In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Art in Renaissance England

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Inventories
  • Art for the Middle Classes
  • Reformation
  • Patrons
  • Gender Analyses
  • Iconography and Interpretation

Renaissance and Reformation Art in Renaissance England
Tatiana C. String
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0512


The literature on the visual arts in the English Renaissance, which largely tracks the reigns of the Tudor and Jacobean monarchs, was, until the 1990s, heavily focused on portraiture. An important and comprehensive catalogue of Tudor portraits in the National Portrait Gallery was produced by Roy Strong (Strong 1969b, cited under Portraiture). The Tudor period was traditionally treated by art historians as a prologue to an identifiable British style that emerged only in the seventeenth, and even eighteenth, century. Gradually, a new generation of scholars began producing close examinations of different media: architecture, tapestries, funeral monuments, portrait miniatures, and gardens, as well as a wider range of paintings and portraits, extending to those of the middle classes. These examinations were rooted in documentary evidence and enlivened especially the study of the visual arts in the reign of Henry VIII. Milestone anniversaries, such as the five hundredth anniversary of Henry VIII’s birth, in 1991, and the quincentenary anniversary of his accession to the throne, celebrated in 2009, contributed to a growing number of scholarly monographs, exhibitions and their catalogues, and edited volumes based on academic conferences devoted to the study of Tudor visual art. This field has taken the lead in technical analysis of works of art. The five-year Making Art in Tudor Britain project, led by Tarnya Cooper, then at the National Portrait Gallery in London, pioneered the focused study and comparative findings of more than one hundred English Renaissance paintings through the use of the latest technologies.

General Overviews

Given the current robust state of the literature and research in this field, exemplified by Cooper, et al. 2015, it is perhaps surprising to discover that older surveys paid little attention to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Their interest in great artists and continental Renaissance style was, for the most part, only concerned with the works of Holbein and, to an extent, Hilliard. These studies, Gaunt 1985 and Waterhouse 1994, in particular, are largely dismissive of the Tudor and Jacobean periods. Older works of this type tend to be very teleological, assessing the sixteenth century as being mired in late medieval tradition, awaiting the arrival of Italian classicism. Even in more recent studies, such as Marks and Williamson 2003 or James 2016, there are only sections about the sixteenth century in larger treatments of the arts in England. Only one study, Ford 1989, devotes a discrete volume to an overview of the arts in this period. A major exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, accompanied by a catalog, Cleland and Eaker 2022, thoughtfully surveyed the art of the entire period.

  • Cleland, Elizabeth, and Andrew Eaker. The Tudors: Art and Majesty in Renaissance England. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2022.

    The catalogue that accompanied an important exhibition of Tudor art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The essays and catalog entries are scholarly updates to the existing literature on a very large number of diverse objects. Richly illustrated and thoroughly referenced. An excellent introduction to the subject as well as a scholarly resource.

  • Cooper, Tarnya, Aviva Burnstock, Maurice Howard, and Edward Town, eds. Painting in Britain 1500–1630: Production, Influences and Patronage. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

    Extensive collection of essays based on the latest developments in technical analysis and documentary research into sixteenth-century British art. Highlights neglected works of English art and sheds new light on well-known paintings. One output of the important Making Art in Tudor Britain project at the National Portrait Gallery, London.

  • Ford, Boris, ed. Renaissance and Reformation. Vol. 3 Cambridge Guide to the Arts in Britain. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Nine interlocking essays that, when taken together, break the media-specific and artist-centered focus of surveys of the arts in England. Of particular interest to the art historian are Howard and Llewellyn’s essay on painting and imagery and Airs’s chapter on architecture. These are some of the earliest examples of art historical scholarship to penetrate beyond traditional emphasis on paintings and buildings designed for the elite at court.

  • Gaunt, William. A Concise History of English Painting. Rev ed. London: Thames and Hudson, 1985.

    Only fourteen of nearly three hundred pages are devoted to the English Renaissance. Refers to the “elementary tastes” of Holbein’s English patrons and to the “almost Byzantine formality” of Elizabethan “cult portraits.” Prioritizes artists and portrait miniatures.

  • James, Sara N. Art in England: The Saxons to the Tudors, 600–1600. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2016.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctvh1dqgx

    A good survey for undergraduate teaching. Culminates in three substantive chapters on the visual arts during the reigns of the Tudor monarchs. Extensive notes and bibliography.

  • Marks, Richard, and Paul Williamson, eds. Gothic: Art for England. London: V&A Press, 2003.

    Catalogue of the wide-ranging V&A exhibition in 2003.The material extends to 1547, despite the misleading title, with excellent thematic essays and detailed catalogue entries.

  • Waterhouse, Ellis. Painting in Britain, 1530–1790. Rev ed. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 1994.

    Originally published in 1953, this revised edition includes a new introduction by Michael Kitson. Wide-ranging, artist-by-artist chronology, but characterizes the visual art of the sixteenth century as “deprived” of the latest forms yet to be “imported” from Italy.

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