Why didn't Britain use its vast navy to get past trench warfare?

Before the start of World War I there was a large arms race between Britain and Germany and although Britain didn't come out with the largest army - they had by far the largest navy in the world. This raises the question, if British had such a large navy why didn't they use it to evade the German trench lines and attack unsuspectingly from behind? The trenches couldn't possibly exist in the oceans! Britain could've easily used its navy to either surround or outflank the German trenches.

Britain didn't use their navy because ships don't work on land. You need boots on the ground to exert control. They could have bombed the few coastal cities and fortifications, but it wouldn't have achieved much. It would still be necessary to break the enemy line and posses their territory which the ships couldn't do. All that could be achieved is the capability to bomb the crap out of a small section of trenches slightly more than land based artillery alone could manage.

The small advantages they had weren't completely without risk either. Just because a fleet is larger doesn't make it invincible there is always the risk the smaller feat can destroy the larger one. And in addition to enemy naval ships there are still mines and coastal fortresses to worry about. On mines specifically from Wikipedia

The total number of mines laid in the North Sea, the British East Coast, Straits of Dover, and Heligoland Bight is estimated at 190,000 and the total number during the whole of WWI was 235,000 sea mines.

The potential gain just wasn't there for the navy to be that useful in breaking trench warfare. Amphibious assault just wasn't a very practical approach until WWII technology was introduced.

The British tried a large scale amphibious landing during WW1 (1915) at Galipoli. It was a complete disaster. The experience went bad enough for them that they gave up on the idea for the next several decades until better equipment and air power made the idea feasible during WW2.

Operation Shingle during WW2 is an example of this idea of large scale amphibious flanking. The idea was to land in Italy to outflank the German Winter Line. This operation was marginally successful but came with massive risks and almost failed abysmally. Add to this that British forces would not have the numerical advantage that the Allies would have over the Italian and German forces in WW2 and little armour would be available to push home any advantages gained before the Germans responded.

The landing at Cape Helles and the Battle of Tanga show two different ways during WW1 that these assaults (which are both risky by nature and during WW1 still in their tactical infancy) can go horrible wrong.

While the British did have dominance of the North Sea, the German High Seas Fleet had not been defeated at Jutland and doubtless would have contested such a landing. A landing that incidentally would have been very close to their base at Wilhelmshaven (but not too close, because the German North Sea coast was heavily mined, which would also have been a severe tactical constraint).

There are three main answers :

  • The German High Sea Fleet was in a position to threaten the Royal Navy until the Battle of Jutland (1916).
  • The German had laid a very large number of mines to protect their shores (which explains why the German High Sea Fleet survived after the Battle of Jutland where they had been (almost) trapped by the Royal Navy.
  • Gallipoli in 1915 was a complete disaster precisely because of the mines (as well as poor leadership), so the new front had to be opened in Greece and Serbia (with Franchet d'Esperey) rather than directly in Germany.

Trent Affair

The Trent Affair was a diplomatic incident in 1861 during the American Civil War that threatened a war between the United States and the United Kingdom. The U.S. Navy captured two Confederate envoys from a British Royal Mail steamer the British government protested vigorously. The United States ended the incident by releasing the envoys.

On November 8, 1861, the USS San Jacinto, commanded by Union Captain Charles Wilkes, intercepted the British mail packet RMS Trent and removed, as contraband of war, two Confederate envoys: James Murray Mason and John Slidell. The envoys were bound for Britain and France to press the Confederacy's case for diplomatic recognition and to lobby for possible financial and military support.

Public reaction in the United States was to celebrate the capture and rally against Britain, threatening war. In the Confederate states, the hope was that the incident would lead to a permanent rupture in Anglo-American relations and possibly even war, or at least diplomatic recognition by Britain. Confederates realized their independence potentially depended on intervention by Britain and France. In Britain, there was widespread disapproval of this violation of neutral rights and insult to their national honor. The British government demanded an apology and the release of the prisoners and took steps to strengthen its military forces in British North America and the North Atlantic.

President Abraham Lincoln and his top advisors did not want to risk war with Britain over this issue. After several tense weeks, the crisis was resolved when the Lincoln administration released the envoys and disavowed Captain Wilkes's actions, although without a formal apology. Mason and Slidell resumed their voyage to Europe.

Yes, Germany Could Have Won World War I (And Changed History Forever)

Imperial Germany was a nation too clever for its own good. Case in point: invading neutral Belgium. From a military perspective, advancing to Belgium was a brilliant move to sidestep north of the French armies and fortifications on the Franco-German border, and then turn south to capture Paris and encircle the French armies from the rear. It reflected the traditional German preference for mobile warfare (Bewegungskrieg), which favored superior German tactics, rather than a static war of attrition (Stellungskrieg) that could only favor their numerically superior opponents.

A strategic masterstroke? Indeed. It also may have lost Germany the war.

When it comes to alternative history, the Second World War is king. Dozens of books and wargames suggest how history would have changed if Hitler had invaded Britain or not invaded Russia. Want to know what happens when a Nimitz-class supercarrier goes back in time to battle the Japanese fleet at Pearl Harbor? There's a movie for that. What would the world be like if Nazi Germany had won? Plenty of novels paint a dark portrait. Would the Third Reich have triumphed if it had developed jet fighters sooner? Such topics are like incendiary bombs on Internet chat forums.

Yet fascinating as these questions are, why are they any more fascinating than asking what would have happened if Imperial Germany had not invaded Belgium in 1914, if the Kaiser had built more U-boats, or if America had not entered the war? If it is plausible to imagine a historical timeline where Hitler won, then why not one in which the tsars still rule Russia, the British Empire was never exhausted by war, and the Ottoman Empire still controls the Middle East?

Perhaps it is the grim aura of fatalism that discourages speculative history of the Great War. The sense that no matter what, the conflict would have been one long, miserable slaughter, a four-year live performance of "Paths of Glory." But the combatants were not drones or sheep, and the conflict was more than mud, blood and barbed wire. There was mobile warfare in Russia and Poland, amphibious invasions in Turkey and guerrilla campaigns in East Africa.

It is also easy to assume that German defeat was inevitable at the hands of an Allied coalition richer in manpower, weapons and money. Yet Germany nearly captured Paris in 1914, crushed Serbia and Romania, bled the French Army until it mutinied, drove Russia out of the war, and then came oh-so-close to victory on the Western Front in 1918. Don't underestimate the power of Imperial Germany. Until the armistice was signed in a French railway carriage on November 11, 1918, Germany's enemies didn't.

Let's look at what might have been. Here are a few possibilities in which history could have been very different for Germany:

Avoiding a two-front war:

If twentieth-century Germany had a tombstone, it would say "This is What Happens to Those Who Fight on Two Fronts". Much as kung-fu movies make fighting multiple opponents look easy, it's generally better to defeat your enemies one at a time.

That was the idea behind Germany's Schlieffen plan, which called for concentrating on France in the opening days of the conflict while keeping weaker forces in the East. The key was to defeat France quickly while vast and underdeveloped Russia still mobilized, and then transfer forces by rail to settle accounts with the Tsar.

However, Russia did attack into East Prussia in August 1914, only to be surrounded and annihilated at the Battle of Tannenberg. They lost 170,000 men to just 12,000 Germans in one of history's most famous battles of encirclement. Yet the Russian advance also frightened German Army Chief of Staff Helmuth von Moltke into transferring three corps from France to East Prussia. They arrived too late for Tannenberg, while depriving the Western offensive of vital troops at Germany's best time to overcome France and possibly end the war.

From then on, Germany had to spread its forces between West and East, while supporting its Austro-Hungarian and Turkish allies. Just what Germany could have accomplished—had it been able to concentrate on just one front—became painfully clear in 1918. After forcing the new Soviet government to sue for peace, the Germans quickly transferred 500,000 troops to France. They also unleashed innovative new stosstruppen (stormtrooper) infiltration tactics—an early form of blitzkrieg without the tanks—that enabled them to break the trench-warfare deadlock.

Kaiserschlacht ("Kaiser's Battle") offensives shattered several British armies and compelled British commander Douglas Haig to warn his troops that their backs were "to the wall." After four years of unrelenting combat and economic blockade, Germany still had the strength to achieve more in weeks than four years of bloody Allied offensives at the Somme, Passchendaele and Chemin des Dames.

Ideally, Germany could have found diplomatic means to have fought against Russia alone without war with France, or vice-versa. Failing that, and given the shorter distances in the West, it would have been better to have temporarily conceded some East Prussian territory while concentrating on capturing Paris. It might not have been easy, but it would have been far easier than fighting on two fronts.

Not Invading Belgium:

Imperial Germany was a nation too clever for its own good. Case in point: invading neutral Belgium. From a military perspective, advancing to Belgium was a brilliant move to sidestep north of the French armies and fortifications on the Franco-German border, and then turn south to capture Paris and encircle the French armies from the rear. It reflected the traditional German preference for mobile warfare (Bewegungskrieg), which favored superior German tactics, rather than a static war of attrition (Stellungskrieg) that could only favor their numerically superior opponents.

A strategic masterstroke? Indeed. It also may have lost Germany the war.

Britain had guaranteed Belgium's neutrality. That "scrap of paper" had been derided by German leaders, but the parchment would cost Berlin dearly by giving London a casus belli to declare war. Now Germany faced not just France and Russia, but also the immense military and economic resources of the British Empire.

France had a population of 39 million in 1914, versus Germany's 67 million. Can anyone imagine France alone defeating Germany? It failed in 1870, and it would have failed in 1914. Russia could boast of a population of 167 million people, yet shortages of weapons, supplies and infrastructure rendered it a giant with feet of clay. Despite keeping much of their army in France, the Germans were still able to drive Russia out of the war by 1918. Without British support, even a Franco-Russian combination would probably have succumbed to German might.

The entry of Britain and her empire added nearly 9 million troops to the Allies. More importantly, it added the Royal Navy. The French battle fleet was half the size of Germany's and was deployed in the Mediterranean against Germany's Austro-Hungarian and Turkish partners. The Russian navy was negligible. It was Britain's Grand Fleet that made possible the blockade that starved Germany of raw materials and especially food, which starved 400,000 Germans to death and sapped civilian and military morale by late 1918.

It is quite possible that Britain might have declared war on Germany anyway, just to prevent a single power from dominating the Continent, and to preclude hostile naval bases so close to England. But if Germany had managed to stave off British entry for months or years, it would have enjoyed more time and more resources to defeat its enemies.

