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Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.

Still life painting, Roses, Morning Glory and a Carnation on a Marble Ledge with Some Grapes

Tracing the Roots of Still Life in Britain

[ Introduction )

Olivia Ghosh explores the arrival of still life in Britain from the influence of Dutch masters to the first great British still life painter.

As a genre, still life began in Europe at the end of the sixteenth century and exploded in popularity in the seventeenth century. Aristocratic families and newly wealthy merchants vied to acquire the rainbow bouquets that Jan Breughel the Elder (1568-1625) was producing in Antwerp and Milan, or the tables heavy with fruit pies and golden wine, which Pieter Claesz (1597/8-1660/1) was painting in Haarlem. Across the Channel this was categorically not the case.

In Britain interest in still life remained extremely limited. This is odd given that all the necessary elements for it to flourish were present. This new category of painting was the result of several intellectual currents, most importantly the Protestant Reformation and the Scientific Revolution, both of which affected all walks of life in the British isles. Equally, London was an important centre for trade, with a huge demand for luxury items, including the silver and porcelain that gleamed in the paintings of Willem Claesz Heda (1594-1680) in nearby Holland. And the British interest in gardens and flowers was already well established by this date. The word ‘florist’ is first documented in English in 1623, when it was used to define those people who grew elegant and sumptuous displays of flowers in neatly arranged gardens. However, unlike their European counterparts, these floral fanatics had no widespread desire to capture their achievements in paint.

Still life painting, Roses, Morning Glory and a Carnation on a Marble Ledge with Some Grapes

Simon Verelst (1644-1721), Roses, Morning Glory and a Carnation on a Marble Ledge with Some Grapes, oil on canvas, Private Collection

Despite this general antipathy, there are a small number of exceptions to the rule. In the earliest days virtually none of these artists were home grown. Like many of their portraitist counterparts, such as Hans Holbein (c. 1497- 1543) or later Sir Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641), the early proponents of still life in Britain, came from the Continent. One such artist was Simon Verelst (1644-1721), whose Roses, columbine, and poppies in a glass vase on a marble ledge can be seen in the exhibition The Shape of Things: Still Life in Britain at Pallant House Gallery.

Verelst moved to England from his native Holland in 1669, bringing with him a style of flower painting that had been made fashionable by artists such as Jan Davidsz De Heem (1606-1684). Shortly after his arrival Samuel Pepys (1633-1703) wrote in his famous diary ‘one Everest [Verelst] … took us to his lodging nearby and did show us a little flowerpot of his drawing, the finest thing, I ever, I think, saw in my life’. Unfortunately, this praise seems to have gone to Verelst’s head. He took to calling himself the ‘God of Flowers’ and ‘King of Painting’ and was confined for insanity.

The next artist to take up the mantle of British Still Life champion was the Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer (1636-1699). Born in Lille, he made a name for himself in Paris painting elaborate floral pieces for decorative interior schemes. In 1690, the British Ambassador to France, Ralph Montagu, 1st Duke of Montagu (1638-1709), persuaded him to come to England to work on the decorations for Montagu House in London and his Northamptonshire seat, Boughton House. Monnoyer’s work caused a great stir in London, where all things French were seen as the height of fashion, and he remained popular well into the eighteenth century. This continued success was for a large part thanks to his son, Antoine (1671-1747), who continued to produce paintings in his father’s style during his own British sojourn of 1714-1729. In 1762 no less than the king, George III, acquired twenty-one paintings attributed to ‘Monsieur Baptise’. Unfortunately for the King these were not all actually by either of the Monnoyers, but the style was evidently close enough to please him.

Painting of a flower arrangement in landscape format

Mary Moser, (1744-1819), Summer flowers on a Ledge, 1768, Bodycolour on paper, The Courtauld, London (Samuel Courtauld Trust), Bridgeman

It was not until the latter half of the eighteenth century that Britain could really claim its own great still life painter in Mary Moser (1744-1819). Moser was born in London and was the daughter of Swiss émigré, George Michael Moser (1706-1783), medallist and first keeper of the Royal Academy. Interestingly, Moser’s style did not reflect the airy lightness of the portraits and landscapes of her contemporaries but looked back to the seventeenth century Dutch still life painters, with rich, glowing colours set against a dark background. In 1768, along with Angelica Kauffmann (1741-1807), she was one of the two female founding members of the Royal Academy, (she was also the last full female member for an exceptionally long period, as after her death the next to be elected was Dame Laura Knight in 1936). Moser’s 1768 painting Summer flowers on a ledge can also be seen in the exhibition. In 1790 she was commissioned by Queen Charlotte to create large floral murals and several flower paintings for a room at Frogmore House, which were intended to create the illusion that it was an arbour open to the sky.

Unfortunately, Moser was very much a solo player in the still life game. She was not helped by the first President of the Royal Academy, Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792), who loudly expressed his opinion that it was a genre that ranked far behind history painting, portraiture (his own specialty) and landscapes. Despite this, over the course of the nineteenth century, still life carved out a niche for itself that was commercially successful despite its perceived lack of intellectual merit. Artists such as father and son George (1835-1890) and Oliver Clare (1853-1927) or the Manchester born Martha Mutrie (1824-1885) were prolific in their output of meticulously executed flower and fruit scenes, which would have graced the walls of the wealthy middle classes. Unlike Moser, these were more easily placed within the artistic currents of the day, often leaning towards a more Ruskinian scientific accuracy and placed in naturalistic settings.


Join us from 11 May 2024 for our exhibition The Shape of Things: Still Life in Britain to discover more about this fascinating genre of art.


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