There’s no avoiding the Britishness of British art. It hits me every time I walk outside and see dappled trees against a silver-grey cloud that looks like it was painted by Thomas Gainsborough, or look in the mirror and feel the same gooseflesh anxiety as I do when I see a portrait by Lucian Freud. It’s got something to do with the light — that pale, ever-changing clarity that is so kind to clouds and, when Freud has got his model naked under the skylight, so unkind to human flesh.
The phrase the Englishness of English art was coined by Nikolaus Pevsner in the title of a classic art-history book — though he called it an essay on ‘the geography of art’ — based on his 1955 Reith Lectures. This omnivorous student of art and architecture traced the national character of English art deep into the Middle Ages, arguing that English monks put much more human fun and natural detail into their illuminated manuscripts than their brethren elsewhere in Europe. Well, maybe — but this is where claims for the national character of art can fall down. Is it uniquely English to look at human life and the natural world? Surely such realism was taken to new heights in the 15th century by Pisanello and Uccello in Italy and Van Eyck in Flanders, at a time when there were no British artists of their stature at all.
In fact, a more cynical way to define the Britishness of British art is by its clumsiness, ugliness and gleeful incompetence. Pevsner was writing before the recovery of Henry VIII’s battleship the Mary Rose, with its astonishingly hideous carvings made by ham-fisted sailors. The ‘sculptures’ on the façade of Sir Paul Pindar’s house, a survivor of pre-fire London preserved in the V&A, are not much better.