Ten reasons for a tradition of modernity

1. J. M. W. Turner, who can be considered as a painter with nerve. When everyones paintings were oils on

Ten reasons for a tradition of modernity



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It is a truth universally acknowledged that Britain is unique. Really, who can possibly deny it? It is also very much true, although not so universal that the image Britain projects overseas is rather inaccurate. Mostly because the traditional opinion is that Britain lacks modernity, that it is caught in a golden Victorian cage, and this cage, in spite of its material, is restricting the way towards whatever is considered modern. WRONG.


Why is it so wrong (and in capitals)? Because of at least 10 reasons.


Chronologically speaking, the first reason that comes to mind is


1. J. M. W. Turner, who can be considered as a painter with nerve. When everyone's' paintings were oils on canvas "photographing" important personalities, he had the impulse to use watercolours to paint ships caught in storms. "His paintings are … so different and often [painted] in such an ambiguous manner, were often misunderstood by contemporaries", say Fleming and Honour in their "A World History of Art". And being misunderstood by contemporaries is often the sign of modernity. A modernity that strikes at the first sight of a painting by Turner. One cannot believe that they have been painted in the first decades of the nineteenth century. As one cannot believe that Caulfield or Hodgkins works are so resembling and have so "vital links" with the past, with the traditional methods of painting, when they have shocked the art community. Turner even finds a disciple in what concerns the preference for marine themes in Tim Stoner. Turner stopped time for a ship, Stoner stopped time for a couple of kids in a garden plastic pool: the modern ships are too ugly to have the time stooped for them, and besides nowadays the sea means the holiday there during the summer , not pirates' adventures. Centuries apart, all these modern painters support the idea of a Britishness in British art, of a certain sense of insularity. And this is tradition.


The mind's track often brakes loose from the dominance of time, so let us abandon the chronological trail and follow the white rabbit through the mirror.


2. Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bennet and Bridget Jones. You are probably wondering what two fictional characters and the author of one of them have in common. They are all modern women. This first two are actually more modern than the latter. For Jane Austen, modernity meant independence, being able not to depend on a husband to make a living, and writing. For Elizabeth Bennet, modernity meant a marriage with a peer not in station but in mind. As for Bridget, modernity means… Oh, Bridget is rather special. She is so traditional in her quest for a husband, that makes one wonder whether she is the real daughter of Mrs. Bennet. In fact, Bridget is not modern at all, except that she, unlike her other nominee in this category does know how to use a computer. She actually determines the reader of her Diary to scream " Are all British women 30 year-olds in search of a husband and a job?" Apparently for Bridget being British is like being called Heathcliff: you have to go outside and bang your head on very tree you find, while yelling "Catherine!"


The trend nowadays is that old is new. Old mentalities, old things in general. Everything traditional is remixed, redesigned and morphed into the sensation of the month.( Often on the catwalk). This leads us to:


3. John Galliano, or Stella McCartney , or any other British designer. The reason: for using at least once in their collections the corset. For a whole century, women all over the world, including Britain, have tried to sack the corset, mostly due to its symbolism. British designers never let it go for good, they just put it on hold. The Goth image at the end of the past century gave them the opportunity to put it out back in the open. They waited for the symbolism to blur and vanish, and there it is: different colours, textures, but nevertheless a corset.


The verb "blur" used above sends to music. British music. And when talking about British music, one must talk about:


4. The Beatles. As a matter of fact, they should be reason number one on this list. They are the symbol of Modern Britain, of a certain Britain that used to dare and that was part of the “Avant-garde”. They were so modern for such a long time , they became tradition.


5. Guy Ritchie. Film Director. The traditional British movie was either Sir Laurence Olivier or Alfred Hitchcock. From time to time , directors used to make a name out shocking puritans, as Peter Greenaway did. Ritchie follows this unspoken tradition and tries to catch its bare essence: to make a couple of hit-movies, shock everybody, get famous and marry Madonna.


6. Madonna this one is actually a “negative” argument. She does not prove Britain is modern , she proves the image the world perceives of Britain is wrong. Madonna is the epitome of modernity, the trend-maker. Now she wants to have a normal life, although her idea of normality is more resembling to Tony Ray-Joness photograph Glyndebourne ( a couple smartly-dressed, having tea in a field , amidst or among cows). The critics said about this photo that captures the “introverted , self-contained lives in contrast to the more expressive world of the cattle”. So, Madonna wants a normal life, to be a mid-aged wife with a couple of kids, to live in Scottish manor, to spend her mornings giving orders to the butler and her afternoons having tea with some high-class pure British ladies, and during the holidays to go to Bath.

Actually this is not Britain, it is the celluloid version of Britain. As for celluloid, it has the tendency to exaggerate.

Speaking of movies:


7. The Full Monty .

Tradition : In Sheffield, steel is produced.

Modernity: In Sheffield, “Hot Steel” is produced.

The difference: “Hot Steel” is formed of male strippers, who actually are ex-steel workers.

  1. for Modernity in this one.

Leading to


8.Football It was invented in Britain, its a tradition in Britain. And 1966 was a great year for British football: Cantona was born. Considering British football is still one of the most praised, it has won the honour to be also considered modern. And if Beckham isnt modern, who is?


9. London. “Traditionally” speaking, London is supposed to be permanently foggy, with no other means of transportation but double-deckers and cabs, populated by men wearing bowlers or looking like James Bond. Well, its not. What is really traditional about London is its scent, its atmosphere, its the arrogance to have an area named so pompously “The City”, its the mixture of trends, its the possibility of having Virgin records and Harrods in the same part of town and its having the Changing of the Guards happening just the same for such a long time, may it be under the flashes of the last generation of cameras or under the curious eyes of people that seemed to jump right out of Dickenss books.


10. Cars. Especially Rolls-Royce. Probably the most British car ever, it is impregnated with the glow of “Britishness” and yet it is equipped with the latest discoveries in car technology.



Here were the ten reasons meant to show that Britain is a wonderful blend, like a Lady Grey tea. Tradition never excluded modernity, and modernity never excluded tradition. So, there is no place for a “versus” between them. They were never parallel, never had each a separate life. Some things are so new that they become tradition, and some things , although obsolete for a while, become so modern all over again.


Conclusion: Britain is not the celluloid image of Britain. And for once, it has the power to say through the voice of Robbie Williams: “I will talk and Hollywood will listen!”








Frayling, Christopher “100 Years at the Royal College of Art Art and

Design”, Collins & Brown, 1999

Graham-Dixon, Andrew “A History of British Art”, BBC, 1996

Hounour, Hugh & Fleming, John “A World History of Art”, Calmann &

King, 1998

***The Photography Book, Phaidon Press, 1997


The list of all the sources mentioned in this text and found in the British Council Library is rather long, and I honestly think that only the catalogue of the Library would cover them all. Nevertheless here are at least fur that have had an impact on this article.


Austen, Jane “Pride and Prejudice”

Fielding, Helen “The Diary of Bridget Jones”

Carroll, Lewis- ”The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland”

***The Full Monty , VHS & DVD

*** Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Directed by Guy Ritchie

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