Native and foreign practice - distinctive or different?

Susan Foister, Director of Collections, National Gallery

Making Art in Tudor Britain
Abstract of a paper presented at Tudor and Jacobean Painting: Production, Influences and Patronage
Funded by the British Academy and The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art

The Making Art in Tudor Britain project has for the first time provided a substantial body of physical evidence concerning Tudor paintings, all portraits. Many of the artists working in Tudor Britain, especially in London, were immigrants. Looking at the larger, Northern European, context this paper considered the extent to which the locations in which artists were born, trained and subsequently employed might have a bearing on the physical and stylistic properties of their work, and on their artistic practices. To what extent do immigrant artists retain characteristics distinctive of their origins? Are there distinct and separate native and foreign artistic communities operating in Tudor London? Can we draw any useful distinctions between native and foreign practice that might shed light on some of the works examined in this project?

Painters were among the many highly mobile workers in Northern Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. London was no exception, despite the fact that the guilds of the city of London were extremely protective of their members. An example such as that of the portrait in the National Gallery of the Venetian future doge Marco Barbarigo, made by an Eyckian painter when Barbarigo resided in London from the mid 1440s to at least 1450, allows us to pose the question as to how far technical similarities between the work of an Eyckian painter in London and that of van Eyck himself in the Low Countries should be given any significance, given that the materials used are not at all uncommon in Northern Europe at this time. Further examples - the Cologne painter Stephan Lochner, and the Bruges painter Hans Memling, both immigrants, or the Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altarpiece working in Cologne, the Northern painters working in Venice and Hans Holbein working in England- draw attention to the lack of distinctions in practice and the use of materials between migrants and natives; moreover, arguably an immigrant painter’s absorption of a local style is precisely what leads to success.

The relative uniformity in both materials and working practices in Northern Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries must have greatly encouraged mobility among painters. In London in the sixteenth century, with its settlements of Netherlandish painters, its imports of Netherlandish works of art and its closeness to the Low Countries, both native and immigrant painters are likely to have used almost identical materials, ones shared with painters in the rest of Northern Europe, and to have worked collaboratively, reflecting the predominance of Netherlandish patterns and ways of painting in the rest of Northern Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although much evidence still remains to be compiled and assessed it might be suggested that in their practice native oil painters in London had much in common with their highly successful immigrant counterparts.