Don't Build a Big Surface Fleet

Imperial Germany's High Seas Fleet was the second most powerful navy in the world in 1914, behind Britain's Grand Fleet. It mustered fifteen dreadnoughts to Britain's twenty-two, and five battlecruisers to Britain's nine. German surface ships enjoyed better armor plating, guns, propellant and fire control systems than their British rivals.

And what did this powerful surface fleet accomplish? Not much. Its capital ships rarely left port, which also left the British blockade in place. If the German fleet could not break the British blockade, impose its own blockade of Britain, or enable a German amphibious invasion of England, then what was it good for?

It did have value as a classic "fleet in being", staying in port while waiting for an opportunity to pounce, and threatening the enemy just by its existence (Churchill described Royal Navy commander John Jellicoe as the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon). But its main contribution was provoking the British into regarding Germany as a threat even before the war began. Challenging the Royal Navy's maritime supremacy through a naval arms race was the one move guaranteed to arouse the British lion.

Despite ambitions of becoming a global colonial empire, Germany was still a Continental power in 1914. If it won the war, it would be through the immense power of its army, not its navy. What could Germany have bought with the money, material and manpower tied up in the High Seas Fleet? More divisions? More guns and aircraft? Or best of all, more U-boats, the one element of German naval strength that did inflict immense damage on the Allies.

Why didn't Britain use its vast navy to get past trench warfare? - History

The Race to the Sea

Both sides raced to get to the English Channel first to outflank each other.

  • Belgian resistance.
  • German retreat from the Marne.
  • German attempt to capture ports.
  • The Battle of Ypres.
  • The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was destroyed but the German advance was halted.

Germans tried and failed to outflank British and French armies by sweeping north. After the failure of this, they went for the English Channel to seize ports instead. This would cut BEF retreat meaning no British reinforcements.

British arrived first and the Belgians flooded countryside, delaying the German advance. The Allies were concerned with protecting the port cities and ensuring that aid from Britain continued to arrive.

The British made a stand at Ypres this was the first Battle of Ypres (19th October – 22nd November 1914):

  • 19th October - 22nd November 1914
  • British arrived at port-Had to defend it from Germans
  • They dug trenches at Belgian town of Ypres
  • Battle lasted 1 month
  • Hand to hand fighting in forests resulted in 50,000 British casualties, 8000+ deaths
  • The BEF destroyed Germans causing 20,000 deaths
  • Failure to gain control of channel meant the German advance was halted and the ports were saved

This battle and many others have become linked forever with The First World War. Along with the Battle of the Somme , the battles at Ypres and Passchendaele have gone down in history. The town had been the centre of battles before due to its strategic position. The sheer devastation of the town and the surrounding countryside seems to perfectly summarise the futility of battles fought in The First World War.

This video looks at t he stabilisation of the fronts including the First Battle of Ypres in the West Austrian defeats in Serbia and in Galicia in the East. Reprisals against Germans in Britain, mass enlistment in the British Empire, and Christmas at the front lines.

Stalemate and the beginning of Trench Warfare

A Stalemate occurred between the two opposing armies and were unable to move

This video provides an overview of life in the Trenches

The Trench System:

  • Protected and sheltered soldiers.
  • Easily defended.
  • Easily built and maintained.
  • Allowed soldiers to shelter for winder.
  • Allowed the use of artillery pieces.
  • Allowed soldiers a chance to rest.
  • Allowed the chance to test new weapons (machine guns and gas).
  • Immobile and stationary.
  • Prolonged confrontation. This caused problems such as:
  • Trench foot.
  • Dysentery.
  • Shell shock.
  • And other diseases.
  • Cost millions of lives to defend trenches.

Life in the Trenches:

Shell shock was a mental illness which caused soldiers to lose the will to fight after prolonged exposure to enemy fire. It was not recognized as such then and victims were often shot for cowardice.346 soldiers from the British were shot for cowardice.

Why was there stalemate for three years?

  • Trench system persisted.
  • Infantry could not attack through barbed wire.
  • Cavalry charges were hindered by the terrain of no man’s land as well as the barbed wire.
  • Failure of new weapons.
  • Gas masks negated the dangers presented by most types of poisonous gases.
  • Early tanks were slow and unwieldy and would often break down.
  • Artillery was inaccurate and often churned up no man’s land to such a degree that infantry and cavalry charges became impossible.
  • Artillery pieces could not remove barbed wire:
  • Explosions only picked these up and threw them around, creating an even greater tangle than before.
  • Flamethrowers were unreliable and other blew up during use.
  • The machine gun was overly successful. They accounted for heavy casualties on both sides.

The commanders did not know how to fight such battles.

  • Commanders believed that using large numbers was the only way to defeat the enemy:
  • By killing enemy soldiers, they thought they could win the war.
  • They thought that the only way to achieve a breakthrough was to penetrate enemy lines and gain access to open country.
  • This would allow them to maneuver again.
  • They thought that the only way to penetrate enemy lines was to start a massive artillery bombardment of a chosen sector and follow it up with a massive infantry assault:
  • This battle plan did not change at all even though it only kept failing.
  • As commanders changed they kept trying to achieve a breakthrough it became a challenge for them and they kept using the same tactics based upon the policy of attrition. They knew not just how much death and misery their tactics were causing the soldiers on the battlefield.
  • They thought that they needed to prove that their tactic was a good one.
  • Each time they launched an attack the only change was adding more artillery shells and more troops.
  • To them no alternative appeared to exist.

Maintaining fixed positions only generated boredom and eventually despair. France only wanted to recovery the territories she and Belgium had lost to Germany. This preoccupation hampered British-French strategy.

At the beginning people felt the war would be over by Christmas 1914 and so they joined the army for a share of the glory. They were sadly disappointed and this had a devastating effect on the morale of soldiers on both sides. Messages from the front were censored by governments and so the citizens at home had no idea what was going on in the Front.

By 1917 the growing sense of despair and lack of purpose (the political purposes had been lost amid the death and destruction caused by the war and by the never ceasing deadlock) caused widespread discontent in the French and Russian armies. Both sides had equal forces, there was a tragic equilibrium where both sides kept trying but gained nothing.

French commander in chief thought the Western Front was the only battle worth fighting. The British thought that the war in the east against the Ottoman Empire was very important and so the military priorities of Britain and France often clashed.

On the Eastern Front there was also stalemate. The Russians fought using a tactic that had brought them victory against European invasions in the past:


Two members of the Home Guard © Meanwhile in Britain anti-invasion defences of all types had been planned and executed with incredible speed since late May. At the same time a new force had been organised to help defend the country.

The Local Defence Volunteers (LDV) had been raised on 14 May 1940 and comprised men too old or too infirm to join the regular army or in protected trades and thus exempt from conscription. On 23 July, the force became known as the Home Guard, after Churchill coined the phrase during a BBC broadcast.

By the end of July one and a half million men had volunteered, a huge figure which reveals the seriousness with which ordinary people took the threat of invasion in the summer of 1940.

Ironside's only option was to set up a static system of defence which, he hoped, could delay German invasion forces after landing.

On 27 May Churchill had put General Sir Edmund Ironside, Commander-in-Chief Home Forces, in charge of organising Britain's defence. Ironside acted quickly. He had a large force at his disposal, but one that was poorly armed and equipped and generally poorly trained.

In the circumstances, Ironside's only option was to set up a static system of defence which, he hoped, could delay German invasion forces after landing and so give Britain time to bring its small mobile reserves into play.

If the Germans could be delayed on the beaches and then delayed as they pushed inland their timetable could be thrown off balance, they could lose impetus, direction and initiative and the British army might be able to counter attack effectively.

The key to Ironside's pragmatic plan was defence in depth. Southeast England was to offer a series of barriers or stop-lines formed by concrete pillboxes, gun emplacements, anti-tank obstacles, trench systems, minefields and barbed wire entanglements and utilising natural and man-made features such as rivers, canals and railway embankments. They were to ensnare and delay the German forces.

The Germans, of course, had their own script for the battle and their detailed air reconnaissance of Britain in early 1940 meant that the stop-lines would have held few surprises for the attackers.

But, whatever happened, Ironside was determined that this would be a battle of attrition. At the very least the Germans would be made to bleed before they achieved their objectives.

By 25 June, Ironside's anti-invasion plan was complete and presented to the War Cabinet as Home Forces Operations Instruction Number 3. This Instruction gave detail to Ironside's defence theory.

There was to be a coastal 'crust' that was to consist of a thin screen of infantry deployed along the beaches. This crust was to disrupt enemy landings long enough to allow the arrival of local reinforcements.

Behind the coastal crust a network of stop-lines of various strengths and significance were constructed to slow down and contain or channel any German advance. The final and main position of resistance was the General Headquarters Anti-tank Line (the GHQ stop-line). This was the backbone of Ironside's coordinated defence plan.

The line was planned to stretch from around Bristol in the west then east to Maidstone and running south around London passing just south of Guildford and Aldershot, then northeast to the Thames Estuary.

Then beyond that, through Cambridge and the fens and up the length of England, running inland parallel with the east coast but able to defend the major industrial centres of the midlands and the north, and up to central Scotland. An auxiliary GHQ line was also to be established around Plymouth.

5. Mir Jafar

Britain ruled India for almost 200 years. How is it possible for such a small, far-away country to invade and conquer one of the richest, most populous places in the world? The answer is Mir Jafar.

At the Battle of Plassey, Robert Clive of the British East India Company bribed Mir Jafar to betray the Indians in Bengal in 1757. His mid-combat betrayal allowed 3000 British troops to best the Nawab of Bengal’s army of 50,000. The British captured Calcutta, then moved on to the rest of India.

Jafar was made the new Nawab. Today, Jafar’s name is equivalent to the American “Benedict Arnold” and the European “Quisling.”

Architects of victory

Prime Minister David Lloyd George, 1916 ©

Without the navy, Britain could not have stayed in the war. Although it fought only one fleet action, at Jutland on 31 May 1916, it prevented the German navy from breaking out of the confines of the North Sea.

In this way, maritime trade between the Entente powers and the rest of the world, and above all the United States of America, was sustained. Britain became the arsenal and financier of the alliance, weathering even the German decision to declare unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917.

But Britain did more than that. It provided a mass army as well. Lord Horatio Kitchener may have called that army into being, but the principal manufacturer of the tools with which it fought became David Lloyd George.

Britain became the arsenal and financier of the alliance.

