England and the arts

 Another myth of the England haters is that her people lack  high culture. In dealing with this charge it is important not  to claim too much. England does not stand in the front rank of nations for music or the visual arts. Let us laud the  people who have led the way, the Germans and Italians.  England’s international influence has been small in  these accomplishments. For foreigners, England has one composer: Elgar, and one artist: Turner.  The quintessential English art is literature, in which I  include the theatre. I doubt whether any nation can excel  England here in quality or international influence. Take a few names from England’s literary past: Chaucer,  Langland, Mallory, Sir Thomas More, Ben Jonson, Kit Marlowe, Bunyan, Dryden, Milton, Marvell, Pope, Sam Johnson, Fielding, Wordsworth, Byron, Austen, the Brontes, George Elliott,Tennyson, Shelley, Keates, Dickens, Trollope, Waugh, Greene  and Golding.

And then there is Shakespeare, still being read, performed, analysed and reinterpreted nearly four centuries after his  death. Those with a grounding in literary history will understand how exceptional this. Most authors famous in their  day do not remain so for long after their death. Those few who are remembered tend to be honoured more in the name than the reading or watching. Shakespeare has never been entirely out of fashion. Today he is performed more than ever. His reach stretches throughout the English speaking world and beyond – The Germans in particular have a great liking for the Bard. No playwright in history has been so often performed. He is a most remarkable phenomenon.

Why England did not become one of the leading progenitors of music following the Renaissance is rather difficult  to understand. In the middle ages England was far from being  “a land without music”. Music in church was the norm. During the fifteenth century an Englishman, John Dunstable, was one of the foremost composers in Europe. In the sixteenth century England continued to have a musical reputation. The likes of Byrd and Tallis were admired abroad. The ubiquity of music was often remarked by visitors to England. Shakespeare’s plays reflect this general English appetite. Then for the next two hundred and fifty years there is Henry Purcell and precious little else of high reputation, although the English tradition of church music remained high and foreign composers such as Handel were feted. To blame the paucity of musical greatness on the Puritans will not do. . The Puritans did drive music out of churches, but their rule was short and ended  by the Restoration in 1660. Nor were puritans opposed to secular music, except on the Sabbath. Cromwell was a great lover of music. All in all, the general mediocrity of English  music in the two centuries before Elgar is a mystery.

Throughout the time of dearth in serious music, its popular cousin remained strong and very much part of English life. The variety of English folk songs still being sung at the beginning of this century was immense as men such as Percy  Grainger and Cecil Sharp discovered when they went searching.  The English ballard tradition was going strong well into the nineteenth century and when it waned, the English invented  Music Hall, one of the great popular cultural expressions of all time, which for more than a century provided an immense variety of entertainment including much music, largely performed by working class entertainers. Since the end of Music Hall in the early sixties, England has been of course, a prime purveyor of Pop music.

If one includes in the visual arts architecture, mediaeval England was capable of unambiguously front rank art in its Cathedrals. In later centuries the great private houses of England wrote another chapter in this book. But that is not  what most people think of as art. They think of paintings and sculpture attached to particular artists. This is a Renaissance idea. In England it did not gain hold amongst native artists until the seventeenth century. Since then  England may claim only one artist accepted internationally as great, Turner, However, what England has produced is a  stream of artists with an utterly individual voice amongst whom are numbered Hogarth (who is probably the most  entertaining of all serious artists), the Pre-Raphaelites, and Stanley Spencer.

If the English have been comparatively deficient in producing great artists, they have been anything but in acting as  collectors of outstanding foreign art. Even after a century of assiduous American purchases, the country houses,  galleries and museums of England probably contain as good a selection of European art as will be found anywhere.

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