fermented by the English imagination, which is that of the courtly cavalier during the reign of King Charles I. This, however, was not an image conjured up by an English artist. The artist responsible for the creation of this high society image was the Belgian, Anthony Van Dyck. Born in Antwerp in 1599, he would become an assistant to Peter Paul Rubens, the archetypal Baroque painter. However, Antwerp became too small for those two well-reputed artists. Van Dyck left his native city and soon found himself in great demand. He was so successful abroad in Italy especially, that he was noticed by the sophisticated English king, Charles I. Charles, a patron of the arts, was so impressed by his elegant handling, that he contrived for Van Dyck to become the leading artist of his stylish court. Shortly after his appointment, Van Dyck received a knighthood.

Knighted and immersed in Charles’ sumptuous Stuart court, Sir Anthony Van Dyck set to work in a completely different manner than that of the stiff and ornamental nature of Elizabethan portraiture that pervaded before him. Indeed, his style must have been something of a shock to his aristocratic sitters. His supple hand and flamboyant rendering of charismatic gestures matched the opulence of his subjects; quite the contrast to the sober tastes of the Elizabethan era. Van Dyck, it would seem, was a match made in heaven for the English aristocracy at that time.

Anthony Van Dyck, "Charles I at the Hunt," 1635.

Anthony Van Dyck, “Charles I at the Hunt,” 1635.

This heavenly match is illustrated in one of his best known works, the haughty “Charles I at the Hunt.” The king seems to defiantly stare at the viewer in the exact knowledge that he wields the Divine Right of Kings; that he is God’s manifestation. In this picture, it does seem like, to steal a phrase from the art critic Robert Hughes, “even God is an Englishman.” Charles I is seemingly God-like in this work, and Van Dyck makes no attempt to downplay this perception. Despite this however, he depicts Charles in a way that almost supersedes his divinely status; it’s as if he were the 17th century “King of Cool” in a way. Still, looking at Charles’ conceited gaze, I see the typically evoked English gentleman: pompous and self-assured. Seeing him depicted in such a manner, it’s as if he’s no different from the dignified Duke of Wellington for instance. In this sense, Van Dyck set the standard for what people visualize when they think of the refined English gentleman.

While it can be entirely debated whether Van Dyck really qualifies as an “English gentleman” himself, there can be no doubt that many of those who he depicted were that to the utmost degree, even to practically mythological proportions. It’s hard not to be impressed by the depictions such as he did for Charles I, but what surely enthralled English artists at the time was his capacity to depict the Stuart court with such nobility and charisma, that his images eventually became apart of England’s collective memory.

Anthony Van Dyck, "Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart," 1638.

Anthony Van Dyck, “Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart,” 1638.

There’s maybe no better example of Van Dyck’s debonair cavaliers, than that of a painting he did of “Lord John Stuart and his Brother, Lord Bernard Stuart.” These two young, suave teenagers were posing for Van Dyck just before going off on the Grand Tour; a rite of passage which would have seen them traversing the European Continent in search of its wonders and pleasures, both intellectual and sexual. They died some years later during the English Civil War.

Nevertheless, in the painting, they are depicted so dashingly by Van Dyck. The younger brother, Lord Bernard, is not even attempting to hide his showiness, as can be seen with his dapper silk suit and the glove on his hip. Meanwhile, he is contrasted by his practically boorish brother, Lord John, who instead of expounding his haughtiness like his other brother, is more absent-minded and duller in comparison. Either way, combined, they are most harmonious and striking. Van Dyck painted them with great aplomb. Though, when looking at these so very cavalier subjects, it’s important to remember that they are represented as they would have wanted to be; that is, a portrayal that would preserve their likeness, but also hide any ugliness that would make them look less attractive and convincing. But after all, as a newspaper man once said in a John Ford western, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Even though Van Dyck most certainly needed to embellish a bit, he was an artist who greatly contributed to how people perceive England’s past.

Strawberry Hill House

Strawberry Hill House

And when perceiving that past, you cannot forget its country houses. There’s one so quirky it could only be devised by the mind of some eccentric, well-off Englishman. The country house I speak of is the 18th century Strawberry Hill House and its mastermind was Horace Walpole, an English art historian, man of letters, and novelist.

