W = writer

A = artist

C = composer

Arc = architect

Caedmon (active 670–80) W

Bede (c. 673–735) W

Cynewulf (active c. 790–810) W

King Alfred (c. 848–99) W

Aelfric (active c. 955–1010) W

Wulfstan (d. 1023) W

Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1155) W

Richard Rolle (1295–1349) W

John Gower (c. 1330–1408) W

William Langland (c. 1332–c. 1400) W

Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400) W

Julian of Norwich (1342–c. 1416) W

Thomas Malory (c. 1408–71) W

John Skelton (c. 1460–1529) W

Thomas More (1478–1535) W

William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536) W

Thomas Wyatt (1503–42) W

Thomas Tallis (1505–85) C

Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey (1517–47) W

John Stow (c. 1525–1605) W

Robert Smythson (c. 1536–1614) Arc

William Byrd (1543–1623) C

Nicholas Hilliard (1547–1619) A

Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–99) W

Philip Sidney (1554–86) W

Francis Bacon (1561–1626) W

Christopher Marlowe (1564–93) W

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) W

John Donne (1572–1631) W

Ben Jonson (1572–1637) W

Inigo Jones (1573–1652) Arc

Thomas Browne (1605–82) W

John Milton (1608–74) W

Peter Lely (1618–80) A

Andrew Marvell (1621–78) W

John Bunyan (1628–88) W

John Dryden (1631–1700) W

John Locke (1632–1704) W

Christopher Wren (1632–1723) Arc

Aphra Behn (1640–89) W

Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723) A

Henry Purcell (c. 1659–95) C

Daniel Defoe (1660–1731) W

Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661–1736) Arc

John Vanbrugh (1664–1726) Arc

Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) W

Thomas Archer (c. 1668–1743) Arc

Joseph Addison (1672–1719) W

Richard Steele (1672–1729) W

James Thornhill (1675/6–1734) A

Colen Campbell (1676–1729) Arc

James Gibbs (1682–1754) Arc

John Gay (1685–1732) W

William Kent (c. 1685–1748) Arc

Alexander Pope (1688–1744) W

Samuel Richardson (1689–1761) W

Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694–1753) Arc

William Hogarth (1697–1764) A

Henry Fielding (1707–54) W

Samuel Johnson (1709–84) W

Laurence Sterne (1713–68) W

James Stuart (1713–88) Arc

Richard Wilson (1714–82) A

Thomas Gray (1716–71) W

Nicholas Revett (1720–1804) Arc

Tobias Smollett (1721–71) W

Joshua Reynolds (1723–92) A

William Chambers (1726–96) Arc

George Stubbs (1724–1806) A

Paul Sandby (1725–1809) A

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88) A

Robert Adam (1728–92) Arc

Johann Zoffany (1733–1810) A

Joseph Wright of Derby (1734–97) A

James Macpherson (1736–96) W

Edward Gibbon (1737–94) W

Benjamin West (1738–1820) A

James Boswell (1740–95) W

Henry Fuseli (1741–1825) A

George Dance (1741–1825) Arc

Henry Holland (1746–1806) Arc

James Wyatt (1746–1813) Arc

Thomas Chatterton (1752–70) W

John Nash (1752–1835) Arc

John Soane (1753–1837) Arc

Thomas Rowlandson (1756–1827) A

William Blake (1757–1827) A & W

Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97) W

John Opie (1761–1807) A

Ann Radcliffe (1764–1823) W

Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830) A

William Wordsworth (1770–1850) W

Walter Scott (1771–1832) W

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834) W

Jane Austen (1775–1817) W

Charles Lamb (1775–1834) W

Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775–1851) A

John Constable (1776–1837) A

William Hazlitt (1778–1830) W

Robert Smirke (1781–1867) Arc

David Wilkie (1785–1841) A

Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859) W

Lord Byron (1788–1824) W

C. R. Cockerell (1788–1863) Arc

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) W

John Clare (1793–1864) W

John Keats (1795–1821) W

Charles Barry (1795–1860) Arc

Mary Shelley (1797–1851) W

Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859) W

Samuel Palmer (1805–81) A

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–61) W

Alfred Tennyson (1809–92) W

Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–65) W

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–63) W

Sir Gilbert Scott (1811–78) Arc

Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin (1812–52) Arc

Charles Dickens (1812–70) W

Robert Browning (1812–89) W

William Butterfield (1814–1900) Arc

Charlotte Brontë (1816–55) W

George Frederick Watts (1817–1904) A

Emily Brontë (1818–48) W

George Eliot (1819–80) W

John Ruskin (1819–1900) W

William Powell Frith (1819–1909) A

Matthew Arnold (1822–88) W

George Edmund Street (1824–81) Arc

William Holman Hunt (1827–1910) A

Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–82) A & W

John Everett Millais (1829–96) A

Frederick Leighton (1830–96) A

Richard Norman Shaw (1831–1912) Arc

Philip Webb (1831–1915) Arc

Lewis Carroll (1832–98) W

Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98) A

William Morris (1834–96) A & W

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837–1909) W

Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) W

Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842–1900) C

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89) W

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850–94) W

Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) W

George Gissing (1857–1903) W

Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) W

Edward Elgar (1857–1934) C

Arthur Conan Doyle (1859–1930) W

Walter Richard Sickert (1860–1942) A

Frederick Delius (1862–1934) C

Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) W

W. B. Yeats (1865–1939) W

Ernest Dowson (1867–1900) W

Edwin Lutyens (1869–1944) Arc

Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898) A

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) C

John Cowper Powys (1872–1963) W

Somerset Maugham (1874–1965) W

Augustus John (1878–1961) A

Lytton Strachey (1880–1932) W

Giles Gilbert Scott (1880–1960) Arc

Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) W

Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957) A & W

D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930) W

Ezra Pound (1885–1972) W

T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) W

Paul Nash (1889–1946) A

Edward Wadsworth (1889–1949) A

Agatha Christie (1890–1976) W

Stanley Spencer (1891–1959) A

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892–1973) W

Wilfred Owen (1893–1918) W

Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) W

Henry Moore (1898–1986) A

William Walton (1902–83) C

George Orwell (1903–50) W

Evelyn Waugh (1903–66) W

Graham Greene (1904–91) W

Michael Tippett (1905–98) C

Samuel Beckett (1906–89) W

W. H. Auden (1907–73) W

Francis Bacon (1909–92) A

Benjamin Britten (1913–76) C

Frank Auerbach (1931–) A

Bridget Riley (1931–) A

Howard Hodgkin (1932–) A

David Hockney (1937–) A




Of the English imagination there is no certain description. It has been compared with a stream or river, in the same manner as English poetry. It may be a fountain perpetually fresh and perpetually renewed, as in the Marian hymn of the early sixteenth century: “Haill! fresh fontane that springes new . . .” It can also be seen in close affinity with the flow of English poetical cadence:

In the hexameter rises the fountain’s silvery column; In the pentameter aye falling in melody back

It can be compared to an aeolian harp, of which. . . the long sequacious notes Over delicious surges sink and rise

These words of Coleridge suggest in turn the drawn-out melodies and vast chromatic harmonies of the English musical tradition. And yet, if a literary metaphor is required, then the most powerful may be taken from Henry Vaughan in the seventeenth century: “Like a great Ring of pure and endless light.” The English imagination takes the form of a ring or circle. It is endless because it has no beginning and no end; it moves backwards as well as forwards.

Albion is an ancient word for England, Albio in Celtic and Alba in Gaelic; it is mentioned in the Latin of Pliny and in the Greek of Ptolemy. It may mean “the white land,” related to the whiteness of the cliffs greeting travellers and suggesting pristine purity or blankness. But the cliffs are also guardians and Albion was the name of the primaeval giant who made his home upon the island of Britain. He is the “elemental and emblematic giant” whom G. K. Chesterton observed in his study of Chaucer, “with our native hills for his bones and our native forests for his beard . . . a single figure outlined against the sea and a great face staring at the sky.” His traces can be seen in the huge white horses which populated the primitive landscape, inscribed in the chalk of the hills. Today, like those fading memorials, Albion is not so much a name as the echo of a name.

There is clear evidence that the concept of Englishness—the “Englishness” of the Anglo-Saxons, as opposed to the “Britishness” of the Celts—circulated widely in the Anglo-Saxon world. Bede composed Historia Ecclesiastica GentisAnglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People), where the “Gens Anglorum” were deemed to be a specific and identifiable race sprung out of Saxon and Old English roots. In Bede’s history, “the English were God’s new ‘chosen’ nation elected to replace the sin-stained Briton in the promised land of Britain.”(This belief in God’s providential choice, most ably expounded by Milton in the seventeenth century, survived until the latter part of the nineteenth century.) The notion of Englishness itself was a religious one from the moment Pope Gregory sent Augustine to England with the mission of establishing a Church of the English, in the light of his celebrated if apocryphal remark “non Angli sed angeli” (“Not Angles but angels”). A late seventh-century biography then declared that Gregory would lead “ gentem Anglorum” into the sight of God at the time of the Last Judgement. One of the reasons for the success of the Reformation, and the formation of the Church of England, lies in this national zeal.