As chancellor of the exchequer, Lloyd George struck deals with the labour movement to ensure the provision of skilled workers. As minister of munitions, he converted industry to war production. And as prime minister from December 1916, he committed Britain to a war on both the domestic and fighting fronts.

The strategic architects of the war did not like him, but they could not think of a better substitute.

Britain . In The Vietnam War?

But Britain was never involved in Vietnam? Find out why that's not quite true.

Winston Churchill, and later Harold Wilson, may be thought of as having kept Britain out of Vietnam, but in actual fact, that was only once it had begun to escalate.

Here, retired Colonel William C Haponski, co-author of ‘Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam’, explains that the British were in fact one of five main players in early post-World War 2 Vietnam.

The other four were the French, the Japanese, the Chinese and, of course, the Vietnamese themselves. Their rivalries helped shape the country and the war that the US would later step into.

Article by Colonel (Ret) William C Haponski

By early March 1945, the Japanese were in a precarious position.

Battle Of Britain: The Inside Story Of How The Luftwaffe Was Beaten

Advancing American forces across the Pacific and British forces in Southeast Asia had placed them in a stranglehold and the possibility of the government in Indochina suddenly taking the side of the Allies was real and immediate. (As per the Vichy Regime’s arrangement with the Nazis in France after the invasion of 1940, the French had remained in power in Indochina but under the thumb of the Japanese).

In Saigon, on 9 March, 1945, the Japanese secretly gave the French Governor-General an ultimatum: Turn over administrative control of all Indochina and disarm, confining French troops to barracks, or face the consequences.

He refused, and, under arrest, wasn’t able to get an order to his forces to resist. Pre-positioned Japanese troops soon swept down upon them, rapidly overrunning them – as they had the British in Malaya and then Singapore in 1941 - 42.

Some French garrisons fiercely resisted. When General Lemonnier was ordered to surrender his entire command or face death, he refused, and was forced to dig his own grave before being beheaded.

Post-coup, the Japanese, on paper at least, gave Indochina its independence (while still controlling it, as they had the Vichy French.)

For their part, the Vietnamese made full use of total Japanese control of the French by strengthening themselves for the struggle they felt sure would follow.

But this new political order ended in a flash – literally - on August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb debuted, first destroying Hiroshima and then Nagasaki a few days later.

When Emperor Hirohito then gave notice of unconditional surrender on August 15, Japanese forces in Indochina were stunned. They were undefeated! They still had their weapons! They could still fight!

In fact, Hirohito’s broadcast had come while the British were still locked in combat with them – the Allies getting ready to invade Japan itself should they have needed to.

Passing the baton

Following the Emperor’s shocking announcement of unconditional surrender, the Japanese in Vietnam lent support to the best organised revolutionaries – the Viet Minh – in order to impede French efforts to regain control of the country.

In several places, they opened their arms depots to the Vietnamese*.

(*This didn’t necessarily mean the Viet Minh. Some historians misuse that term. In fact, many Vietnamese belonged to non-Communist organisations but were nonetheless anti-French revolutionaries – a political persuasion widely shared by both groups and individuals).

They also continued to hold their French prisoners for another month after the surrender. Furthermore, a number of Japanese, especially members of the Kempeitai—the Japanese Gestapo—deserted and went to train and lead Viet Minh units. A few Japanese soldiers were still fighting right up until the French war with Ho Chi Minh’s government ended nine years later, soon after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

Return of the status quo?

There were a little under 100,000 Japanese soldiers still in Indochina at war’s end and, somehow, they had to be repatriated.

The British were assigned the job of shipping back all those south of the 16th parallel, the Chinese all those north of it. (The dividing line between north and south Vietnam was eventually established as the 17th parallel during the 1954 Geneva Conference).

SEAC (South East Asia Command) Supreme Commander Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten delegated the job to General Douglas Gracey.

As it happened, Gracey’s men had been fighting the Japanese only a few weeks prior, though not in Vietnam but in Burma (now Myanmar.)

1) Securing the Saigon area, including the HQ of the Japanese Southern Army

2) Disarming and concentrating all Japanese forces

3) Maintaining law and order and ensuring internal security

4) Protecting, succouring and subsequently evacuating Allied prisoners-of-war and internees

5) Liberating Allied territory insofar as his resources permitted.

He was meant to do all of this with a mere 22,000 men, many of whom weren’t even initially available. He’d be dealing with 56,000 undefeated Japanese troops as well as vast numbers of armed and angry Vietnamese hellbent on independence.

Still, he wouldn’t, at least, have to disperse his men all over the south of the country.

That’s because not contained in those early orders, though well understood by Gracey, were some key provisos: to confine his efforts to Saigon only and to let the French fight the Vietnamese.

Troops, troops and more troops

Just as Gracey was dispatched by Mountbatten and the SEAC, the French were planning to put their own man on the ground.

General Philippe Leclerc was given his orders right from the top. Charles de Gaulle’s instructions to him basically read:

Enter Indochina and restore the status quo.

‘Status quo’ in this case meant pre-war colonialism, exactly the thing that made Gracey’s boss Mountbatten so concerned.

For his part, the American regional commander had no such qualms. On 2 September, while aboard the USS Missouri, watching the official Japanese surrender, General Leclerc received a key bit of advice:

Amenz des troupes, des troupes, encore des troupes.

It meant, ‘Bring troops, troops, and more troops’, and the man who’d given the advice was General Douglas MacArthur.

Back on land, Vietnamese in Hanoi had generally been in a hopeful, celebratory mood ever since the official Japanese surrender and Ho’s simultaneous declaration of an independent republic.

But elsewhere, ominously, tensions were building.

The Indochinese Communist Party (ICP) was inciting violent demonstrations all over the country. Mandarins (public officials) had been killed in Hue, and murders of Frenchmen and Vietnamese not supportive of the Viet Minh had begun in earnest.

The SEAC reported that events had taken a grave turn and that revolutionaries had proclaimed a state of siege and great confusion was reigning at Saigon:

Newspapers had been suspended.

The crowd in the centre of the city became frenzied and shots were fired.

A Catholic priest who was watching the demonstration was dragged from the steps of Saigon Cathedral, stabbed repeatedly then shot to death.

Five other Frenchmen were also killed, and many others were dragged off and beaten.

Finally, ‘The Communists’ had seized crossroads at strategic points and cut off electricity.

With Ho having already gained the upper hand in the North, immediate action was needed to prevent Saigon and the South more generally from going the same way.

Back in Burma, Gracey told his boss Mountbatten that absolute control of the Japanese was essential and, when contacted, Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi promised the British would get it. It was time to team up against ‘The Communists’.

But it can be seen that even at this early stage, western military and political leaders simply didn’t understand the situation on the ground. Although SEAC dispatches almost exclusively used the term ‘Communists’, the Vietnamese revolutionaries they were so worried about were, in fact, a mishmash of different units and individuals. What they had in common wasn’t Communism but a determination to achieve independence and a better life. In fact, after the Vietnam War, one communist leader agreed with an American writer that the average guerrilla wouldn't have been able to tell the difference between dialectical materialism** and a rice bowl.

(**A founding tenet of Communism, dialectical materialism refers to an intellectual outlook in which dialectics are used instead of debates. Unlike the latter, which seek to prove one side right and the other wrong, a dialectic is an exchange of opposing ideas designed to arrive at a higher truth, a better understanding of reality. Materialism refers to the notion that these dialectics should focus on material matters such as money, food, the means of production, how to organise the economy etc rather than on more abstract concepts).

British boots on the ground

The first British soldiers to arrive in Vietnam did so on September 5, 1945.

They were a medical team that parachuted into Saigon and they were followed the next day by more troops arriving at Tan Son Nhut airfield.

The first Free French detachment from the exterior arrived on 12 September and came under Gracey’s control, though he himself landed on September 13.

When he did so, he was greeted by a crowd of cheering French civilians who waved Union Jacks as he drove past them.

Happy as he must have been to get such a jubilant reception, he no doubt would have preferred more hard than soft French power. As it was, he could only muster perhaps 1,000 French troops from the 11 Colonial Infantry Regiment (11 RIC) – these were the only men left fit for service from a unit at least twice that size after six months spent in Japanese captivity.

Recruitment For The Brigade Of Gurkhas

Weapons supplies were also inadequate – the first RIC men released from confinement had only bamboo staves and a few old firearms for protection. Though at this early stage, their Vietnamese opponents weren’t much better armed themselves – one Gurkha serving under Gracey was injured by a shot from a bow and arrow.

Still, the French managed to take control of two munitions supply points in the Saigon area and Gracey sought to restore law and order more generally. The assumption was that Field Marshal Terauchi’s Japanese officers and soldiers, who also greeted Gracey upon his arrival, would help him to do that.

This assumption was wrong.

The French in the ascent

By the evening of September 23, the French government had been reinstalled in Saigon. Vietnamese control of essential services and places—such as police, jails, crossroads, bridges, electric and water plants, Radio Saigon, banks—had been swept aside by Gracey.

But the Vietnamese weren’t going quietly, and in this they were enabled by Japanese complicity.

When Vietnamese revolutionaries broke into a French residential area on September 25 and slaughtered 150 men, women and children, Japanese soldiers in command of the sector stood aside. This would be the first of multiple incidents of deliberate Japanese negligence.

Gracey was absolutely livid and gave Terauchi a vicious tongue lashing which whipped the Japanese into compliance, though only temporarily.

Gracey’s temper would soon flare again.

After France’s four-star General Leclerc had arrived in Saigon on October 5 and placed himself under Gracey’s two-star command (an arrangement that made sense, given the preponderance of British versus French troops at that point), the breach of a negotiated ceasefire by the Viet Minh resulted in two deaths. One was a British officer and the other was one of Gracey’s beloved Gurkhas.

The normally good-natured Gracey thundered:

A French battalion-sized commando unit had arrived from Ceylon and the next day joined a British operation that killed and captured many enemy in a serious battle at the eastern edge of Saigon.

Some Japanese soldiers participated but, as per the emergent trend, on both sides.

Even more bizarrely, a Japanese deserter later led a Viet Minh unit into the attack against a Japanese unit under Gracey’s command.

Such was the political muddle of post-WW2 Vietnam.

In any case, beyond these immediate problems, Gracey and Leclerc proved to be a magnificent double act. Under this arrangement, the French Expeditionary Force gained strength, and then, with Mountbatten’s permission, combined British, French, and Japanese forces pushed well beyond Saigon.

