Britain has an extensive art history, contributing significantly to the European – and global – art evolution. Some even argue modern art has its origin in Britain. Whatever your opinion of British art, you can’t deny how influential British art has been to every facet of the artistic landscape, nor can you deny the level of influence British artists have had on these forms of art.
It can be argued that British art is characteristically distinct and therefore differs significantly from other artists in similar genres. This distinct interpretation is what makes British art, and British artists, renowned.
This list of top 10 famous contemporary British artists, will help you dip your toes in Britain’s extensive art history and give you a deeper appreciation for Britain’s contribution to art.
But, before we go into detail on who made it onto the list, it’s essential to understand what contemporary art is.
What Is Contemporary Art?
There is some contention as to the origins of the term ‘Contemporary Art’. In 1947, The Institute of Contemporary Art in London was founded, where as the new museum of contemporary art in New York was founded in 1977. It wasn’t until the 80’s that the Tate planned a museum of contemporary art which it defined as art of the past 10 years on a rolling basis. At the beginning of the 1970’s the term Postmodern was coined so perhaps this can be seen as the beginning of contemporary Art?
Contemporary art can be described as art of the moment! One distinct shift between Modern and contemporary art was the shift away from the aesthetic beauty of a piece of artwork, to focus on the underlying concept behind it. The end result became less important than the journey the artist took to arrive there.
For anyone with an interest in art, contemporary art will be most relatable, because it speaks to the cultural phenomenon we’re currently facing, as interpreted by each artist.
Top 10 British Contemporary Artists
This list is by no means an exhaustive one. Contemporary art is so current and relevant to our society that this list of artists will evolve as the era and style evolves. But many names on this list have become far too influential to Britain’s art history to not be include in a top 10 list. So, in no particular order, here’s the list of top ten British contemporary artists.
1. Tracy Emin
Born in Croydon, Greater London in 1963 Tracy is considered one of the YBAs (Young British Artists) who rose to prominence in the nineties. Tracy’s work depicts her life as she represents it in a variety of media from installations, sculptures, drawings, and photography. Her most famous works include My Bed, Everyone I have Ever Slept With and Sad Shower in New York.
2. Francis Bacon
Born in Dublin, Ireland in 1909, Francis Bacon spanned two critical eras in art – modern and contemporary. Although these fields deal primarily in the abstract Bacon always focused on the human form, creating a signature style characterised by a disfiguring and morphing of the human physique, and paintings that often had overtones of mortality. Although he inspired an entire generation of artists, Francis Bacon will probably forever be known as the artist who broke a world record (at the time) for having the highest prices for paintings sold at auction. Bacon accomplished this feat when his painting the “Three Studies of Lucian Freud” sold for $142.4 million at an auction house in New York.
3. David Hockney
Born in Bradford, England David Hockney attended the Bradford College of Art from 1953 to 1957, after two years of mandatory army service, he attended graduate school at Royal College of Art in London, where his works were first purchased.
Hockney would go onto become an influential figure in the pop art movement with paintings and installations like The Splash, A Bigger Splash and American Collectors. But it was his 1972 painting “A Portrait of an Artist” that would become one of his most famous paintings.
Later in the 1970s, Hockney would abandon painting to take on collages, before returning to paintings as a superior contemporary artist. His latest work sees him embracing new technology with the use of video and his Ipad.
4. Jenny Saville
Another prominent member of Young British Artists Jenny Saville was born in 1970 in Cambridge, at the start of the contemporary art era. She has become renowned for her paintings of fleshy women which often include self-portraits. Saville’s also made a name for herself as an artist exploring the physicality of the female body and has been compared to Lucian Freud in her style of painting.
5. Damien Hirst
Described as a morbid child by his mother, Damien Hirst born in Leeds in 1965, morbidity knew no bounds. It was likely personified in his collection of illustrated pathology books he had as a teen that would inspire his artwork and become a notable characteristic of his art.
His morbid inspiration took centre stage in a photograph titled “With Dead Head,” and later in his most popular work. However, in 1991 Damien would have his first solo exhibition at the Woodstock Street Gallery in London, where the morbidity of his art stood out in his signature piece “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”.
Other popular works of Damien’s include For the Love of God, Mother and Child Divided (for which he won a Turner Prize, and Away From the Flock
6. Lucian Freud
Coming from a long line of exceptional men (his grandfather was Sigmund Freud) Lucian Freud would become one of the founding fathers of the contemporary era. Although his works spanned several periods, his most notable work would be categorised as contemporary, which included artwork like Benefits Supervisor Sleeping, David Dawson and Reflection (a self-portrait). His artwork was a stark style of realism, as is depicted in his brutally honest portraits of friends and family. But it was his brushstroke and use of pigment that underpinned his artwork and became an inspiration for many contemporary artists.
7. Richard Hamilton
Known as the founder of Pop Art – and an era of art that focused on pop culture and the ordinary, Richard Hamilton’s art was blunt yet intricate. Born in London in 1922, Richard’s entry into the world of art was anything but smooth sailing. Quitting art classes and being kicked out of college, Richard finally completed his studies at the Royal Academy School in 1951. Later in 1952, Richard founded the Independent Group, an art movement that included several other painters, architects and sculptors, and would later become instrumental in the founding of pop art in England. Richard’s most famous piece, “Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different, so appealing?” is said to be the beginning of English pop art.
8. Barbara Hepworth
Born in 1903 in Wakefield, Yorkshire, Barbara Hepworth, crafted some of the earliest abstract sculpture produced in England. Barbara Hepworth was a formidable force in British contemporary art history. She was part of the St Ives school of artists that settled in Cornwall. Her works becoming inspiration to many contemporary artists, you can now visit her garden and studio in St Ives. She certainly deserves a place on this list.
Banksy is probably the most well-known contemporary British artist of our time. Banksy’s artwork – which primarily includes street art – has even made a cameo in the movie Ocean’s 8, and his official Instagram account has over 8 million followers. However, with all that fame and notoriety, Banksy is the only artist on this list who remains anonymous.
Some of his most famous – or dare say infamous – pieces include Love is In The Air (Flower Thrower), Napalm and an incredibly grim, yet remarkable installation, Dismaland. These also happen to be some of the artists most activistic pieces. However, polls reveal that Banksy’s “Girl with Balloon” painting is Britain’s most liked piece of artwork.
10. Peter Doig
Peter Doig remains one of the most represented contemporary artists today. His works span several decades and include some of the most recognised masterpieces of our time. However, Doig didn’t make a name for himself by focusing on statement pieces like many other contemporary artists of his time, instead, he focused on narrating stories through his work, his paintings often being described as mesmerising and magical. Perfect examples of this magical essence include “White Canoe” and the “Architect’s Home in the Ravine”.
Contemporary art is by nature constantly evolving. You’ll find many contemporary art pieces in art galleries and art collections across the world, and fetching higher prices than some of history’s most prominent artists including Vincent Van Gogh. Since contemporary art is so valuable in shaping our cultural and political perspectives, it’s always important to try to learn more about this era of art if it can be defined as such.