Right off the bat, the name “Strawberry Hill” hints of the whimsicality of the occupant. Despite how trivial the name may appear, Walpole was serious in his convictions about designing a house that would be different from the two prevailing architectural styles of his time: the Palladian and the Rococo.

Palladian architecture was based on the writings and work of the 16th century Italian architect, Andreas Palladio. His tastes adhered to the graceful classical orders of antiquity. Many English architects attempted to imitate his manner; to them, to imitate the Palladian look was the sought after ideal. Now, on the other hand, there was the Rococo style. This approach – and I’ll be going into it in more detail later – was abhorred by the English. Its flippancy and hyperbolic decadence was a response to the robust drama of the Baroque style.

Example of Palladian architecture.




Walpole though, did not intend his house to be along the lines of a Palladian villa or a Rococo palace. As a man of leisure, he wanted to erect a building that would seem romantic and lighthearted; a reflection of his personality. He decided to resurrect the Gothic style as his blueprint for Strawberry Hill.

It was while in this gloomy grandeur that Walpole wrote the first Gothic novel, “The Castle of Otranto,” who’s literary descendants include such volumes as “Dracula,” “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “Rebecca.” He led the rebirth of the Gothic, a style that he reconfigured in such a way as to include the macabre; a sense of a foreboding atmosphere and the ever lurking horror of death.

Interior of Strawberry Hill House.

Interior of Strawberry Hill House.

But Strawberry Hill does not totally follow that conception. Walpole, in his wildly original vision, included a smattering of history throughout his house: there is the “Tudor” chimneys, “medieval” battlements, a chamber with Holbein drawings and distinctly Gothic arched windows dispersed throughout the house. He also intertwined elements from other Gothic monuments and buildings for inspiration, which can be seen by modelling a rose window after one in St. Paul’s Cathedral and a fireplace after a tomb from Canterbury Cathedral. Above all, Walpole intended to create “a picturesque journey from dark to light,” from the murky entrance hall and stairway, to the luminous Gallery, with its ceiling of gold and white plaster and red walls. Combined with the effort to showcase his collection of antiquarian objects, you can get a sense of Walpole’s kaleidoscopic imagination and how truly impressive it was. Strawberry Hill went on to influence many connoisseurs and students of architecture, thus aligning the direction of architecture with a more Gothic sensibility.


Stourhead garden.

To accentuate the qualities of a villa, often times, the surrounding landscape was considered so as to create a sort of Eden for those that were well-off at the time. It is evident in another popular perception of Englishness: that of a stately villa tucked away among ancient oak trees, winding lakes and weathered hedgerows during the sting of summer. This is possibly the most quintessential view of what many think of whenever England’s landscape is mentioned. Over time, this classic notion of cricket games and fox hunting held during a typical English summer has resulted in both endearment and revulsion. For the latter, this depiction may seem only a short step away from saying one of the most dreaded of sentimentally cliche phrases: “as English as a cup of tea.”

But as with many cliche perceptions, there was a point when it wasn’t entirely unoriginal. The mellow and sacred imagery of country greens and mute swans in secluded private lakes does have a basis in reality. These vistas were made a reality by Englishmen like William Kent and Henry Hoare II.

Garden at Rousham House, designed by William Kent.

Garden at Rousham House, designed by William Kent.

It is not at all a coincidence that, in the 18th century, the English should have perfected their own idealized paradise: the landscape garden. Numbed by the miles long Versaille hedges and alleyways that extended far beyond the domains of the actual palace, many Englishmen were shocked by the extravagance that they would have criticized as emblematic of the absurdity of the Rococo movement. They simply could not understand why the rest of Europe was so infatuated with the Rococo. To the English at the time, that movement was in completely bad taste and England was thus largely devoid of any signs of its presence. In contrast to the French, the English were more intrigued by seeing a landscape through the eyes of a painter.


Rousham House statue.

