Learn about Top 10 Greatest British Painters

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No artist creates in a vacuum.

Every artist is the product of the time, place, and events of his own life. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote:

“The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”

From the eighteenth century to the current day, the work of the ten British painters discussed in this article have been defined by innovation, a willingness to take risks, and hard work. As a result, they have consistently held an important place in the cultural heritage of Britain and of the world.

1. William Hogarth (1697-1764)

William Hogarth, The Painter and his Pug, 1745. Self-portrait with his pug
The Assembly at Wanstead House. Earl Tylney and family in foreground by William Hogarth
Marriage à-la-mode, After the old Earl's funeral (scene four of six) by William Hogarth

Hogarth was a printmaker, portrait painter, social critic, and editorial cartoonist.

Aristocratic art collectors did not respect English painters and sought works by Italian masters. Hogarth rejected this view and believed that his work was just as good as those works being bought for substantial amounts from abroad. He decided to create a new type of painting that would appeal to his countrymen.

He is best known for his series of paintings of ‘modern moral subjects’. His most notable paintings, The Harlot’s Progress, The Rake’s Progress, and Marriage a la Mode teach by example, pointing out the foibles of the rich and the depths of degradation of those who have fallen from the narrow path of middle-class virtue.

The paintings, carefully composed as any Italian painting of the classical tradition, are filled with detail and allusions to each other, so that the viewer has the sensation of reading a story without words. These ‘moralizing’ series are regarded as important historical and social documents.

Hogarth helped develop a theoretical foundation for Rococo beauty. His book, Analysis of Beauty, argued that the undulating lines and S-curves prominent in Rococo were the basis for grace and beauty.

He has been heralded as having a keen understanding of human nature and as the most significant English artist of his day.

2. Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792)

c. 1750, a Joshua Reynolds self-portrait when aged approximately 27
The Age of Innocence c. 1788, Joshua Reynolds emphasized the natural grace of children in his paintings
Joshua Reynolds painted by American artist Gilbert Stuart, oil on canvas, 1784

Reynolds was a portrait painter in the continental Grand Style.

At an early age, Reynolds was apprenticed to Thomas Hudson, a successful London portrait painter. After four years, he spent two years in Rome studying the old Masters. Upon completion, he established himself in London and because of his aristocratic connections, he became an immediate success. His clientele consisted mainly of aristocrats.

Reynolds help found the Royal Academy of Arts (RA) and became its first president. He distinguished himself via his groundbreaking speeches called Discourses on Art, which were put in print and are still relevant today.

These speeches emphasized set rules of taste, importance of authority, and necessity for an artist to study the recognized masterpieces of art during his formative years. He attempted to lead British painting away from the indigenous anecdotal pictures of the early eighteenth century toward the formal rhetoric of the continental Grand Style.

The demands of the age forced Reynolds to devote himself to principally painting portraits of the rich, influential, and famous, but he also managed to delve into Fancy Pictures, a sub-genre of genre painting featuring scenes of everyday life but with an imaginative or storytelling element. In addition he painted portraits of children. Although not a commissioned piece, Age of Innocence is one of Reynold’s most famous paintings of a child.

In 1769, Reynolds was knighted by King George III, only the second artist to be so honored. He was the leading English portraitist of the eighteenth century.

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3. Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)

A self-portrait of Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788)
A painting of a landscape with a shepherd and his herd (ca. 1784)
'The Artist's Daughters' (c. 1759) by Thomas Gainsborough

Gainsborough was a portraitist and landscape painter.

At the age of fourteen, Gainsborough left home to study art. For five years, he was trained by Francis Hayman, an English designer and portraitist and Hubert Francois Gravelot, a painter, illustrator, and engraver.

In his early thirties, he studied portraits by van Dyck. In 1769, he began submitting works to the Royal Academy of Arts (RA), an organization which he had help found. During the 1770s and 1780s, Gainsborough began to experiment with printmaking, specifically, aquatint and soft ground etching.

He also developed a new type of portrait, one that was integrated into the landscape. Historians believe he never actually went on site to develop these portraits, but instead used a device that he called a ‘showbox’ to compose landscapes and display them backlit on glass.

Among his famous portraits are The Painter’s Daughter Chasing A Butterfly, regarded by some as the best English portrait of children and The Blue Boy which he painted in the ‘formal’ manner. He used the color blue which went against the established conventions of Western traditions.

Blue/greens were believed to be receding colors suitable for backgrounds and a warm color scheme was considered most effective to enhance the subject of the work. Gainsborough was the most experimental artist of his time. He was technically proficient and worked fast from observation rather than from application of formal rules. His interest in painting ordinary human beings rather than for the trappings of power benefitted the art of portraiture.

