Art: A Century of Exception

Almost since the days when Druidic warriors daubed themselves with woad, the notion has persisted that British painting is a barbarous and insular affair. By and large, the thesis is correct —but there is an important century of exception. Between 1760 and 1860, when Britain swept to the forefront among nations, its painters were as engaged and influential as its soldiers and diplomats were at Waterloo and the Congress of Vienna.

It was an eventful century to be exceptional in. The hundred years witnessed the French Revolution, the comet streak of Napoleon, the...

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