Changing face of British art

Ian CollinsGreat British Art? Well, it's a matter of opinion – but Ian Collins welcomes a chance to savour some of the evidence in a new show at Norwich Castle.Ian Collins

Art in Britain is now undeniably a big draw - with Tate Modern being more popular than any other UK attraction save for Blackpool Pleasure Beach. But what's it all about?

Take a look, have your say. Welcome to the Great British Art? Debate - a four-year, lottery-funded, Tate-linked programme of exhibitions and events in museums around the country exploring a personal, regional and national portrait through creativity past and present.

The first Great British Art? show opens at Norwich Castle on Saturday October 24, and at the very least it offers the chance to savour some cracking images produced from 1750 to date, and then, if we wish, to consider them in a wider context.

Two hundred years ago the Norwich School of Artists was flourishing as the first and best of England's regional art schools, and it is wonderful that one of the great masterpieces of that movement - John Crome's Mousehold Heath - is now being lent to us by Tate Britain.

Two centuries ago Mousehold covered a larger swathe of central Norfolk, and summed up the wilderness that was so much of England - and perhaps the wildness of a country at war and with huge internal upheavals from the Industrial Revolution.

This striking view can now be seen alongside great Romantic spirit-of-place works by Constable, Cotman and Turner.

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But the buoyant art of Georgian Norwich also relied on the power of local patronage - and preceding and overlapping with the great local landscape painters, a group of very distinguished artists depicted lofty likenesses of key civic and county figures.

John Opie's portrait of Norwich mayor John Harvey is a whopper - both in scale and ambition, reflecting the status of a noble city proud of mercantile prominence.

From that face of commercial clout, we veer through the jagged and shrapnel-like shapes of world war one pictures by the likes of Paul Nash and Wyndham Lewis, and then to shattering studies by Polish artist Stanislaw Mikula who settled in Norwich and documented our fine city being ravaged in the Baedeker raids on centres of British culture that paralleled the Blitz from 1940.

The most impressive contemporary piece, in size at least, is Tony Cragg's Britain Seen From the North 1981. Here a figure gazes across a map composed of rubbish-dump finds and constructed at a time of political, social and economic tension.

It's a long way from the apparent harmony of Ivy Smith's The Smith Family Golden Wedding 1986 portrait of a Norwich family party and further still from Tracey Emin's embroidery Hate and Power Can be a Terrible Thing.

Her Emin-ence was raised in a Margate which was nothing like the town of Turner's day. She was absorbed by personal problems but blessed with a rich cultural ancestry including Turkish Cypriot forebears and a granny who was nifty with needle and thread.

One of the handy points about conceptual art is that you can get other people to do the actual work once you've come up with the concept…

Our Trace's flag-incorporated quilt comments on war and British institutions - though older viewers may note an unwittingly damning verdict on the lack of tuition in grammar generally and spelling particularly in modern state schools.

So who are we as revealed in art? Where do we come from and where are we going? How are we doing? Has a narrow culture turned into a great globalised hotchpotch or is there new strength and sparkle in diversity?

We're invited to say what we think after studying this presentation of artistic evidence.

And with more linked shows to follow - including Watercolour in Britain early next year and Restless Times: Modern British Art in 2011 - the aim is to build up a compelling and comprehensive picture.

As for me, my idea of Great British Art is still summed up by John Crome's featured Norwich River, Afternoon. This leisurely scene leaps above period and place.

I wrote a short commentary on the work for an earlier exhibition, which I'll now pitch into the art debate…

'I love this picture because it illustrates both the technical mastery of John Crome and the pioneering belief of the Norwich School that heaven lay on our doorsteps - or just off the nearest jetty.

'Never mind the Napoleonic Wars -

or the threats of destitution and disease, or the fact that life in the Regency era was unlikely to last past 40 - a sunny afternoon in Norfolk was made for lazing in a boat. And the stillness of the moment suggests a blissful eternity.

'From a time when cleanliness was next to impossible, this life-affirming scene has a poignant purity.'

t Great British Art? is at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, October 24 until January 19; www.museums.norfolk.gov.uk