In fact, they brought enough security to South Vietnam generally to allow Gracey to accept another assignment.

Amid cheers on 28 January, 1946, he left Saigon, having passed control to General Leclerc.

When he departed, so too did the sum total of Britain’s role in the Vietnam War: restoring order and then repatriating the Japanese back to their homeland… but so too, re-establishing and ensconcing the French – until they were dislodged at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

After that, it would be America’s turn.

To learn more about the origins and conduct of the Vietnam War, read ‘Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam’ by Colonel (Ret) Haponski and Colonel (Ret) Jerry J Burcham.

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Article references: Dunn, Peter M. The First Vietnam War. London: C. Hurst, 1985 and Marr, David C. Vietnam 1945: The Quest for Power. Berkeley: U California Press, 1995.

Autopsy of an Unwinnable War: Vietnam, can be picked up here using the code AUTOPSY for a 20% discount.

Why Britain punched above its weight

Reversing Britain’s ‘decline’ has been the avowed aim of pro-Brexit politicians. But in their view, decline is mostly a problem of the mind. Jacob Rees-Mogg, in a speech on 27 March 2018, blamed the Suez debacle of 1956 for permanently undermining the nation’s self-confidence, so that “the establishment, the elite, decided its job was to manage decline” and try to “soften the blow of descending downwards”. That led, he said, to “the notion that it was Europe or bust”, but instead the result, he added, was Europe and bust. That’s why, insisted Rees-Mogg, Brexit was vital for national rejuvenation. The same line has been trumpeted by Boris Johnson as Britain’s prime minister. What’s needed is “optimism”, greater “self-confidence”, more of the “can-do spirit”. In short, a failure of will, not lack of power, has got us into this mess. But willpower can get us out of it.

The debate about decline is not just a Brexit-era obsession. It is almost hardwired into any nation’s rise to international prominence, thanks to the haunting image of imperial Rome. The historian Edward Gibbon, at the end of his classic The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788), called Rome’s collapse “the greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene in the history of mankind”.

In the 1900s – facing the challenges of imperial overstretch and mindful of Gibbon’s narrative – Tory politician Joseph Chamberlain urged the consolidation of the empire as an economic bloc, in the hope of continuing “for generation after generation the strength, the power and the glory of the British race”. Winston Churchill, inveighing in the 1930s against the idea of granting self-government to India, blamed this on “a disease of the will”, asserting “we are victims of a nervous collapse, a morbid state of the mind”. And Margaret Thatcher, during her very first election campaign in 1950, affirmed her “earnest desire to make Great Britain great again”.

However, terms like ‘greatness’ and ‘decline’ need to be unpacked. Today the UK remains one of the wealthiest and most significant countries in the world. Although its place in global rankings is not comparable to the days of Victorian pre-eminence, that’s not surprising, and no amount of willpower could have made a difference. In fact, the fixation with ‘decline’ – seen as real or psychological – misses the essential historical point: what’s truly remarkable is the story of Britain’s ‘rise’.

Great Britain stood in the forefront of the great surges of European expansion that shaped the world between 1700 and 1900: commerce and conquest in the 18th century, industry and empire in the 19th. All these movements were intertwined with the lucrative Atlantic slave trade – half of all Africans carried into slavery during the 18th century were transported on British vessels – and the profits from that trade lubricated Britain’s commercial and industrial revolutions.

The country’s principal advantage was a relatively secure island base during what was still the age of seapower. Unlike rivals such as France and Prussia/Germany, which shared land borders with dangerous neighbours, Britain could shelter behind the English Channel – what Shakespeare called the country’s “moat defensive”.

Insularity did not guarantee immunity – in 1588, 1804 and 1940 invasion threats loomed – but it did free Britain from the necessity of a large standing army, the norm on the continent. The Royal Navy, however, was deemed essential, not just for defending the island but also because Britain was dependent on importing food and raw materials and needed to protect its seaborne commerce from peacetime privateers and wartime enemies.

Britain’s insular position left it well-placed to capitalise on a series of great wars against France. Whereas French leaders from Louis XIV to Napoleon Bonaparte had to fight their primary battles on land against continental foes, Britain was able to divert more of its resources to the struggle for global empire. The Seven Years’ War of 1756-63 left the British in control of most of North America and, although 13 colonies won their independence during the next world war of 1776–83, Britain held on to what became Canada and the British West Indies. During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of 1793–1815, the British had to weather invasion threats and periods of economic isolation, but in the end they gained total victory.

With the destruction of French seapower, Britain’s fleet was now spread around the globe at key strategic points from Gibraltar to Singapore. It was also the world’s main colonial power – paramount in India but also well entrenched in Australasia and Africa. Indeed it was the ‘multiplier’ effect of empire that made Britain great. At the start of the 20th century, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland had only 42 million people, whereas the population of the USA was 76 million and of tsarist Russia 133 million. When the inhabitants of Britain’s overseas territories were included, however, the arithmetic looked different. At its peak after the Great War, the British empire covered nearly a quarter of the Earth’s land surface and encompassed a similar proportion of global population, more than 500 million. France accounted for only 9 per cent of the Earth’s land surface and 108 million of its people. During the Second World War, the UK mobilised 5.9 million people into the armed forces, while the ‘white dominions’ – Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – raised nearly 2.5 million, and India more than 2 million.

Britain’s ability to project power through a formidable navy and merchant fleet rested on the fact that it was also the world’s first industrial nation. The country’s initial manufacturing boom had been driven by the cotton trade. By 1830 raw cotton made up a fifth of Britain’s net imports, and cotton goods accounted for half the value of its exports. The next growth sector was iron and steel, stimulated by the railway mania of the 1830s and 1840s and then sustained by British dominance in the finance and construction of railways around the world. By 1860 a country with only 2 per cent of the world’s population was producing half the world’s iron and steel and generating 40 per cent of world trade in manufactured goods. Britain boasted the largest GNP (Gross National Product) in the world, despite vast inequalities of wealth, and its population enjoyed the highest average per capita income.

Yet Britain’s economic advantage was bound to be reduced once the process of industrialisation spread to countries with larger populations and greater resources – Germany in the late 19th century, America during the 20th century and China in the 21st. The United States and the People’s Republic are both countries the size of a continent, benefiting from a huge workforce, abundant natural resources and a prodigious tariff-free internal market.

The predominant British response as others caught up economically was to consolidate existing advantages. That was Joseph Chamberlain’s answer: build an imperial trading bloc to protect Britain’s position in textiles and heavy industry. More enduring than his “imperial preference” was the country’s naval-industrial complex – based on integrated steel, armaments and shipbuilding firms such as Vickers, Armstrong Whitworth and John Brown – as well as the Royal Dockyards, which later diversified into tanks, aircraft and missiles. The “warfare state”, to use historian David Edgerton’s term, matters as much in the history of modern Britain as the welfare state. And the network of global seaborne trade generated banks, insurance and other financial services built around sterling as a global currency. After the demise of the sterling area in the 1960s, the City of London adapted its skills to the Eurodollar market and the development of an immensely lucrative and lightly regulated offshore banking sector.

But not even these innovations could prevent the global balance of force shifting against Britain. International rivalries intensified from the 1860s (after a half-century of peace since 1815) with the scramble for Africa in the 1880s and 1890s and the attempted partition of China at the turn of the 20th century. Otto von Bismarck’s new German empire – created by victories over Denmark, Austria and France – became the greatest military power on the continent. In 1871 Benjamin Disraeli warned that “the balance of power has been entirely destroyed and the country which suffers most… is England”. Confronting the expansion of a militaristic Germany drew Britain into two world wars during the first half of the 20th century, which cost more than a million lives.

The turn of the 20th century also witnessed the eclipse of Britain’s naval supremacy. In 1883 the Royal Navy boasted 38 battleships the rest of the world had 40. In 1897, the balance had shifted to 62 against 96. By this time the Russian empire had expanded across Asia to the Pacific, generating friction along the borders of British India. And other new non-European powers were emerging. Japan had industrialised and turned its economic strength into military might, defeating Russia in a war triggered by rival imperial ambitions in north-east Asia in 1904–05.

The growth of these rivals exposed the fact that Britain was, effectively, “an artificial world power”, to quote the German commentator Constantin Frantz in 1882, because its “territorial basis” was “just a European country” and its resources came from far-flung colonies connected to the home island only “through the threads of the fleet”. Britain was not a vast continental empire like the USA or the USSR (after each had surmounted its crisis of civil war – in 1861–65 and 1917–22 respectively). During the Second World War, the German and global challenges became intertwined, with devastating consequences for Britain. The fall of France within a month in 1940 left Adolf Hitler dominant across continental Europe Britain’s hopes of victory now depended on the United States. And the Nazi triumph emboldened Italy and Japan to jump into the war, obliging the Royal Navy to confront three foes when it had only enough seapower to deal with two.

Britain’s imperial bluff was finally called in the winter of 1941–42. Pearl Harbor triggered a Japanese blitzkrieg across south-east Asia that undermined the credibility of the European empires. Images of gawky British officers in baggy shorts signing the surrender of Singapore and then marching off to Japanese prison camps were beamed around the world, shattering the image of racial superiority on which British power relied. And the panic offer of independence to India in the crisis of 1942 had to be honoured after the war – beginning the domino-like process of decolonisation.

The summer of 1940 – the heroic evacuation from Dunkirk and victory in the Battle of Britain – dominates Britain’s standard national narrative of the Second World War, while the impact of the imperial disasters in 1941–42 has been largely ignored. Yet in the country’s global history, ‘Singapore’ matters far more than ‘Suez’.

Technologies of warfare were also changing. Britain’s insularity counted for much less in the eras of airpower and then ballistic missiles. Hostile states could now vault over the Channel ‘moat’. And in the atomic age, Britain lacked the means to repel, or even deter, aggressors. Hence its reliance on the postwar world’s leading superpower, the United States, and on Washington’s security umbrella in the form of the Atlantic alliance. The UK’s so-called ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent depends on US missile systems – initially Polaris and latterly Trident.

None of this means that Britain is irrelevant in world affairs. To this day, it’s the only European member of the Western Alliance, apart from France, to maintain a capacity for power-projection outside the Nato area. Although precise rankings ebb and flow, in 2017 it was the 10th-largest exporter and fifth-largest importer, and ranks among the top three in both inward and outward foreign investment. The result is a position in power and wealth that one might expect for a post-colonial state of its size, population and resources. And the country’s history, culture and language constitute immense ‘soft-power’ assets.

