[pullquote]“BRITISH ART is just simply better than French art.”[/pullquote]
That’s Angus Trumble speaking. He’s curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art (YCBA) in New Haven, Connecticut, and while his contention may scandalize art historians—certainly Francophiles—a visit to the YCBA will convert many to his iconoclastic view.
Donated to Yale University by Paul Mellon (Yale ‘29), the YCBA opened in 1977 in an inventive building designed by Louis Kahn. It has lots of filtered daylight and most galleries have room-size space—features hospitable to British paintings, which typically focus on family portraits, domestic life and the pleasures of the countryside.
In the early 18th century such subjects were considered undignified compared to historical or religious subjects. British artists had to defend their art and compete against prestigious foreigners working in London. William Hogarth inveighed against French portraitists who “monopolised all the people of fashion in the kingdom…so that all our artists went into utmost distress and poverty.”
The illustrious Joshua Reynolds, the first president of the Royal Academy, had to insist that portraits such as his were high art not mere potboilers. He held the neoclassical view that portraits should “[take] the general air” rather than reproducing “the exact similitude of every feature,” while his rival Thomas Gainsborough gloried in portraying fine silks, frothy frills and all the fol-de-rols of fashionable costume. Both men created magnificent pictures of Britain’s elite, many of which are now in the YCBA collection.
Reynolds’ painting Mrs. Abington as Miss Prue is perhaps the most enticing. Shown looking over a chair back, her mouth in a moue, she ponders her next stratagem in the role of Miss Prue in playwright William Congreve’s Love for Love. Equally alluring is Gainsborough’s Mary Little, later Lady Carr, who luxuriates in her glossy pink dress with its masses of lace and a black choker that highlights her pearly décolletage.
As the empire and the Industrial Revolution enriched industrialists, merchants and landowners alike, more people could afford to commission pictures that showed the world how well they were doing. The portrait had long been a favorite British art form, now it expanded into the distinctively British genre called the conversation piece. Well-suited to small rooms, conversation pieces illustrate families talking with one another, playing music or enjoying the outdoors in scenes of domestic life.

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The innovative architecture of the Yale Center for British Art allows filtered daylight to bathe the center’s glorious collection of portraiture and artwork depicting domestic life, historical scenes and the English countryside (All photos: Yale Center for British Art, by Richard Caspole).[/caption]

Of the many conversation pieces in the YCBA, The Artist and His Family by Benjamin West is particularly interesting. Wearing an elegant wig and embroidered shirt, the artist gazes at his wife, who is bedecked in an elaborate headdress. Nearby a son in a charming brown suit with fancy buttons and a wide collar looks at a new baby in lacy robes. In contrast, West’s father and brother sit in the center, both in dun clothes and Quaker hats. The Wests were Quakers who had emigrated to Pennsylvania. When the artist decided to make his career in England, his father also returned. His Quaker dress refers to the family’s past, while the finery of the younger generations displays the son’s accomplishments as Historical Painter to the King and successor to Reynolds as president of the Royal Academy.
Successful people in Britain liked nothing better than country pursuits such as hunting and horse racing. For the English, who loved both portraits and horses, what could be more natural than portraits of horses? No one has ever been better at this job than George Stubbs, author of a groundbreaking study The Anatomy of the Horse. Scientific knowledge complemented by an elegant sense of design give Stubbs’ paintings the tranquil assurance of all great art, so it’s no surprise that the first painting Mellon bought was Stubbs’ Pumpkin with Stable Lad. Mellon explained that he and his wife were “bowled over by the charming horse, the young boy in the cherry-colored jacket, and the beautiful landscape background. It…could be said to be the impetus towards my later, some might say gluttonous, forays into the sporting art field.”
Mellon donated 40 of Stubbs’works to the YCBA, including several pictures of racehorses and major canvases such as Horse Frightened by a Lion and Horse Attacked by a Lion. This particular virtuoso work now reigns over the YCBA’s Library Court, which Kahn designed to look like the library of an English country house. Several more Stubbs pictures are also displayed, including Zebra. Painted in exact detail, the zebra is posed against English woodland, not a hypothetical version of the African plains—a choice typical of Stubbs’ fidelity to what he knew well.
