Every artist is a product of their environment, to some degree. From William Hogarth to Banksy, we look at the lives and works of five of Britain’s most celebrated artists.
1. William Hogarth, 1697 to 1764
Hogarth was the son of a schoolmaster from Westmoreland who is immortalized by his depictions of “modern moral subjects,” selling engravings on subscription.
Following a stint as an apprentice goldsmith, Hogarth started producing his own designs in 1710 at the tender age of 13. Later, William Hogarth took up oil painting, starting with small portraits, and working up to his world-famous series of paintings satirizing contemporary British customs. So plagiarized was Hogarth’s work that he was a driving force behind the Copyright Act of 1735, protecting writers and artists against plagiarism for centuries to come.
Hogarth’s most renowned works, Beer Street and Gin Lane, were published in 1751. They were a social commentary in support of the Gin Act. Designed to be viewed side by side, Hogarth’s intention was to warn against the dangers of “the foreign spirit of gin,” extolling the virtues of drinking “nourishing English beer” instead.
2. William Blake, 1757 to 1827
Painter, printmaker, and poet William Blake created some of the most iconic images in the history of British art. Rebellious and radical, Blake has inspired visual artists, musicians, and poets for centuries, despite his talents going largely unrecognized during his lifetime. The artist was branded as “mad” by his contemporaries due to his idiosyncratic views.
Today, William Blake is held in high regard for his creativity and expressiveness, his paintings and poetry revealing philosophical and mystical undercurrents.
One of Blake’s most famous paintings, Ancient of Days, has been used as a source of inspiration in music and art since its creation.
3. Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1775 to 1851
Perhaps the most beloved of all English Romantic artists, Turner rose to notoriety as the “painter of light.” His brilliant use of color, light and dark in his seascapes and landscapes transgressed a variety of different painting mediums, including oil paintings, watercolors, and even engravings.
Turner was born near London’s Covent Garden. He entered the Royal Academy Schools aged just 14 years old, and started exhibiting watercolors the following year.
Now regarded as a national treasure, Turner was denounced as much as he was lauded in his lifetime. Joseph Turner developed exceptional technical skill, as well as a taste for land and seascapes. He is probably best known for his moody depictions of sunset and sunrise over the water, the sky characteristically claiming the lion’s share of many of his paintings.
4. Sir John Everett Millais, 1829 to 1896
Born in Southampton, England, John Everett Millais quickly established himself as a child prodigy in art, embarking on a career that, unlike many other artists of his era, saw him enjoy international fame in his own lifetime.
Sir John Everett Millais is widely credited as a forerunner of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, joining forces with a tight-knit group of artists, including William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, rebelling against prevailing norms in academic art.
Millais famously looked to nature for inspiration, acquiring a strong reputation for his attention to pictorial realism. Like Hogarth, his works increasingly had a political narrative, although in his later years, the artist devoted himself exclusively to Scottish landscapes and portraiture.
Sir John Everett Millais is best known for his portrait Ophelia, depicting the heroine of the Shakespearean play, Hamlet. Driven to the brink after Hamlet murders her brother, Ophelia falls into a stream and drowns. In real life, the model for the painting, 19-year-old Elizabeth Siddall, also met a tragic end.
To create the effect of drowning in a river, Elizabeth Siddall spent hours lying in a bath of cold water, almost succumbing to pneumonia as a result. Widely regarded as the world’s first supermodel, the Pre-Raphaelite beauty was the subject of countless masterpieces. Siddall had a long love affair and short marriage with Millais’ contemporary, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who drew and painted her obsessively.
Rossetti, however, was frequently unfaithful. Faced with the constant threat of being replaced by a younger muse, Elizabeth Siddall slid into depression. Having suffered a stillbirth, with historians still tussling today over whether she suffered anorexia, tuberculosis, and/or a laudanum addiction, Elizabeth Siddall purportedly died from an overdose at the age of 32.
5. Banksy, Unknown
Banksy is an enigma, a (presumably) British artist who relishes his anonymity. His urban interventions and street art serve as a critical commentary on major global issues, including political authority, capitalism, and terrorism.
In October 2018, Banksy’s Girl With Balloon painting went under the hammer at Sotheby’s London, fetching a cool $1.4 million. It promptly turned into Love is in the Bin. The moment the hammer fell, a shredding device attached to a Victorian-style frame was activated, its new owners looking on in horror as the girl in their priceless painting disappeared.
Every cloud has a silver lining, however. Love in the Bin, consisting of a single red balloon on a white background, was promptly relisted, with an asking price of $4 million.