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4. John Constable (1776-1837)

John Constable by Daniel Gardner, 1796
Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop's Grounds c. 1825. As a gesture of appreciation for John Fisher, the Bishop of Salisbury, who commissioned this painting, Constable included the Bishop and his wife in the canvas.
The Opening of Waterloo Bridge seen from Whitehall Stairs, 18 June 1817, oil on canvas, c. 1832.

Constable was a landscape painter in the Romantic tradition.

Claude Lorrain’s work was done in watercolors. When Constable was introduced to his work, he immediately gravitated to the same medium. He sketched by himself until he was twenty-four. In 1799, he entered the Royal Academy Schools (RA) as a probationer. He was inspired by Gainsborough, Lorrain, Rubens, Carracci, and van Ruisdael.

Large paintings fascinated Constable. He wanted to attract more attention at the RA exhibitions and project his ideas about landscapes more in keeping with the classical landscape painters he admired. In 1819, he painted The White Horse which measured 51.7 inches x 74.1 inches and has been described as the most important picture he ever painted.

In 1821, Constable submitted another large painting to the RA, The Hay Wain which measured 51 ¼ inches x 73 inches. It was part of a series that he called ‘six-footers’. It didn’t receive much acclaim in Britain, but it was eventually purchased by a French dealer. The work became famous and was awarded a gold medal by Charles X.

Constable read widely among poetry and sermons and proved to be a notably articulate artist. He revolutionized the genre of landscape painting. He believed exploring the visible world rather than conjuring up poetic moods achieved something of more lasting importance.

5. Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851)

A self-portrait of Joseph Wallord William Turner c. 1798
The Battle of Trafalgar, 1806 by William Turner
The Grand Canal - Venice, c. 1835 by William Turner

J. M. W. Turner (his professional name) was a painter in the Romantic style, printmaker, and watercolorist.

A child prodigy, in 1789, at the age of fourteen, Turner was admitted to Joshua Reynold’s studio as a copyist and then to the Royal Academy Schools (RA). Between 1790 and 1804, Turner’s work earned him an associate and then full membership to the RA. He opened his own shop in 1804. He abandoned romantic and classical landscapes and devoted himself to a series of works in which atmospheric conditions became the principal subject matter, a forerunner to the French Impressionists.

Turner believed that his works should always express significant historical, mythological, literary, and other narrative themes. Two of Turner’s most daring paintings were Steamer in Snowstorm and Landscape. The style of these works was not understood by his contemporaries. Turner was championed by John Ruskin, the leading English art critic.

He was a revolutionary figure in the art of landscape painting. He was unmatched in his time in the range of his development, unrivaled in the breath of his subject matter, and the searching innovation of his stylistic treatment. He is regarded as having elevated landscape painting to an eminence rivaling history painting.

6. John Everett Millais (1829-1896)

Self-portrait by John Everett Millais in 1881
"Mariana" by John Everett Millais in 1851
"Christ in the House of His Parents" or "The Carpenter's Shop" by John Everett Millais in  1849–50.

Millais was a painter and illustrator.

A child prodigy, Millais, at the age of nine, was sent to the Sass’s Art School where he won a silver medal at the Society of Arts. He was the youngest ever student to win a silver medal for drawing from an antique. He won a gold medal for his painting The Tribe of Benjamin Seizing the Daughters of Shiloh.

Millais was one of the seven founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The first avant-garde group in the history of British art. The membership sought to return to the abundant details, intense colors, and compositions of Quattrocento Italian art (1400-1499).

In 1848, he exhibited his first Pre-Raphaelite painting, Isabella, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts. Among Millais’s greatest achievements was his painting The Blind Girl (1850). It was regarded as a tour de force of Victorian sentiment and technical facility. Millais’s most famous work is Ophelia. (1851).

In 1885, Queen Victoria created him a baronet, of Palace Gate, in the parish of St. Mary Abbot, Kensington, in the county of Middlesex, and of Saint Ouen, in the island of Jersey. He was the first artist to be honored with a hereditary title.

7. Alfred Sisley (1839-1899)

A Renoir portrait of Alfred Sisley
'View of Saint-Mammès', painted by Aflred Sisley, c. 1880 currently at the The Walters Art Museum
Alfred Sisley's The Lock at Saint Mammes

Sisley was a landscape painter in the Impressionist Movement. His parents were English expatriates.

Born into a well-to-do family, Sisley was sent at age eighteen to London to study business. After four years, he returned to Paris in 1861 and studied at the Paris Ecole des Beaux Arts with Swiss artist Marc-Charles-Gabriel Gleyre. While there, he met Frederic Bazille, Claude Monet, and Pierre Auguste Renoir.

