While portraiture is perhaps the one area where British painting can be said to have left its mark on the wider history of art, this focus on faces grew largely out of a period of artistic destruction – the Reformation. The effective prohibition on religious painting meant that the walls of large houses came to be decorated instead with portraiture, setting a trend which continued into the twentieth century.
To begin with, Britons focused on themselves as a means of displaying wealth and position, and these somewhat stiff, formal portraits typify British sixteenth-century art. But later, as the skill of portraitists grew, likeness and character came to play a more dominant part. This change came thanks mainly to one man, Sir Anthony van Dyck, whose arrival as Charles I's court painter in 1632 forms the axis on which British art history turns; his ability to impart a sense of movement and humanity created, for the first time, believable depictions of actual people.
Van Dyck, of course, was from Flanders, and the majority of attributable portraits painted in this period are by foreign artists; Hans Holbein, Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller – to name just three – were all imported as court artists. It took some time for what we might call a 'native’ school of British artists to emerge, though there were brief exceptions such as William Dobson.