But that’s cold comfort if you’re obsessed with the ‘G’ word, with a version of ‘our island story’ that features past greatness, without understanding how and why it came about. Especially if you fail to appreciate the role of the empire in Britain’s historic wealth and power. From such perspectives, any feeling of being on the same level as countries that ‘we’ defeated in the past, especially Germany, makes relative decline seem like abject humiliation.

Where might Brexit fit in this story? We don’t know and it will take years to find out. Neither side in the 2016 referendum had any detailed plan for ‘exiting’ the EU. ‘Leave’ was a brilliant PR slogan but it did not address the complexity of extricating the country from an international organisation in which the UK has been entangled for nearly half a century. Brexit is not something that a leader can deliver like a parcel or a pizza. It will take years.

And the ‘G’ word doesn’t help. The Brexit mess since 2016 has left the UK divided (both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain), with its self-belief dented and its global image for stability and common sense badly tarnished. A leader might be tempted into trying to “make Great Britain great again” through military muscle and diplomatic brinkmanship. But perhaps different defi-nitions of national ‘greatness’ are needed in the 21st century.

One driver of Brexit was a sense of alienation against the metropolitan elite. This reflected the dominance of London throughout Britain’s global heyday, as the centre of government, finance, trade and high culture. And it was also testimony to the persistent neglect of economic diversification north of the Midlands, after Britain’s staple industries – first textiles and coal, later steel and cars – were undermined by global competitors. Economic historian Jim Tomlinson has argued that ‘deindustrialisation’ not ‘decline’ is the most appropriate narrative framework for post-1945 British history.

Governments of both major parties have not seriously addressed this challenge. They didn’t promote new forms of employment when towns dependent on coal, steel or textiles had their main industry closed down. They have failed to foster the skills needed for a flexible life of work, especially in the robot economy. And they haven’t addressed England’s ‘devo-deficit’, exposed by the flourishing of devolved governments in Scotland and Wales.

Brexit will do little to make Britain feel great again if politicians ignore the alienation that underlay the vote in 2016. And that requires a clearer, less clichéd view of where we’ve come from, so as to envision where we should be going. It means treating the past not as an excuse for nostalgia but as a spur to future action. Or, borrowing a Churchillian phrase, as “a springboard and not a sofa”.

David Reynolds is professor of international history at the University of Cambridge. His latest book, Island Stories: Britain and its History in the Age of Brexit, has just been published by William Collins

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British Art - History and Concepts

Some of the earliest examples of British art come from sumptuous metalwork of the Anglo-Saxon period and the stone churches, abbeys and castles belonging to the early medieval period. Very rare, early decorative works, including the famous Lindisfarne Gospels (c. 690-750 AD) with their intricately patterned lacework, were also to be found in churches throughout Saxon England. While little remains of their original interiors, buildings such as Exeter Cathedral (the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter) still stand today as an examples of early Gothic architecture. The cathedral's Norman Towers were completed by 1133, while the west front image screen is considered one of the great architectural features of Medieval England. The cathedral also houses the longest uninterrupted vaulted ceiling in England as well as an early set of misericords and an astronomical clock.

According to art historian E. H. Gombrich it was not until the thirteenth century that artists (or rather artisans as they would have been then regarded) began to create pictures "copied and rearranged from old books," of the apostles and the Holy Virgin. Yet much of the decorative and religious art produced during the middle ages (c. 410-1485 AD) was destroyed during the century of iconoclasm that begun in 1536 when King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries under the English Reformation. In setting up the Protestant Church (and thereby breaking away from the rule of Roman Catholicism) the monarch sanctioned the destruction of art housed in churches and cathedrals and many thousands of sculptures, paintings, carvings and stained glass windows were smashed and burned.

The English Renaissance

The period of the English Renaissance (c. 1520 to 1620) differed from the earlier Italian Renaissance in that playwrights and poets were awarded higher societal status than visual artists. In the visual arts, however, religious painting, which was widely demonized as a relic of the Catholic church, was overtaken by portraiture which took on a dominant role in promoting the Tudor dynasty (1485-1603). But it was in fact a German painter working in England who became one of the greatest artists of the English Renaissance. Hans Holbein the Younger, court painter to Henry VIII, was the artist who did most to bring the Tudor age to life which he did by idealizing the king lengthening his squat legs and transforming his conspicuous folds of fat into muscle.

Elizabethan Portraiture and Beyond

The transition to Elizabethan rule (daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I was crowned in 1558) brought with it a period of great social upheaval though this was not reflected through its portraiture. Indeed, while portrait painting grew in popularity, artists who had previously found themselves employed by the church, brought with them the tranquil hieratic quality of religious painting. There are numerous portraits of the British ruling classes dating from this period though relatively little is known about the men (or women) who painted them. A small number of portraits have been attributed to George Gower, the first Englishman to be appointed Serjeant Painter of the Queen in 1581. Though infused with all the courtly and refined qualities of the best portraits, Gower's work, often singled out as representative of British portraiture as a whole, still lacked the penetrating depth of space that had come to distinguish the work of painters from the continent at the time.

Elizabethan architecture had tended to reflect a time when post-Reformation Britain sought glory and legacy. Stately homes, known as "prodigy houses," were built for the English ruling classes with decorative estates such as Burghley House, Hardwick Hall, Longleat and Wollaton Hall conceived of as architectural works of art. Personally responsible for introducing the architecture of the Roman Renaissance to Britain, Inigo Jones designed England's first neo-classical building: the Royal Palace at Banqueting House, in London's Whitehall (completed in 1622).

English Art Before and After the Civil War

Despite the success of artists such as Gower, William Dobson, Peter Lely, Nicholas Hilliard, Isaac Oliver and Robert Walker, Europeans were held in higher esteem than British artists and the Flemish painter Anthony van Dyck arrived from Antwerp in 1632 to be employed by the court of Charles I. Influenced by the Baroque period and the High Renaissance, van Dyck's work, according to art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon, brought a new "openness and freedom, a new opulence, a new brightness of color, a new sensuality and a new sense of drama to British painting." Indeed, Charles I was captivated by Renaissance and Baroque art, and he became a collector, buying works by Raphael and Titian and bringing them back to England. To showcase Stuart power, meanwhile, Charles I employed van Dyck's erstwhile tutor and mentor Peter Paul Rubens to create a vast painted ceiling within the Royal Palace (the three main canvases, depicting the peaceful reign of Charles, were installed in 1636). Historians have surmised that Rubens's ceiling would have been the last thing the King would have seen before his beheading at the Royal Palace in 1649.

The period between 1650-1730 saw considerable social and political upheaval. The monarchy was restored in England in 1660 as Charles II returned to the throne following the English civil war and the period of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth (1642-59). There was the plague, the Great Fire of London and the creation of the United Kingdom in 1707. Landscape painting, still lifes and "the conversation piece" became recognized genres of painting and the period saw the first female professional painter, Mary Beale. The era also saw a classical revival as architects looked to northern Europe for inspiration in buildings such as Hardwick Hall, Wollaton Hall, Hatfield House, and Burghley House.

The Seventeenth Century and Enlightenment

The second half of the seventeenth century saw advancements in science and (led to a large extent by Christopher Wren) artists and thinkers started to look to the natural world as the source of all knowledge. Wren himself produced drawings of magnified creatures, including a flea and a louse, while Peter Lely shocked the public with his sensual nudes. Following the Great Fire, Wren became the prime architect of London, and he started rebuilding St Paul's Cathedral with a cupola (placed atop the second largest dome in the world after that of St. Peters in Rome) a structure that had never before been seen in Britain before the cathedral was constructed (1675-11). Meanwhile, aristocratic houses of the eighteenth century tended to evoke ancient Greek and Roman architecture, as seen in Buckinghamshire's Blenheim Palace, inspired by Alexander Pope's writing and designed in part by Capability Brown.

Coinciding with the dawning of the age of "scientific reason" - better known perhaps as the age of "Enlightenment" - 1690s London became the biggest metropolis in the Western world, and travelers from all over the country came to live in the city whose changing fortunes were documented by portraitist and satirist William Hogarth. Hogarth has been credited with being the first to create a British School of Art. His "modern moral subjects" were groundbreaking, not just in their frank subject matter, but in the role of the artist himself. Indeed, Hogarth was the first artist to support himself financially (independently of wealthy patronage) and his role set a precedent for many of the artists that succeeded him. The philosophy of Enlightenment could also be seen in George Stubbs' anatomically exact paintings of horses.

Away from the capital meanwhile, the themes of the Enlightenment were explored explicitly by Joseph Wright of Derby who aligned his art, albeit rather theatrically, with the scientists, industrialists and inventors of the Industrial Revolution. Wright became known in fact for his industrial scenes and for his use of lighting for dramatic affect. (It was rumored that Wright had aspired to become a portrait artist but was deterred having seen Thomas Gainsborough's work.)

The Royal Academy

The idea of an Academy dates back to the fourth century BC when Plato established a school to teach philosophy. Raphael followed suit in 1509 with the School of Athens. Based on the teachings of ancient Greek philosophy, Raphael painted four stanzas representing different fields of knowledge but with a self-portrait on the right of the picture, as an assertion of Renaissance artists' claim to be deserving of a new and higher education. The most influential European academy was arguably the Académie Royale de Peintre et de Sculpture which was founded in Paris in 1648.

Soon after its establishment, the important connection between centralized academies and the state was presumed and their popularity spread throughout Europe during the 18 th century. Academies were vital in fostering national schools of painting and sculpture and remained pinnacles of aspiration for most artists. In addition to practical skills, artists learned academic subjects such as history, since history painting - which borrowed subjects from literature, mythology and the Bible - was widely regarded as the most demanding genre, although academies also produced skilled portraitists and still life painters. A further, and most important, function of the academy was to provide artists with a regular exhibition venue. Since the authority of the academies lent considerable authority to these juried shows, they often became the most important event in the exhibition calendar. This in turn lent further weight to the academies as arbiters of popular taste.

In 1768 a group of 36 artists and architects - including four Italians, a Frenchman, a Swiss and two women - signed a petition which was presented to King George III seeking his permission to "establish a society for promoting the Arts of Design." Having received his approval, the Royal Academy of Arts - or the RA as it was to become known - emerged as an independent institution ran by artists with an elected President. It became, in effect, the first British school of art. The RA provided an exhibition space, public lectures, an Art School and a School of Design. The aim of the RA was to elevate artists to the stature enjoyed by poets, dramatists and philosophers. Housed initially in Pall Mall in central London, its founder and first president was Joshua Reynolds, the leading English portraitist of the 18 th century and Royal Academicians have included Angelica Kauffman, Mary Moser, Thomas Gainsborough, and John Everett Millais.