They became interested in painting landscapes en plein air with the intention of realistically capturing transient effects of sunlight. Their paintings were rejected by the annual Salon exhibit. Critics tagged their paintings as ‘impressionist’ and the name stuck.

Sisley studied the works of John Constable and J. M. W. Turner. He was inspired by the works of Camille Pissarro and Edouard Manet. He concentrated on landscapes more consistently than any other Impressionist painter. He adopted short rapid Impressionist brushstrokes. He was interested in the movement of foliage, shimmer of water, and the texture of a cloud filled sky.

Sisley’s best-known works are Street in Moret, The Bridge at Moret-sur-Loing, and Sand Heaps. He is regarded as one of the greatest landscape painters of the nineteenth century.

8. Francis Bacon (1909-1992)

Francis Bacon photographed in the early 1950s by John Deakin
The site of Francis Bacon's relocated studio, Dublin
"Three Studies for a Portrait of Henrietta Moraes" by Francis Bacon in 1963

Bacon was a figurative painter.

Absent of any formal training, Bacon, at the age of eighteen, was impressed by a Picasso exhibition and began to draw and paint while attending the free academies.

Banished from his home by his father because of a disagreement regarding his sexual preferences, Bacon went out on his own. He was given some financial support by his mother and emotional support by his nanny.

Bacon began his career as a furniture and interior designer in the modernistic style of Eileen Gray. He exhibited his designs in 1929 and 1930. He was guided by the painter, Roy de Maistre, in matters of technique.

Bacon borrowed inspiration from surrealism, film, photography, and the Old Masters. His subject matter was inspired by Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X and his technique was inspired by Van Gogh, going from monochromatic work towards heightened color. His career took off in 1944 when he created Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion. The triptych became his characteristic format and in 1949 he created a series of ‘screaming Popes’.

Bacon focused on portraits. His subjects communicate powerful emotions; tormented and sometimes macabre, but they were viewed by many art critics as reflecting the anxiety of the modern condition.

International exhibitions reinforced the perception of Bacon and in 1971, he was regarded as Britain’s greatest living painter.

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9. Lucien Freud (1922-2011)

'Self-portrait' by Freud in 1985 currently in Private Collection
'Queen Elizabeth II' by Freud, 2000-2001, in the Royal Collection (Buckingham Palace), London, UK
'Benefits Supervisor Sleeping' by Freud in 1995

Freud was a figurative painter and draughtsman.

After a series of missteps, Freud attended The East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing and the Goldsmith College Central School of Art in London. His early career was influenced by surrealism.

After World War II, Freud focused on portraiture. His work was somber, thickly impastoed, and set in unsettling interiors and urban landscapes. Although he painted a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II (2000-2001), he preferred to paint his friends and family.

Freud worked from life studies and was known for asking his models to sit for long periods of time. He took a special interest in nudes. He highlighted and undercut the erotics of the female nude, rejecting the idealizing tendencies of Western art. He painted extreme body types. Among his most famous and lucrative was Benefits Supervisor Sleeping.

Influenced by Durer and Rembrandt, Freud became interested in self-portraiture. Lucien Freud: The Self Portraits 1940s is a series of forty works on canvas, paper, and etching plate. He depicted himself from the forties to the early twenty-first century, showing an ongoing study of the process of aging. In 1983, he was appointed a Companion of Honor and a member of the Order of Merit in 1993.

Freud is regarded as one of the foremost twentieth century portraitists working in the representational style.

10. David Hockney (1937-)

Lucian Freud's David Hockney painted in 2002 (© Lucian Freud)
People waiting for the Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy in London (© Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0)

Hockney was a draughtsman, painter, printmaker, photographer, and stage designer.

The recipient of a comprehensive creative education, Hockney attended Bradford School of Art and the Royal College of Art, earning a gold medal. He became a leading figure in Pop Art.

Influenced by Van Gogh, nature was a substantial theme for Hockney’s works. His style constantly evolved from abstract expressionism to naturalism. He was fascinated by the Old Masters and researched the painting techniques of Caravaggio and da Vinci. He concluded that they had used optics and lenses to create their masterpieces. He found that information substantial to his work.

In 1964, Hockney moved to Los Angeles, California. He had myriad interests. He made a series of paintings of swimming pools using acrylics, a new medium. He was proficient in the use of technology in his work; cameras, computers, fax machines, iPad drawing programs, among others.

Hockney took an interest in large paintings. Bigger Trees Near Warter measured 15 feet by 40 feet.

In spite of his other interests, he always returned to painting portraits. Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) and Rabbit were among his most famous and most lucrative. In addition, he took an interest in self-portraiture, painting some 300. In 2012, Hockney became a member of the Order of Merit. After a career of more than sixty years, he is still regarded as one of Britain’s most celebrated contemporary artists and respected around the world.

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