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5 Iconic British artists you should know about

5 Iconic British artists you should know about

From Romantics to revolutionaries, here are five British artists you should know about

British art has seen it all over the years, from industrial landscapes to dirty underwear. Whatever your tastes, here are five iconic British artists everyone should know. 

J M W Turner (1775–1851)

Ullswater from Gobarrow Park by J M W Turner - 5 British artists everyone should know

Ullswater from Gobarrow Park, 1819, J M W Turner. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

An English Romantic painter, printmaker and watercolourist, J M W Turner was known for beautiful landscapes and studies of machinery. As a child his father encouraged his artistic talent, displaying his son’s drawings in his shop, and he went on to study art at school.

"By the early 1800s he was a painting prodigy, expected to be one of the best artists of his generation"

After going on trips outside of London, Turner discovered the value of sketching on the spot and went on to spend much of his life touring in the summer and working in his studio in the winter. He began his career working on landscapes, due to the flourishing commercial interest in topography at the time, but he would not be limited by this: in 1796 he exhibited the oil painting Fisherman at Sea

By the early 1800s he was considered a painting prodigy, expected to be one of the best artists of his generation. He was also regarded as eccentric, reclusive and often rude, making him a controversial figure. Nonetheless, he remains one of Britain’s most iconic artists, and is regarded as a precursor of abstract painting.

Elizabeth Siddal (1829–1862)

Self Portrait Elizabeth Siddal, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons - 5 british artists you should know

Self-portrait, 1854, Elizabeth Siddal. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Siddal may have been the model for John Everett Millais's famous painting Ophelia (1852), but she was also a talented artist in her own right. In fact, she was the only woman to exhibit at an 1857 Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. 

In 1849, she met Water Deverell and began modelling for Pre-Raphaelite artists, becoming almost synonymous with Pre-Raphaelite ideals of beauty. By 1953, Dante Gabriel Rossetti took her on as his student (she would later become his wife, too). It is believed there are thousands of drawings, paintings and poems by Rossetti in which Siddal was the subject.  

Interestingly, her 1854 self-portrait seemed to diverge from the Pre-Raphaelite beauty standards, as she depicts herself looking harsher and angrier than others’ paintings of her. In the 1850s, her career was subsidised by John Ruskin who paid £150 a year in exchange for her sketches, drawings and watercolours. Her works often depicted Arthurian legend and other medieval themes, and in 1857 she became the only woman to exhibit at a Pre-Raphaelite exhibition. 

L S Lowry (1887–1976)

Going to work L S Lowry - 5 british artists you should know about

Going to Work, 1943, L S Lowry. Imperial War Museum North, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

L S Lowry is famous for his “matchstick men”, which populate industrial scenes in North West England. His interest in these scenes perhaps stems from his family’s move to Pendlebury, Greater Manchester, where the landscape comprised factories and mills. He wrote that at first he detested it, but then he “got pretty interested in it, then obsessed by it”.

"Lowry currently holds the record for most British honours rejected"

His works often depict industrial landscapes in and around Manchester, although he has also produced portraits, seascapes and landscapes. He lived a quiet and solitary life, but was known for attending football matches, being a supporter of Manchester City FC. 

He currently holds the record for most British honours rejected: he twice declined appointment to the Order of the British Empire (once in 1955 and once in 1961), as well as a knighthood in 1968 and appointments to the Order of the Companions of Honour in 1972 and 1976.

Francis Bacon (1909–1992)

Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X Francis Bacon - 5 british artists you should know about

Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, 1953, Francis Bacon. CC-BY-SA-4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Regarded as one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, Francis Bacon achieved renown for disturbing images that captured the trauma of post-war society. He was largely a self-taught artist, having never attended art school, and he didn’t begin painting until his late twenties after seeing a Picasso exhibition in Paris.

Bacon had a difficult childhood, often moving between Ireland and England as he grew up, and clashing with his father, who struggled to accept his son’s sexuality. He spent the 1920s and 1930s living something of a hedonistic lifestyle in London, Paris and Berlin before he embarked on his journey as a painter. 

Success came after the Second World War with his triptych, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, 1944, three canvasses with distorted figures set against a burnt orange background. Viewers were unnerved by the piece, with John Russell describing them as “images so unrelievedly awful that the mind shut with a snap at the sight of them.” The themes first visited in this piece (including violence, suffering and despair) featured in much of Bacon’s work throughout his career, and Bacon was a revolutionary artist of his time. 

Tracey Emin (born 1963)

Tracey Emin - 5 british artists you should know about

Tracey Emin was once considered the “enfant terrible” of the Young British Arists of the 1980s, creating bold, often autobiographical artworks such as her iconic 1995 piece, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. This was a tent with the appliquéd names of, as you might guess, everyone she had ever slept with. The piece was since destroyed in the 2004 Momart London warehouse fire.

"Her work is confessional, daring and perhaps not for everyone"

In 1999 she was a Turner Prize nominee and exhibited My Bed, an installation of her own unmade dirty bed complete with used condoms and period-stained underwear. Her work is confessional, daring and perhaps not for everyone, but she is undoubtedly a key figure in the British art world.

She is now a Royal Academician and in February 2013, she was named one of the 100 most powerful women in the United Kingdom by Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4.

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