In the early eighteenth century most artists in Britain were of foreign origin, often from the Low Countries, where artists were better trained and supported. But from the 1730s Hogarth revolutionised both style and subject matter with his moral subject paintings, informal portraits and patriotism. Britain’s growing trading, colonial and industrial wealth led to a booming market for art among the middle classes as well as the aristocracy. British artists travelled abroad to study, particularly to Italy, and professional artistic training improved, eventually giving rise to the foundation of the Royal Academy in 1768. The RA promoted a traditional, academic hierarchy of art. This put 'history painting', the depiction of morally elevating stories from mythology, literature and history, at the top and landscape and portraiture, which were Britain’s strengths, at the bottom.

Landscapes absorbed both the Dutch tradition of familiar local subjects, realistically painted, and the idealised, Italianate style of the French artist Claude. Throughout the century idealism and naturalism competed and combined. The discovery of the artistic potential of Britain’s wild landscapes, especially in Wales, the Lake District and Scotland, coincided with new aesthetic theories about the ‘picturesque’ and the sublime. By the end of the eighteenth century, Romanticism, the supremacy of the artist’s own subjective vision, began to dominate art.