British & American Painting

Detail from Thomas Gainsborough, ‘The Cottage Girl’, 1785.

The Gallery’s holding of British paintings ranges from the Tudor to the modern, with a particular emphasis on eighteenth-century art.

Formal portraiture, the dominant art form in Britain, reaches a high point in the eighteenth century with the work of Joshua Reynolds, who borrowed from mythology, literature and art history to create his grand effigies such as that of the extravagant Charles Coote, First Earl of Belamont. Following Reynolds, Thomas Lawrence became the most fashionable portraitist of his generation, while Swiss-born Angelica Kauffman was the leading female painter of the age. 

The growing middle classes of the eighteenth century enjoyed seeing their likenesses recorded on canvas. Their patronage generated a new type of informal portrait genre, the conversation piece, in which William Hogarth, Johann Zoffany and Henry Raeburn excelled at painting. Thomas Gainsborough created society portraits and ‘fancy pictures’ of figures in rustic locations, examples of which are held in the collection.

Pure landscape painting was brought to its maturity by the Welsh-born artist Richard Wilson. His views of Tivoli reveal a freshness of approach that would later influence the nineteenth-century landscapists John Constable and J.M.W. Turner (over thirty of Turner’s works on paper are owned by the Gallery). The American painter John Singer Sargent, best known for his elegant society portraits, brings the nineteenth-century collection to a close with an atmospheric Venetian street scene.