Like other academies, the RA placed history painting as the highest of the genres and required that the RA member show all his (or her) talents not only the skill of eye and hand co-ordination, but also his (or her) mastery of the often complex and philosophical subject matter. The style considered appropriate for history painting was classical and idealized what was commonly referred to as the Grand Manner was considered the epitome of High Art. The RA's second president was the American ex-patriot Benjamin West, and the King's personal "History Painter." An accomplished painter in his own right, he also possessed an "eye for talent" and is said to have consoled a young John Constable after one of his landscapes had been rejected by the Academy: "Don't be disheartened young man," he said, "we shall hear more of you again [for] you must have loved nature before you could have painted this."


With the dawning of Romanticism, many artists began to question the centralized authority of the Academy. Indeed, by the late-18 th century, many artists were rejecting authority entirely. Modernists formed an opposition to "academic" art which was dismissed by them as old-fashioned and moribund. In this respect, one could argue that Romanticism carried the earliest seeds of 19 th and 20 th century Modern Art.

The Welshman Richard Wilson is considered a pioneer amongst Romantic landscapists. A close acquaintance of the French painter Joseph Vernet, Wilson was influenced by the landscapes of Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Dughet and he interpreted the English and Welsh (and Italian) landscapes in a style that in fact earned him the nickname "The English Claude" (sic). Wilson exhibited at the Society of Artists from 1760 and was in fact a founder member of the Royal Academy (though he sadly died in poverty in 1782).

In a reaction against the dispassionate objectivity of science, and the restrictive rules of the RA, Romanticism flourished. By the end of the 18 th century artists began to turn inward - calling on the senses and emotions - for their inspiration. William Blake was one of the leading Romantic "insurgents" and his highly impassioned explorations in art and poetry paved the way for a new generation of artists amongst whom were John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, arguably the two greatest painters in British history. Turner took classical scenes and infused them with a new dynamic in painting in a way that had a profound influence on Claude Monet, the father of Impressionism, while Constable's ability to capture nature in vibrant color and fluid brush strokes had a deep impact on Eugène Delacroix and future generations of European and American landscapists, namely the French Barbizon School and the American Hudson River School.

The rise in British Romanticism was to coincide with the new Regency Period in British sovereign history. Though there is some disagreement on when it started and finished - the introduction to the Regency galleries in the National Portrait Gallery however describes "a distinctive period in Britain's social and cultural life [spanning] the four decades from the start of the French Revolution in 1789 to the passing of Britain's great Reform Act in 1832" - the Regency "spirit" was personified by the figure of George, Prince of Wales. In 1811 Prince George (the future King George IV) began his nine-year tenure as Prince Regent, replacing his father who was stricken with mental illness and deemed unfit to reign. The Prince - referred to by some as "the first gentleman of England" but ridiculed by others - brought with him a flamboyant feel for decadence and self-abandon. This image did not sit well with large portions of the public and political classes who thought Prince George had defiled the role of the monarchy, and duly treated him as a figure of derision. However, his vigorous spirit and general joie de vie was reflected in fine art, in literature, in architecture and in fashion.

The Romantic spirit was well-established by the time of the Regency and it continued to infuse the visual arts in the paintings but also in literature with poets of the stature of Wordsworth, Byron, Coleridge and Shelley and novelists Walter Scott and Jane Austen. In the field of architecture, meanwhile, John Nash, known for his highly picturesque style and his ability to combine past and present styles, became a personal friend of the Prince Regent who accordingly appointed him architect to the Surveyor General of Woods, Forests, Parks and Chases. In addition to re-modelling Buckingham Palace, The Royal Pavilion at Brighton and the Royal Mews, Nash was commissioned to develop large areas of central London and is associated with the Gothic Revival, an architectural style that drew its inspiration from medieval architecture. The Gothic Revival, associated also with the likes of James Wyatt (Fonthill Abbey), and Charles Barry and A. W. N. Pugin (Palace of Westminster), favored picturesque and romantic qualities over practical structural and functional factors.

Formed in 1824, and lasting roughly a decade, Samuel Palmer was, with Edward Calvert and George Richmond, a founder member of The Ancients. Thought by some to be the first British manifestation of an artistic "brotherhood" they pre-dated, though lacked the impact of, the Pre-Raphelites. The Ancients were deeply influenced by William Blake with whom Palmer became personally acquainted (albeit that the men were separated in age by two generations). Like Blake, the group railed against "stuffy" academic painting, but also the incessant march of industrialization. Unlike, say, Hogarth, or the novelist Charles Dickens, however, The Ancients looked back towards a "better" (ancient) age through its faith in gnosis and its mythical pastoral visions.

It is worthy of note that in the march of a progressive British art, individuals like Alfred Stevens, a sculptor, draughtsman and designer who only "knew but one art" and who was roundly dismissed as being a mere imitator of the past, remained steadfast in his reverence for Classical Art. While acknowledging his preoccupation with the masters of the past, in his history of the Tate Gallery, Rothenstein reserved this glowing praise for Stevens: "Looking at King Alfred and his Mother (1848), so bold in the sweep of its composition, so masterly in drawing, so masterly, too, in the variety and richness of effect obtained from the manipulation of a narrow range of tones and a few subdued colors, and so elevated in feeling, it is difficult to believe that this was not the work of a master wholly dedicated to painting". One can add the name of George Frederic Watts, an artist known for his monumental religious and ethical works, to the field of important English decorative painter who failed to find critical favor. Both men have, however, come under the scrutiny of historical revisionists who acknowledge their significant contributions to the canon of nineteenth century British art.

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement

Founded in 1848, by John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood offered a more forceful challenge than the Ancients to the "official" art in British history. Opposed to the dominance of the British Royal Academy and its narrow preference for Victorian subjects and styles, which owed a debt to the early Italian Renaissance and Classical Art, the Pre-Raphaelites looked back to an earlier (before Raphael) period. The group believed painters before the Renaissance provided a better template for depicting nature and the human body realistically and that medieval craftspeople/artists offered an alternative vision to the austere and idealistic mid-19th-century academic approaches.

Above all, Pre-Raphaelitism championed the detailed study of nature and a true fidelity to its appearance, even if this risked showing ugliness. The Brotherhood also promoted a preference for natural forms as the basis for patterns and decoration that offered an antidote to the industrial designs of the machine age. As part of their reaction to the negative impact of industrialization, Pre-Raphaelites turned to the medieval period as an ideal for the synthesis of art and life in the applied arts. Their revival of medieval styles, stories, and methods of production had a profound influence on the development of the Arts and Crafts Movement which revived handicrafts in design. Their ethos was driven by the writer and critic John Ruskin and the textile designer, poet and novelist William Morris who designed elaborate decorative wallpapers that proved especially popular with the educated middle-classes. Ruskin and Morris deplored mass-production and were joined by noted craftsmen C. R. Ashbee, Walter Crane, and A. H. Mackmurdo, whose collective works proved precursors to Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements.

Women Artists Emerge

Emily Mary Osborn was the most important artist associated with the campaign for women's rights in the arts and arts education during the Victorian era. She trained as an artist at Dickinson's academy in Maddox Street and became an established figurative genre painter of "unpretending characters" during the 1850s. She was associated with Barbara Bodichon's Langham Place circle and the Society of Female Artists both of which campaigned vigorously for women's rights. In 1859 Osborn was one of the signatories of the women's petition to the Royal Academy of Arts to open its doors to female students and to the Declaration in Favour of Woman's Suffrage in 1889. As Alison Smith of Tate Britain recorded, Osborn enjoyed the support of important female patrons including Queen Victoria.

Known for her pioneering photographic portraits, Julia Margaret Cameron's images were considered (by non-conformists at least) to be highly innovative. Her portraits were often intentionally out-of-focus surfaces often left scarred with scratches and other blemishes - a style now classified as Pictorialism. She was simultaneously criticised and revered for her unconventional compositions and her insistence that photography, still in its infancy in the mid-to-late 19 th century, was already a legitimate art form. The daughter of Indian and French aristocracy, Julia Margaret Pattle married Charles Hay Cameron, a reformer of Indian law and education, in 1838. She became a prominent colonial hostess before the family relocated to southern England a decade later. Cameron, by now aged 48, took up photography as a career and within two years she had sold and gifted her photographs to the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria & Albert Museum), which, from 1868, granted her the use of two rooms as a portrait studio, effectively making her the museum's first ever artist-in-residence.

The British Museum

Offering free admission to all "studious and curious persons," The British Museum, housed in a seventeenth mansion called Montagu House at Bloomsbury, was the first public museum in the world. Opened in 1759, the museum's origins owe a debt to the physician and naturalist Sir Hans Sloane. Having collected some 70,000 artefacts in his lifetime, on his death he bequeathed his collection to King George II and the state with the proviso that £20,000 would be paid to his surviving family. Parliament accepted his proposal and the British Museum was duly established. The original collection consisted of books, manuscripts, specimens from the natural world and an assortment of coins, medals, prints and drawings.

Moving into the mid-nineteenth century, the museum expanded with Sir Robert Smirke's new quadrangular building and the round reading room housing high profile acquisitions including the Rosetta Stone, the Parthenon Sculptures, and the King's Library. To make room for its expanding collection, the museum's natural history collection was moved to a new site in South Kensington (what was to become the Natural History Museum). A key figure during the mid-century expansion was Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks who expanded the collection further to include medieval antiquities, prehistoric, ethnographic and archaeological artefacts.

In Smirke's original design, the museum's courtyard was envisioned as a garden it became the museum's Reading Room and its library department. In 1997 the library department was relocated to the new British Library in St. Pancras and an architectural competition was launched to re-design the courtyard as an open public space. The competition was won by Britain's greatest living architect, Norman Foster. The design of the Great Court was loosely based on Foster's own concept for the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin whereby every step in the Great Court revealed a new view on the visitors' surroundings.

The National Galleries

Complementing the British Museum, the nineteenth century saw the establishment of three of Britain's most important national art institutions, The National Gallery, The National Portrait Gallery and The National Gallery of British Art, all of which were based in London.

