Published in the Times Literary Supplement, June 2019
Any survey of native British art is going to have to contend with absences, thanks to Henry VIII’s iconoclasms of home grown religious art and the Tudor and Stuart infatuation with makers from the European mainland. Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones’ new history of British art sensibly lands the reader in the 18th century, in which British-born artists began to claim their place in the history of art. From Hogarth to Stubbs, Gainsborough and Blake, from Turner to Bacon, Hirst and Banksy, Jones’ book mobilises a highly selective inventory in the service of a contentious claim: that British art is characterised by naïve observation of the visible world. Jones, no stranger to below-the-line invective, seems to anticipate dissent. More than once, naysayers, usually nameless academics, are heaped with scorn, although it’s hard to imagine the general reader to whom the book is aimed being au fait with the arguments at hand, or much caring.
At its best, Jones’ book brilliantly marshals his extensive research into engaging narratives of British intellectual history, with works of art acting as way stations in the development of, say, Newtonian physics, or Ruskinian socialism. His compelling account of the making of George Stubbs’ astonishing drawings of dissected horses provides a means to unravel the empiricism of 18th century British thought via the revival of Locke, the public spectacle of anatomy, and the foundation of the British Museum. Given their illustrative function within this sweep of cultural history, it is perhaps unsurprising that there’s very little three-dimensional art in the book, or that the irrational complexities of artworks are tamped down in the service of the author’s argument. Calling John Constable ‘the most factual of all artists’, for instance, bolsters Jones’ thesis that British art is essentially observational, but a close viewer of the paintings, or reader of his letters, might well disagree. The superlative is of a piece with Jones’ tone in the book, which, while making for a consistently energetic read, can be draining, or even bizarre, as in his description of Francis Bacon as ‘this most homosexual of painters.’
When Bacon emerges on the scene in the mid-1940s, British art is reborn ‘after nearly a hundred wasted years.’ Such assertions are not only nonsensical from a cultural viewpoint, but are never explained, merely presented as fact. Despite Jones’ evident fascination with Enlightenment empiricism, his approach to art history is anything but. His final evaluation, that British artists ‘did little more than look’, suggests a general disappointment with his subject. Jones’ book provides what its title suggests without leaving much room for the dreamy, ambiguous or imagined: all aspects of British art too, however inconvenient.