King Alfred is associated with “the councillors of all the English race” in a late ninth-century treaty, and defined himself as “ rex Anglorum et Saxonum.” In the preface to the translation of Gregory’s Cura Pastoralis he alludes to “ Angelcynn,” or Englishkind, and “Englisc.” The “D” and “E” texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle evince the spirit of English nationalism with reference to “this nation,” “all the people of England” and “all the flower of the English nation.” 2

The nationalism of the Anglo-Saxon period has been maintained by the fact that no other European nation has kept its boundaries intact over so many centuries. English literature, too, is among the oldest in Europe. It has been remarked that the heroic poetry of England after 900 strikes a singularly patriotic note, and we may regard that date as significant.

Archbishop Wulfstan’s “Sermon of the Wolf to the English,” of 1014, continually invokes theodscipe or the nation in an act of sympathetic if admonitory communion. As one historian has put it, “Englishness was the creation of the Anglo-Saxons, and it was they who made England.” 3 It was of crucial importance, in this context, that many charters and wills were composed in Old English; the language itself becomes an image of unity and identity. In that most important of Old English poems, Beowulf , the voices possess “eloquence and understatement,” a “melancholy” and “firm resolve,”which were bequeathed to subsequent English literature. In the art of the ninth and tenth centuries, too, there is an unmistakable Englishness in the employment of light and delicate outline. In the architecture of the same period irregularity and the pragmatic assembling of parts have also been deemed to be essentially English in spirit.

Yet from the beginning there are ambiguities and paradoxes. In painting, for example, the Anglo-Saxon style was inspired and modified by continental models before it could achieve maturity; the insular idiom was most fully expressed and developed precisely in relation to Mediterranean art of the same period. It could not exist without its continental counterpart. The power of Anglo-Saxon culture springs in part from absorption and assimilation, thus emphasising a more general point concerning “the susceptibility of the English artist to alien influences . . . and his willingness to tolerate and even adapt to his own purpose any acceptable new elements.” 5 This has been the pattern of the centuries, and indeed it can be maintained that English art and English literature are formed out of inspired adaptation; like the language, and like the inhabitants of the nation itself, they represent the apotheosis of the mixed style.

We may identify here a sense of belonging which has more to do with location and with territory, therefore, than with any atavistic native impulses. There has been much speculation on the subject of location theory, in which the imperative of place is more significant than any linguistic or racial concerns. In The Spirit of the People: An Analysis of the English Mind, published in 1912, Ford Madox Ford suggested that “it is absurd to use the almost obsolescent word ‘race.’ ” He noted in particular the descent of the English “from Romans, from Britons, from Anglo-Saxons, from Poitevins, from Scotch . . .” which is perhaps the best antidote to the nonsensical belief in some “pure” Anglo-Saxon people. In its place he invoked the spirit of territory with his belief that “It is not—the whole of Anglo-Saxondom—a matter of race but one, quite simply, of place—of place and of spirit, the spirit being born of the environment.” In Ford Madox Ford’s account that tradition is in some sense transmitted or communicated by the territory. It is a theory which will also elucidate certain arguments within this book.

And so the enterprise is begun. This study will concern the origins, and not the history, of the English imagination. It will not deal proportionately, therefore, with every period and every author or every artist. Beginnings will be granted more importance than endings. I will mention other literatures only in passing, and for this I offer no excuse. There will no doubt be many errors and omissions, to which I plead guilty in advance. I am fully aware that certain qualities defined here as peculiarly English are not uniquely so. Russian melancholy, and the Persian miniature, are cases in point. Yet such qualities flourish within an English context in singular and particular ways; I have simply endeavoured to trace their formation. There may also be faults of a native hue. If this book is diverse and various, digressive and heterogeneous, accumulative and eclectic, anecdotal and sensational, then the alert reader will come to realise that the author may not be entirely responsible.

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