In April 1824 the House of Commons agreed to buy John Julius Angerstein's picture collection at a cost to the State of £57,000. This acquisition, which comprised of just 38 pictures, was to form the core of a new national collection that would be put on public display for the purposes of "enjoyment and education of all." The collection remained in Angerstein's house (in Pall Mall) but this setting was manifestly inadequate when compared to other national art galleries - notably the Louvre in Paris - and was derided in the press. In 1831 Parliament agreed to the construction of a purpose-built gallery with Trafalgar Square eventually chosen for its prime location.

Meanwhile, the idea of a dedicated British Historical Portrait Gallery (as it was first named) was introduced to the House of Commons in 1846 by Fourth Earl Phillip Henry Stanhope. It would be another decade before the House came around to the idea, however, with Stanhope first gaining the support of the House of Lords and Queen Victoria. The National Portrait Gallery was formally established in December of the same year with the so-called "Chandos portrait" (named after its previous owner) of Shakespeare being the first portrait to grace the Gallery. Lastly, with the National Gallery now firmly established, there was a growing feeling amongst the art establishment that the it deserved a "sister" gallery dedicated to British art. Run (until 1955) under the directorship of the National Gallery, the National Gallery of British Art (renamed Tate Gallery in 1932), designed by Sidney R. J. Smith, and built on the site of a former prison on Millbank on the banks of the River Thames, opened to the public in 1897.

British Impressionism

Though both Americans, John Singer Sargent and James Whistler can be credited with inspiring a British Impressionist movement. Whistler, who arrived in London 1863, tutored the artists Walter Richard Sickert and Wilson Steer and between them they founded the New English Art Club (NEAC) in 1886. Three years later, Sickert (who would become a founder member of the post-impressionist Camden Town Group) and Wilson organized an exhibition of London Impressionists with other members of the NEAC. In 1885, meanwhile, Singer Sargent arrived from Paris where he had met the great Claude Monet. Over the next few years, Singer Sargent made a major contribution to Impressionism in Britain with paintings such as Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose (1885-6), arguably his most famous painting.

Fin de Siècle, Art Nouveau and Art Deco

Fin de Siècle, a French term used to describe Symbolism, Decadent movement and related styles, most notably Art Nouveau, reached its peak of popularity in the 1890s. The term expressed a sense of apocalyptic dread as the century drew to a close (though at that time commenters had not predicted WW1). Minded artists expressed a sense of the end of a phase of civilization, and Oscar Wilde's writing led the charge for a new fashionable sense of pessimism. Aubrey Beardsley's artistic career was short but ground-breaking and his easily-reproduced block print work led the Art Nouveau movement. The architecture and design of Charles Rennie Mackintosh meanwhile brought Art Nouveau into people's homes and he has become known as a father of British Modernist architecture. Art Nouveau would later give rise to Art Deco which was incorporated into the design of the iconic London Underground system.

The Bloomsbury Group

The Bloomsbury Group was a group (rather than a movement) of English writers, philosophers and artists who would meet in the Bloomsbury district of London, close to the site of the British Museum. Writers and artists would meet for drinks and conversation at the home of artist Vanessa Bell and her writer sister Virginia Stephen (the famous Virginia Woolf). The core group, which formed in 1905, was made up of artists Duncan Grant , John Nash, Henry Lamb, Edward Wadsworth, art critic Roger Fry, literary critic Lowes Dickinson and philosophers Henry Sidgwick, J.M.E. McTaggart, A.N. Whitehead and G.E. Moore, and the economist John Maynard Keynes. Group discussions tended to focus on issues of aesthetics and philosophical questions and were deeply influenced by Moore's treatise on twentieth-century ethics, Principia Ethica (1903) and by Whitehead's and Bertrand Russell's three-volume tome on symbolic logic, Principia Mathematica (1910-13). The Bloomsbury Group would survive for a further thirty years and future attendees would include such luminaries as Bertrand Russell, Aldous Huxley and T.S. Eliot.

The Camden Town Group

Formed out of the anti-establishment Allied Artists Association, The Camden Town Group was named after the cosmopolitan and vibrant area of north London where its members resided. Notwithstanding the fact that they produced some notable Post-Impressionist landscapes (such as Spencer Gore's The Cinder Path (1912)), the Group, made up of artists including Gore, Harold Gilman and Walter Sickert, aimed to reflect the realities of modern urban life and would meet regularly at Sickert's Camden studio. Following an exhibition of English and French Post-Impressionism at the Royal Albert Hall in 1911, the Camden fraternity sponsored three successful exhibitions at the Carfax Gallery between 1911-12 (they disbanded in 1914).

The Group's own works explored issues including social class, sexuality, modernity and the urban environment while the exhibition also introduced early Fauve and Cubist paintings to the British public. As art historian Andrew Graham-Dixon noted, the Group "for all its drabness, does get to the heart of a distinctively British twentieth century aesthetic. The mood of the unswept street, the spirit of the abandoned car park at night, the milieu of the overflowing urinal or the uncomfortable, unmodernized football stadium through which a cold wind blows - the British have taken a grim, stoical, self-flagellatory pride in such things." Though there was no direct association between them, one of Britain's most popular 20 th century painters, L. S. Lowry, produced his famous "matchstick" Northern industrial landscapes with the same post-impressionistic spirit as the Camden Group.


The Vorticists - named by the English painter, satirist, critic and philosopher Wyndham Lewis, and the American poet Ezra Pound - became Britain's first radical avant-gardist group. Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, David Bomberg and Jacob Epstein celebrated the energy and dynamism of the modern machine age and in so doing declared an assault on staid British traditions. Given their reverence for the "machine age" the Vorticists were often likened to the Italian Futurists. But the life of the movement was cut short with the onset of World War I.

The movement is perhaps best remembered, however, for its journal-cum-manifesto BLAST, edited by Wyndham Lewis. With its bright pink cover, and the title BLAST written in bold, black letters against a bright pink background, the first section of the journal presented a sequence of twenty-plus pages in the form of a manifesto. Each page featured a dramatic piece of graphic design, in which the contributors would "Blast" (hate) or "Bless" (love) different things often at once: "Blast France, Blast England, Blast Humour, Blast the years 1837 to 1900" and then "Bless England, Bless England for its ships which switchback on blue, green and red seas." BLAST also published Lewis's play, Enemy and the Stars, which was largely unintelligible and positively unperformable.

British Surrealism

The emergence of fascism across Europe during the 1930s turned the contemporary art world on its head. As Tate curator Chris Stephens noted, debates arose "not only between the avant-garde and the academy, but also between modern artists, about the appropriate response to the rise of fascism. Abstract artists, Surrealists and Social Realists all interpreted that political imperative in different ways." British Surrealism emerged within this period of uncertainty, limited mostly to two groups one in London the other in Birmingham. The English poet David Gascoyne had been drawn to Paris in the early 1930s having been inspired by the French Surrealists, and following a chance meeting with English artist and historian Roland Penrose and poet Paul Éluard, he set out to create tangible links between British and French Surrealists. In fact, Gascoyne wrote the "First English Surrealist Manifesto" in 1935 in Paris (and in French), and it was first published in the French review Cahiers d'art.

The International Surrealist Exhibition took place in the June 1936 at the New Burlington Galleries in London. It was attended by speakers including Éluard, André Breton, Salvador Dalí, and English poet and critic Herbert Read. Members of the Birmingham group - including Conroy Maddox, John Melville, Emmy Bridgwater, Oscar Mellor, and Desmond Morris (better known as an anthropologist) - refused to exhibit, however, claiming that the London group - including the likes of Paul Nash, Eileen Agar, Ithell Colquhoun, E. L. T. Esens, Herbert Read, John Tunnard - lived "anti-Surrealist lifestyles." Some of the Birmingham group did attend, however, hoping to make the acquaintance of their hero, Breton. Though not a formal member, sculptor Henry Moore became an associate of the British Surrealist group, showing seven pieces at the International Surrealist exhibition of 1936. It is an interesting detail too, that, though never formally affiliated with the group, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas also attended, performing in his own "Surrealist happening" which involved offering attendees cups of boiled string! The London group dissolved in 1951 though the Birmingham group continued into the 1950s on a rather informal basis.

The Euston Road School

Founded by William Coldstream, Victor Pasmore and Claude Rogers in 1937, and existing as a group for roughly two years (when its members joined the war effort), the so-called Euston Road School are worthy of mention in the context of early-to-mid-twentieth century British modernism. The School was opposed to the rise of avant-gardism their goal, born of a clear leftist political position that promoted naturalism and socially relevant art, being to treat traditional subject matter (such as portraiture, nudes, landscapes) in a realist style while stopping some way short of the dogma of Social Realism.

St Ives School

Cornwall, in the South West of England, was (or is) renowned for the unique quality of its natural light. As such it has been a place of pilgrimage for many painters especially so since the Great Western railway line opened in 1877, putting the county within easy reach. In 1928 Ben Nicholson and Christopher "Kit" Wood visited St Ives where they made the acquaintance of Alfred Wallis. Wallis's painting was to have a profound impact on the future direction of Nicholson's work and later, in 1939, he and his wife, the sculptor Barbara Hepworth, relocated to St Ives where they were joined by the Russian Constructivist sculptor Naum Gabo.

After the war, and with Hepworth and Nicholson as its avant-gardist mascots (Gabo had moved on by 1946), St Ives became the centre for modern and abstract developments in British art and many younger abstract artists were drawn to the area giving rise to the name St Ives School, though in point of fact they were never a formal group in the strict sense. However, the "group" were generally inspired by the West Cornwall landscape, using its shapes, forms and colors to inform their work. The St Ives School had run its course by the 1960s but in 1976 the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculptural Gardens opened in her previous studio, while in 1993, Tate St Ives (which had already taken over the running of the Hepworth museum in 1980) helped preserve and promote the county's proud modern heritage.

War Art

Chaired by Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery under the administration of the Government Ministry of Information, the British War Advisory Scheme was set up in 1939. At their monthly meetings, the committee would select artists whose primary goal was to create imagery for propaganda purposes but on the proviso that their work would do more than merely illustrate posters and pamphlets. By the end of the war the official war collection was comprised of more than 5000 works. War art was produced by the likes of brothers John and Paul Nash who depicted soul-less images of trench warfare, war-torn landscapes and the horror of conflict, Henry Tonks, mean-while, produced harrowing portraits of injured soldiers. On the home front, Evelyn Dunbar was the only woman to be salaried as an official war artist and she produced paintings and sketches of the manual work undertaken by the Women's Land Army who, amongst other duties, took on agricultural roles vacated by conscripted soldiers.

