English Rococo

English Rococo

Historical background and influences

Cosmopolitan by its character, Rococo style in England evolved in the 18th cent. from its French variant. Artists from the Continent had a significant impact on the development of new aesthetics on the other side of the English Channel: Antoine Watteau inspired his follower Philip Mercier to develop the tradition of fete galante. Many of engravers, printmakers and sculptors were Huguenot refugees, who escaped from the pressure of Louis XIV on them to surrounding protestant countries. Other masters, who settled down in Britain, were guided by economic reasons, as everything French was in trend. Without overstatement, they established really high level of craftsmanship.

As we see, English rococo was highly affected by French masters. Another source of influence were Italian artists. For instance, Canaletto lived and worked in London for 9 years, and Francesco Zuccarelli was one of the founding members of the Royal Academy of Arts. Another representative of Venetian school was Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini, who managed to achieved recognition as a skillful mural painter in Britain.

However, the attitude towards rococo was controversial. On one hand, aristocracy favored it, commissioning paintings, decorations of their houses etc. On the other hand, it was criticized as a French phenomenon, meanwhile the Anti Galician Society was established in Britain in opposition to the inculcation of the fashion for French goods and culture. Though Royal Academy and other groups, like the society of Dilettanti, were promoting classicistic ideas, rococo still flourished among noble circles, as well as among “middle sort”. It became apparent in landscape and cityscape (veduta) painting, genre scenes, book illustrations, engraving and design.

Characteristics of English Rococo Art

In architecture rococo was often mixed with other styles. As a consequence, a curious discrepancy between structure and interiors can be observed: whether facades were still mainly Neo-Palladian, with severe classicistic notes, rooms were furnished in roccaile manner, with curved forms, gilding and lavish ornamentation. Ceilings were both painted and decorated with white or gold stucco, that hadn’t been common until the 18th cent. Two bright rococo submovements became popular on the British Isles – so-called “Chinese Taste” (that we know as Chinoiserie) and the “Gothic Taste”. The first one based on applying pseudo-Oriental motifs and embraced not only architecture, but decorative art, painting and sculpture. It flourished between 1740s and 1750s. The “Gothic Taste” was a romanticized vision of medieval Gothic architecture. But it was rather superficial, as rarely included more than applying pinnacles, castellations or gargoyles to typical 18th cent. buildings (primary cottages and summerhouses). Emerging in 1730s, it was purely English phenomenon. Such building as Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s London house, is a sample of the “Gothic taste” and a harbinger of historicism that would pop up in architecture in a century.

What about painting and sculpture, rococo wasn’t so careless and playful in Britain, as it was in France. Typical for rococo irony in England got social flavor and moralism, as one could see in woodcuts and paintings by William Hogarth. However, coloristic delicacy and eye-pleasing exquisiteness were still inherent traits of English art of the 18th cent. Portrait was a genre that appealed most to the English taste: despite all attempts of outstanding master Sir Joshua Reynolds (president of the Royal Academy) to popularize historical painting, he later focused on portraiture.

An important center, where rococo principles crystalized, were the drawing classes of the Saint Martin’s Lane Academy. This precursor of the Royal Academy of Art was founded in 1735 by William Hogarth. He was attempting to develop alternative to the austerity of Palladianism. Among artists, who contributed into the Saint Martin’s Lane Academy, were French sculptor François Roubiliac, the engraver and book illustrator Hubert Gravelot and the young Thomas Gainsborough. The latter would become one of the most outstanding rococo painter in Europe. It was patronized Frederick, Prince of Wales. Learning drawing from life (the key idea of this group) corresponded to the aesthetical concepts, formulated by Hogarth in his “The Analysis of beauty”, in which the accent was made on direct experience of observing nature. This notion had a great impact on improving system of artistic education in the future and turned to be one of the defining peculiarities of English rococo.

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