Mellon’s English interests ranged beyond paintings of the horsy life. His mother was English, and he spent a lot of time in England, studying at Cambridge (as well as at Yale), where he was steeped in English literature and history. Among the works he collected were copies of William Blake’s Book of Urizen, Jerusalem and Songs of Innocence and Experience illustrated by the poet and all now available for perusal on request in the YCBA’s Rare Books Room.
A towering figure of British art as well as literature, Blake scorned faithfulness to reality in favor of art that springs from imagination—a notion central to Romantic aesthetics and crucial to the paintings of Blake’s contemporaries John Constable and J.M.W. Turner, even though their landscapes invariably depict actual places. Constable’s Hadleigh Castle, the Mouth of the Thames—Morning After a Stormy Night is a drear scene of the ruined castle on the wastes of the estuary with storm clouds overhead. Constable painted this while grieving for his wife: The ruin, the gray clouds and seagulls flying out to sea all suggest her death—a stunning example of the romantic sublime.
Just as Reynolds and Gainsborough, England’s greatest portraitists, were contemporaries, Turner rivaled Constable in landscape art, as the YCBA holdings of their work shows. In early paintings such as Harlech Castle, Summer’s Evening Twilight he explores melancholy as Constable did in Hadleigh Castle, while investigating the effects of light on scenery, especially on water. His Dort or Dordrecht: The Dort Packet Boat from Rotterdam Becalmed shows the harbor bathed in morning light. Wreckers—Coast of Northumberland evokes Nature’s power with swirls of light and mist, while late paintings such as the luminous Inverary Pier, Loch Fyne: Morning is an elemental mass of yellows and grays—an atmosphere rather than a place.
James McNeil Whistler’s painting of Thames Nocturne in Blue and Silver has Turner’s interest in atmosphere at its heart. It is all about the effects of fog—a blue-gray contrast to Antonio Canaletto’s Westminster Bridge and the Lord Mayor’s Procession on the Thames, where the sunlit river on a day of celebration has the serene glory typical of the artist’s pictures of his native Venice.
How does Canaletto get into a museum of British art? Angus Trumble explains: “We are very broad in our definition. “British art’ includes painters who worked in Britain as well as British artists. Canaletto spent a decade in London.” Among other foreign residents whose work is in the YCBA are the Americans Whistler and John Singleton Copley, and many artists from the Netherlands, including Peter Lely, Claude de Jongh and Anthony Van Dyck, who came to England in the 17th century to paint the Stuart kings and their courts.
While such painters helped shape British art, the influence was not all one way. British-style conversation pieces soon became all the rage on the Continent. The fascination with the effects of light on landscapes and people in paintings by Joseph Wright of Derby, Constable and Turner was a potent influence on the Impressionists. Similarly, the psychological complexity of British portraits by Gainsborough, Reynolds, Allan Ramsay, and later, Vanessa Bell has scarcely been matched.
“Britain has produced some towering figures of pan-European art,” insists Trumble, citing Reynolds, Gainsborough, Blake, Constable, Turner, Stubbs and Hogarth. A lover of big paintings, he names Stubbs’ monumental pictures of horses threatened by lions, Constable’s Hadleigh Castle and Turner’s Dort or Dordrecht as gems of the collection. “I love Reynolds’ Miss Prue, too,” Trumble says. Recently he has rearranged the galleries to integrate sculpture with paintings, so the YCBA’s collection of more than 2,000 British art works—the largest outside Britain—is now shown to best advantage.
Visitors to New Haven’s YCBA can also see frequent special exhibitions there. Upcoming in 2006 are “London: John Virtue” (February 2-April 23); “Mr. Whatman’s Mill: Papermaking and the Art of Watercolor in Eighteenth-Century Britain” (February 22-June 4); and “English Silver from the Kremlin” (May 25-September 10). Web site: www.yale.edu/ycba