Cecil Beaton, Norman Parkinson and Vogue

In March 1951, Vogue carried a three-page spread entitled American Fashion: The New Soft Look. Cecil Beaton had taken the photographs for designers Irene and Henri Bendel using Jackson Pollock's Action Paintings as a decorative backdrop for the Bendels' haute couture. The images represent a tension between the muscular and intense character of Pollock's art, and the soft, feminine nature of the fashion models. The élan for which Beaton had become well known asked one to question in fact the qualitative difference between the high art and commercial fashion.

Like Beaton, Norman Parkinson worked through several decades in the fashion industry. Before he joined British Vogue in the early 1940s - an association that would last nearly four decades - the magazine, then in the infancy of color photography, had relied on photographs borrowed from its American sister publication. Out of sheer necessity, this situation would continue during the war years but Parkinson's English pastoralism gave British Vogue a very distinctive identity and his first Vogue photographs were taken in the English countryside in 1941. As his career developed, many of Parkinson's shoots were set abroad, often in Africa or the Caribbean. This lent his work an exotic, jet-set appeal that proved very popular in Britain during the austere years of the 1950s.

British Pop Art

One usually associates Pop Art with a group of American artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, working in New York during the 1960s. Yet Pop Art emerged first in Britain during the 1950s. Led by Richard Hamilton, British Pop Art was inspired, in the midst of post-war recession and rationing, by the glittering promise of the abundance of consumer culture - anything from kitchen accessories, televisions, comic books to beauty products - taking hold across the Atlantic. Hamilton, Eduardo Paolozzi and Peter Blake rejected existing norms and subject matter by turning to the marketing language of post-War Americana, producing new and irreverent images using collage and screen printing.

There was a pronounced ironic element to Pop Art as artists looked on the US as the land of excess. Many critics have cited British Pop Art, and especially Hamilton's iconic collage as the birth of post-modernism that, through its celebration of kitsch, ephemera and disposable objects, rejected the high modernism of Abstract Expressionism and the virtues of abstraction - and its detestation of everything kitsch - as espoused by Clement Greenberg. Indeed, Hamilton described Pop Art thus: "Popular. Transient. Expendable. Low cost. Mass produced. Young. Witty. Gimmicky. Glamorous, Big business."

As British Pop Art moved into the sixties it became inextricably linked with pop music and the likes of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Indeed, Blake's cover for Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is arguably the most famous album cover of all time. Featuring a collage of 88 celebrities and figures from history, Blake and his wife Jann Haworth constructed a set around life-size cut-outs which was then photographed with the band at the center of the frame.

The Swinging Sixties and the “Black Trinity”

In the 1960s fashion became youth orientated as "hip" Sixties style exploited new materials and bold colors that emphasized the age of sexual liberation. In London, three working class photographers, David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy - dubbed the "Black Trinity" by Norman Parkinson - helped to define the "Swinging London" look. The three men became the first fashion and celebrity portrait photographers. In particular, the "Swinging London" look took on international significance when Bailey's photographic feature "New York: Young Idea goes West," starring the then unknown model Jean Shrimpton, appeared in Vogue in 1962. Thanks to Bailey's photography, Shrimpton became the first "supermodel," followed soon thereafter by Twiggy, Veruschka, and Penelope Tree.

In 1964 Bailey released a box of 36 prints, "Box of Pin-Ups", including portraits of Mick Jagger, The Beatles, Andy Warhol, Jean Shrimpton, Terence Stamp and Rudolf Nureyev. His sitters were not always models, pop stars, actors and artists, however, and his personal acquaintance with the feared London gangsters, the Kray twins, revealed his fondness for the double portrait (including one of John Lennon and Paul McCartney). When questioned about the morality of eulogizing murderers, Baily said "I did everyone a favour by making them famous [but] if you are a real gangster nobody knows who you are, so their big mistake was posing for me." In a forward to a recent anthology of his work, Damien Hirst said of Baily's portraits that they "make you feel like there is nothing between you and the picture, nothing between you and the person."

Op Art

Running parallel to '60s Pop Art was Op Art (an abbreviation of "optical art"). Op Artists were invested in the idea of pure geometric forms that could give the impression of movement and/or color. The effects of the artworks ranged from the subtle to the disorientating. Op Artists drew on color theory and the physiology and psychology of perception. As part of a bigger international community, including Venezuelan Jesus Rafael Soto, and French/Hungarian Victor Vasarely, British artist Bridget Riley was at the forefront of Op Art, often working with black and white, undulating lines and repetitive forms to create the illusion of color or movement.

Though Op Art was greeted with a degree of scepticism by art critics, the movement had a considerable impact on '60s fashion. The monochrome geometric prints perfectly complemented the bold shapes of the mod look while Op Art patterns started to appear on everything from clothes to advertisements, stationery and soft furnishings.


The birth of British Conceptual Art is associated firstly with the Art & Language group, founded at Coventry College of Art by Michael Baldwin, David Bainbridge, Terry Atkinson and Harold Hurrell in 1967. The group questioned the hierarchies of modern art practices and criticism which they debated in their journal Art-Language, the first issue dated May 1969. The group also made original works, their "concept" driven by the belief that art should be as much - or more - about the words and ideas as/than aesthetics. British Conceptualism came fully to the fore, meanwhile, following two exhibitions: "When Attitudes Become Form" at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1969 and "Seven Exhibitions" at the Tate Gallery in 1972. Emerging out of this context, Gilbert and George became the best-known British Performance Artists. Using film, photography, painting, performance and living-portraiture, at core, their art questioned intellectual elitism in art.

By the mid-to-late 1970s Conceptualism became more politicized and attracted the interest of artists such as Margaret Harrison whose ironic collages, such as 1977's Houseworkers, featured glossy magazines, sewing materials, and rubber gloves. Her art was borne of the political conviction that the "personal" had become the "political," a view that was mirrored in the work of Conrad Atkinson, whose Northern Ireland 1968-May Day 1975 featured a collage of photographs and slogans from warring Loyalist, Republican, and British army factions.

The School of London

Just as, say, the Euston Road School positioned themselves in opposition to the avant-garde, so too did the School of London sit in defiance of the rise of Conceptualism. In 1976, the American R. B. Kitaj curated the "Human Clay" exhibition at London's Hayward Gallery in which he revived interest in figurative art. The exhibition was noteworthy not least for a catalogue that featured an influential essay by Kitaj in which he coined the term School of London. That definition referred to a cadre of London-based artists - amongst them Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Frank Auerbach, and Leon Kossoff , and Kitaj himself - who, counter to the fashion for Conceptualism and abstraction, helped reinvigorate the critical fortunes of figurate art.

New British Sculpture

The term New British Sculpture refers to the work of a group of British artists of the 1980s who, not unlike the School of London, reacted against the fashion for Conceptualism and Minimalism. They adopted a more traditional approach to sculpture using established materials and techniques (such as carving in stone or marble) and more poetic or evocative subject matter. The principal artists associated with New British Sculpture were Stephen Cox, Tony Cragg, Barry Flanagan, Antony Gormley, Richard Deacon, Shirazeh Houshiary, Anish Kapoor, Alison Wilding and Bill Woodrow.

Two areas of public exhibition warrant special mention in the context of New British Sculpture: the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square in London, and a hill in Northern England near Gateshead. Since 1999, the plinth has been used as a means of democratizing and modernizing the historical landmark that features military statutes of King George IV, General Sir Charles James Napier, and Major General Sir Henry Havelock. Many artists, including Marc Quinn, David Shrigley, and Yinka Shonibare have all been invited to display their sculptures for an 18-month period. Some 300-miles north of the capital, meanwhile, Antony Gormley's Angel of the North, a copper, concrete and steel sculpture, 20 meters tall and 54 meters across, and weighing in excess of 200 tons stands, sits proudly as tribute to the Northern England's industrial heritage.

The Young British Artists (YBAs)

Also emerging during the late-80s, a group of students from London's Goldsmith's College of Art began to exhibit together. Individuals including Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas, Angus Fairhurst and Michael Landy formed the foundations of a loose movement that would soon become known as The Young British Artists (YBAs). The artists involved had been encouraged (Michael Craig-Martin being one of their most charismatic tutors) to think in new ways about creativity and to abolish the traditional separation of media into discreet domains of painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and so on. Indeed, one of the defining features of the YBAs was that there was no unified approach to their work, though their art attracted controversy.

Sensation proved to be the most controversial exhibitions in modern British history (it caused similar controversy when it travelled to Berlin and New York) but what it brought to light was the YBAs entrepreneurial awareness that saw the like of Hirst and Emin become active participants - celebrities even - in promoting and publicising their own art.

British Art in the 21st century

Arguably the most famous of contemporary British painters is the satirical urban artist who goes by the pseudonym Banksy. Banksy started as a graffiti artist in Bristol in the early 1990s and his stencil art, combined with social and political commentary, has brought him worldwide recognition. With a talent for self-publicity to match even the YBAs his Street Art appears, typically unannounced, across the public sphere on the sides of buildings and other manmade structures. In 2015 Banksy moved into the domain of Installation Art with Dismaland, a "theme park like no other" (though clearly modelled on Disneyland) based at a British coastal resort. Dismaland was bleak and inhospitable and drew much of its inspiration from the work of painter Jeff Gillette who produced ironic Disney images to critique the failings of the western world.

In 2017 Artnet published a list of the 10 most relevant living British artists according to their worldwide commercial value. Making the list were Damien Hirst (1 st ), Jenny Saville (3 rd ), Antony Gormley (6 th ), Chris Ofili (8 th ) and Tracey Emin (9 th ). Going by this measure, the contemporary British art scene has come to be defined, not so much by the likes of rising stars like Perry and Banksy, but rather by those individuals attached to the meteoric rise of the YBAs and New British Sculpture in the 1990s.

The contemporary art field is over-crowded so it is remains difficult to form consensus on outstanding individual talent. A reliable gauge of the contemporary art scene in the United Kingdom, and possibly across the international contemporary art scene, however, is the Turner Prize, named after Britain's most esteemed modern painter, and one of the most prestigious awards in visual arts today. The competition is open to British artists - that is, artists either born and/or working primarily in Britain - under the age of 50 and has been awarded to the likes of Gilbert and George (1986) Rachel Whiteread (1993) and Anish Kapoor (1991).

Watch the video: Trench Warfare Legacy (January 2022).