This is where minds like Kent and Hoare come in. The more notable of them, William Kent, was primarily responsible for the Palladian architectural elements and the “painterly eye” that were pivotal in English landscape gardening. His vistas of bridges, temples, statues of ancient Roman and Greek gods, were meant to add to the impression that a visitor were taking tour of a picturesque landscape, descending to the next temple or arcade in the next glade; all elements meant to represent the Roman campagna.

The Roman campagna was the subject of paintings by brilliant artists like Claude Lorrain. It was this artist that Kent and his admirers sought to emulate. They wanted to devise landscapes that might charm a painter’s eye. Their idea of nature was based on the paintings of Lorrain and this can be especially seen in the Stourhead gardens.

Claude Lorrain, "Pastoral Landscape: The Roman Campagna," 1639.

Claude Lorrain, “Pastoral Landscape: The Roman Campagna,” 1639.

The rustic gardens were designed by Henry Hoare II. The temple in the background is Palladian. Hoare had even dammed a stream on his estate, thereby creating a large lake. He had even acquired a painting, “Aeneas at Delon,” by the Baroque landscape artist Nicolas Poussin. Excerpts telling of Aeneas’s odyssey are quoted in the temples surrounding the lake. The pastoral gardens are striking in their pictorial qualities. The pastoral gardens pictorial qualities, with its obelisk tower, ruins and foliage give the impression that one is seeing a Utopian-type view of an Italian landscape. Due to a design that favors nature more than rampant artificiality, it makes for a perfect “idyllic” setting.

When thinking of England’s villas and surrounding gardens, you might also think of its well-bred horses; particularly, a horse and rider on an effervescent English afternoon. You likely know the type: an upper class rider clad in their equestrian apparel, such as a top hat and red riding jacket; possibly against the backdrop of some woods or valley. This contribution to the English imagination reached its apex in the work of a curmudgeon, Colonel Blimp-like artist, Sir Alfred Munnings, former president of the Royal Academy of Art.

He was indeed quite conservative in his tastes, and in particular, he was a most outspoken opponent of modern art. In a scene always associated with the man, Munnings made some acerbic remarks on modern artists in his retirement speech in 1949 at the Royal Academy of Art. Not only did the audience contain the then Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chief Justice and Winston Churchill, but also millions of people listening over the BBC Radio.

Munnings, after having a few stiff drinks, lambasted modern art for its unconventional tastes. “If you paint a tree,” Munnings resoundingly declared, “for God’s sake make it look like a tree! If you paint a sky, for God’s sake make it look like a sky!” To his right, he motioned to his ally and crony, Winston Churchill: “I know he is with me because he once said to me, ‘Alfred, if you met that Picasso coming down the street, would you join with me in kicking his something something something? I said, ‘Yes sir! Yes I would!'”

Munnings was less out spoken in his art. By the very nature of his paintings, there is a quaintness to his so very sacred imagery, as if it were not just his Arcadia, but an Arcadia for him and his cronies.   While a landscape architect like Kent or a portrait painter like Van Dyck may create their own idealized paradises or portrayals of a person, in Munnings’ works, however, there’s a clear sense of how fine that line is between thoughtful idealization and insufferable adoration. Munnings’ oeuvre comprises an idyllic Albion, which looks just too easy to believe – if he really wanted to “paint a sky” befitting reality, then maybe he should have looked more at the work of John Constable than George Stubbs, because, to me, looking at Munning’s equestrian paintings is like deja vu – Stubbs and his like did this before. Horseflesh is often depicted, but, unlike Stubbs’ “Whistlejacket” for instance, the horses are often secondary to the riders. Munnings was neither adept at rendering skies, trees or horses. It’s art that was easy to fathom to his aristocratic audience and devoid of any real style. Compared to Van Dyck, Munnings is too much a copier of Stubbs and not even good enough to boot.

Maybe if he had looked beyond his nation, like Kent or Walpole, or brought something new to the cultural scene like Van Dyck, might Munnings have created works that are more than just easy to look at. The greatness of Strawberry Hill, the Stourhead gardens and the portraits of Van Dyck did not just transpire solely through English genes. Maybe, the blimpish Alfred Munnings should have been more open to the man he hated: Picasso. “Englishness,” more than people might like to admit, does not just exist in its own sphere, devoid of foreign ideas.


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