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Pop art in the UK

While American artists were primarily inspired by what they saw and experienced within their own culture, early Pop art in Britain was fuelled by American popular culture viewed from a distance. Learn more about Pop art in the UK here.
Richard Hamilton, My Marilyn, 1965, screen print on paper, 51 x 63cm (Tate)

What is Pop art?

The term “Pop art” actually emerged first in the United Kingdom. In 1957, British pop artist Richard Hamilton listed the “characteristics of pop art” in a letter to his friends, the architects Peter and Alison Smithson:
Pop Art is: Popular (designed for a mass audience), Transient (short-term solution), Expendable (easily forgotten), Low cost, Mass produced, Young (aimed at youth), Witty, Sexy, Gimmicky, Glamorous, Big business.
Emerging in the 1950s, Pop art was an art movement that took inspiration from sources in popular culture such as comic books, pop music, advertising, and movies. In Britain, it took the form of both a celebration and critique of popular culture through art.

Why did Pop art emerge in the UK?

Eduardo Paolozzi, I was a Rich Man's Plaything,  from Ten Collages from BUNK, 1947, printed papers on card, 35 x 23cm (Tate)
Richard Hamilton was a member of the International Group (IG), a regular meeting of painters, sculptors, theorists, and writers who gathered to critique prevailing approaches to culture. In doing so, they explored the ways in which mass culture could be considered alongside “high” culture through discourse and art-making. At the group’s first meeting in 1952, artist Eduardo Paolozzi presented a series of collages of found imagery, using comic books and advertisements as his sources, and becoming one of the earliest practitioners of Pop art. In the collage to the left, you can even see one of the earliest displays of the word "pop" in an artwork.
Still rebuilding from the widespread damage of World War II, Britain looked across at American culture and lifestyle in the 1950s as a kind of idealised state, where consumer products, cars, and other objects created an all-encompassing culture of creature comforts and mass production. In response, British Pop artists created work that both appropriated imagery evocative of that lifestyle while also critiquing it.

What was different about Pop in the UK?

Although they were inspired by similar subject matter, British Pop is often seen as distinctive from American Pop. This is due to the fact that while American artists were primarily inspired by what they saw and experienced within their own culture, early Pop art in Britain was fuelled by American popular culture viewed from a distance.
Richard Hamilton, Interior, 1964-5, screenprint on paper, 49 x 63cm (Tate)
In Britain, the Pop art movement was more academic in its approach, encouraged by the work of the International Group and its conceptual work. While employing irony and parody, it focused more on what American popular imagery represented, and its power in manipulating people’s lifestyles.

Who were the British Pop artists?

Peter Blake, Self-Portrait with Badges, 1961, oil paint on board, 174 x 121cm (Tate)
Along with Richard Hamilton and Eduardo Paolozzi's collage-making techniques, other British Pop artists engaged with the culture emerging around them through diverse approaches and media.
Perhaps best known for designing the collage cover sleeve for the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, artist Peter Blake brought elements of pop culture (and even other Pop artists) into his paintings. In the self-portrait to the left, Blake has fashioned himself as a die-hard Elvis fan, covered in badges and American paraphernalia and dressed head to toe in denim (a decidedly pop fabric.)
Blake also painted other Pop artists, including David Hockney, whose work you can see at the bottom of this page. Hockney was so embedded in the Pop lifestyle that in 1963 he moved to California in search of the sunny, sensual, and uninhibited life of American pop culture.
And while all of these Pop artists engaged with ideas of fantasy and unreality, painter Patrick Caulfield took those ideas to their extreme conclusion by adopting an almost anonymous technique like that of a commercial sign painter, painting everyday scenes and objects like pottery and cafe scenes with solid colours and basic black outlines. In doing so, he both distanced his viewers from his painted subject and made them think more carefully about what they actually were.

What is the legacy of Pop art?

Many modernist critics were horrified by the Pop artists’ use of such "low" subject matter and by their apparently uncritical treatment of it. But in reality, Pop both took art into new areas of subject matter and developed new ways of presenting those subjects visually, and it can be seen as one of the first manifestations of postmodernism, or a movement that saw art as multivalent, beyond categorisation, and anti-authoritative.
David Hockney, Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy, 1971, acrylic paint on canvas, 213 x 304cm (Tate)

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