Some Thoughts About England’s Obsession With Portraits


William Tillyer, “Portrait, Head and Shoulders (Lattice)” (1978), acrylic on canvas and metal mesh, 24 x 28 inches (images courtesy Bernard Jacobson Gallery, London, England)

England is the only advanced, industrialized country that I can think of where portraiture and postwar painting have become nearly interchangeable. One cannot think of painting in postwar England without recognizing the work of Michael Andrews (1928–1995), Frank Auerbach (born 1931), Francis Bacon (1909–1992), Lucien Freud (1922–2011), David Hockney (born 1937), Leon Kossoff (1926–2019), and Euan Uglow (1932–2000), all of whom are known for portraits that required the sitter to pose for hours. 

With the possible exception of Howard Hodgkin, not a single English abstract artist has attained anything comparable to the status achieved by Freud or Hockney. (Don’t titles such as “Mr and Mrs E. J. P.” (1969-1973) and “DH in Hollywood” (1980-1984) suggest that some of Hodgkin’s paintings are meant to be seen as portraits, no matter how abstracted their imagery might be?) The fact that portraiture is an important component of England’s long-held perceptions of its artistic achievement and modern painting is something I want to examine. 

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@peepso_user_31(Denise Durak)
Great article. I personally love portraiture paintings. Setting that aside, I like Tillyer's rebellion (to a point) and the material he chose to use. Thanks… Read more
8 months ago