A brief history of British art

British art is fascinating and filled with an impressive history which made it what it is today. You may appreciate the art produced there without actually knowing the details behind it, as well as the artists and British art movements which influenced this type of art.

To improve your knowledge on this subject, we’ve rounded up all of the essential information you require to help you understand British art in full. Simply read on to uncover everything you need to know and learn all about the brilliance behind it.

Man with glasses admiring Banksy Balloon Girl print

The start of British art

To find out how British art was formed and what influenced it, we first need to start from the beginning. The influences behind the initial examples of British art consist of metalwork, as well as the abbeys, castles, and churches from the Anglo-Saxon period. The famous art historian Ernst H. Gombrich claimed that it wasn’t until the 13th century that artisans (which we call “artists” today) started crafting pictures. Once they began, British artists of the time would produce pictures that were taken and rearranged from older books like the Holy Virgin and apostles.

One important thing to note is that religious art was created in abundance during the middle ages but it was sadly destroyed under King Henry VIII’s rule, with monasteries being suspended under the English Reformation. This led to excellent examples of early British art being completely destroyed, which included thousands of carvings, stained glass windows, sculptures, and paintings that were found within many of the churches and cathedrals.

The history of British art: What is it?

Despite artwork being originally presented in more religious settings like churches, British art isn’t always concerned with religion. In fact, British art is traditionally centred around portraiture and landscape. The Royal Academy is home to some of the greatest pieces and paintings; it has always displayed key influences of British art, to make it as successful as it is today.

Back in 1768, 36 artists and architects congregated at The Royal Academy, signing a petition to seek King George III’s permission to, "establish a society for promoting the Arts of Design." After his approval, this site essentially became the first-ever British school of art, with lectures and exhibitions happening soon after. It marked a special time because it created a space for British art culture to flourish further.

Famous British artists

British artwork would not be what it is today without the artists who paved the way for this art form. The same can be said for those who still produce miraculous pieces in and inspired by Britain today.

For a little more context and to help inform you further, these are some of the most famous British artists and painters to make note of:

Joseph Mallord William Turner 

Joseph Mallord William Turner was born in London in 1775 and yet he is regarded as one of the best English romanticism artists to this day. This British artist was particularly famous for his incredible landscape paintings, being coined ‘the painter of light’ for incorporating vivid colours into his landscape pieces, as well as his seascape artwork. To admire Turner’s work in full, simply venture to Tate Britain, where you will find a number of his paintings displayed.

William Blake

William Blake painting

Born in 1757, William Blake contributed hugely to British art history; this Englishman was not only a remarkable printmaker and painter but a poet, too. Blake is a figure of importance regarding the Romantic period, creating artwork that focused on Christian subjects and incorporating symbolism into his pieces to portray his keen interest in reading and literature.

While he lived, he was quite commonly dismissed as an artist for creating original art that seemed “eccentric” for the time period in which it was produced. It was only after his death that he became a point of interest and people began recognising Blake as a fine contributor to the art world.

Damien Hirst

Bristol-born Damien Hirst was one of the Young British Artists (YBAs) conquering the British art scene during the 1990s, and was born in 1965. His works are widely talked about and admired, with this artist creating pieces that primarily focused on death. It was the obscurity captured in his art that originally made his presence, and his pieces, so well known.

Hirst first brought conceptual art to life, as well as installation art and more traditional art forms like sculptures and paintings. He is actually deemed as the UK’s richest living artist, proven by the Sunday Times Rich List which notes he is worth an estimated $384 million.


Banksy graffiti art featuring "what are you looking at" text next to security camera

The most recent artist of our bunch, Banksy is different from most; he is an anonymous British graffiti artist whose works became known to the public in 1993. Banksy made his mark in the British art world by creating stencil graffiti murals across several locations in the UK. The contemporary art Banksy produces is heavily praised because each piece is created to make political statements on the world we live in. Their controversial pieces bring something entirely new to the British art space, which was once only focused on paintings and drawings, but now leaves room for more modernised art approaches like graffiti.

Some of their most iconic, modern British artworks include:

  • Balloon Girl (2002)
  • Napalm (2004)
  • Love is in the Bin (2019).

Put your knowledge to the test

Having the background knowledge and history of British art really helps to shape your understanding of the artwork produced here today. Now that you’re aware of remarkable British artists past and present, as well as how this art form came to be, you can begin browsing and buying our themed prints to hang in your home.

You can also read through our blog posts on other interesting art-related topics, including our useful guide about pop art artists and their amazing work, as well as top tips for creating your own art studio at home.