British Contemporary Figurative Painting

Best 25 Figurative Painters of the United Kingdom

Left image: Marcel Broodthaers, Armoire blanche et table blanche, 1965. Painted furniture with eggshells - 86 x 82 x 62 cm & 104 x 100 x 40 cm. Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, New York. / Right image: Michaël Borremans, The Egg IV, 2012. Oil on canvas - 42 x 36 cm. Courtesy of Zeno X Gallery.

Collage of portraits of the 25 most important living figurative painters from the United Kingdom.

Featured artists:

David Hockney / Peter Doig / Glenn Brown / Lynette Yiadom-Boakye / Chris Ofili / Jenny Saville / Mark Alexander / Nigel Cooke / Kaye Donachie / Ged Quinn / Wolfe von Lenkiewicz / Caroline Walker / James White / Paul Winstanley / Clare Woods / Gillian Carnegie / Ken Currie / Laura Lancaster / Justin Mortimer / Christopher Orr / Richard Patterson / Jonathan Wateridge / Richard Wathen / Alison Watt / Stuart Pearson Wright

It is fair to say the United Kingdom has always had a strong affinity towards painting and art in general. As a result, when it comes to art it is no surprise to ascertain the rich history, heritage and connection rooted in the DNA of Britain. Think of the 18th century Grand Tours, artists such as J. M. W. Turner or John Constable, the dazzling collection of the British Museum or the democratic policy towards the availability and accessibility of this collection and heritage for the British people.

In fact, one must not travel too far in time to discover the prolific importance of the United Kingdom in the art world. When it comes to figurative painting in recent art history, there have been several British painters whom are of vital importance for the renewed interest in figurative painting in the 70s and 80s of the previous century, as well as for figurative painters today.

The protagonists I am referring to are the main representatives of the so called School of London. The term was initiated in the 70s by the American R.B. Kitaj (1932-2007) to describe a specific group of London-based painters on the occasion of an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in London which consisted of exclusively figurative drawings and paintings. In an era dominated by abstract, conceptual and minimal art, the figurative pursuit of the artists in question was controversial, contested, but also immersive and inspiring.[1]

From left to right Timothy Behrens, Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, Frank Auerbach and Michael Andrews at Wheeler’s restaurant, Soho, 1963. Photograph: The John Deakin Archive/Getty Images.

Today, these main representatives of the School of London are one by one the most important (figurative) painters of our recent past, such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach and David Hockney. For instance, the impulses of the School of London co-initiated with Neo-Expressionism of the 80s and 90s, as well as the general trend of New European Painting. Even today, the current international wave of New Figurative Painting is marked by these iconic figures.

However, for this article we aren't aiming to offer a retrospective overview of the British canon of recent art history and painting. In fact, we aim to present a relevant sketch of the current landscape of contemporary figurative painters. Doing so, an objective, argued, measurable and thus reasoned selection of the top 25 living British painters originated.

Note: Hence the art world is continuously subject to change, the top 25 list is not to be interpreted as a ranking but as a cross section of the most influential and important artists based on the following criteria: the career trend, Artfacts ranking, (established) representation, included in shows at major/relevant institutions and galleries, participations in biennials, reviewed by distuingished art publications, featured in important public and private collections and specific career highlights.

1/25: David Hockney (b. 1937)

Portrait of David Hockney. Photo: David Rose / The Telegraph.

David Hockney, born in 1937 in Bradford, England, resides and works in Los Angeles, United States. We have already mentioned Hockney in our introduction when discussing the School of London, and yet again, I aim to stress to importance of Hockney as a living icon of contemporary art and British (figurative) painting.

Hockney's career and oeuvre is strongly marked by his personal experiences and environment, pioneering British Pop Art and beyond. In the 60s, the British artist moved to California resulting in his internationally lauded and characteristic paintings of the exotic and sensual life by the pool and palm trees.[2]

An anthology of Hockney's oeuvre:

David Hockney, Portrait of an artist (Pool with two figures), 1972. Acrylic on canvas – 213.5 x 305 cm. Courtesy of the artist.

David Hockney, A Bigger Splash, 1967. Acrylic on canvas – 242,5 x 243,9 cm. Collection Tate.

David Hockney, Man in shower in Beverly Hills, 1964. Acrylic on canvas – 167,3 x 167 cm. Collection Tate.

2/25: Peter Doig (b. 1959)

Portrait of Peter Doig in his studio. Photo: Martin Godwin.

Peter Doig, born in 1959 in Edinburgh, Scotland, lives and works in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. As with David Hockney, Doig is one of the more important figures from our selection of twenty-five artists and is one of the world's most influential artists today.

Doig is known for his dreamlike paintings drenched in an aura of enigma. The source material for his paintings are most often, photographs, films, etchings and personal memories. Doig grew up in Canada which clearly has had an influence on his work. Think of the lakes, forests, canoes and cabins, characteristic recurring motives within the oeuvre for the illustrious British painter.[3]

An anthology of Doig's oeuvre:

Peter Doig, Echo Lake, 1998. Oil on canvas – 230,5 x 360,5. Collection Tate.

Peter Doig, Canoe-Lake, 1997. Oil on Canvas – 200 x 300 cm. Courtesy Saatchi Gallery.

Peter Doig, Concrete Cabin, 1994. Oil on Canvas – 198 x 275 cm. Courtesy Saatchi Gallery.

3/25: Glenn Brown (b. 1966)

Portrait of Glenn Brown in his studio. Photo: Elena Cué.

Glenn Brown, born in Hexham, England, lives and works in London and Suffolk, England. Brown has distuingished himself with his dynamic trompe-l'oeils of heavy impasto's, which in reality are smooth two-dimensional strokes of paint.

With this characteristic imagery, Brown examines art history, popular culture and found images as source material to distort and manipulate. Often, Brown takes on classical paintings or poses with his colourful and by times eclectic style.[4]

An anthology of Brown's oeuvre:

Glenn Brown, Die Mutter des Künstlers, 2016. Oil on panel – 200 × 161.9 cm. Courtesy Gagosian.

Glenn Brown, Wild Horses, 2007. Oil on panel – 133 × 102.1 cm. Courtesy Gagasion.

Glenn Brown, Dirty, 2003. Oil on panel – 267 × 210,6. Courtesy Gagosian.

4/25: Lynette Yiadom-Boakye (b. 1977)

Portrait of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye next to her work. Photo: Sergey Illin.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, born in 1977 in London, England, resides and works in London, England. The internationally reputed artist is known for her captivating imagery of mostly black human figures in isolated and dark backgrounds.

The Future Generation Art Prize-winner follows her natural intuition when painting, marked by delicate and strong brushstrokes. As a black female artist, one tends to interpret her works from a socio-political and activist perspective. However, the starting point is always the language of painting and its history.[5]

An anthology of Yiadom-Boakye's oeuvre:

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, The Matches, 2015. Oil on canvas – dimensions unknown. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 4am Friday, 2015. Oil on canvas – dimensions unknown. Courtesy Serpentine Galleries, London.

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, The Quartz, 2013. Oil on canvas – 142 × 130 cm. Courtesy Rosenfeld, London.

5/25: Chris Ofili (b. 1968)

Portrait of Chris Ofili. Photo: The Telegraph.

Chris Ofili, born in 1968 in Manchester, England, resides and works in Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago. The British painter is known for his colourful palette and textures via collage of glitter, dots and more, resulting in impressive and characteristic tableaus.[6]

The YBA (Young British Artists) Turner Prize-Winner examines Nigerian history, African culture, black stereotypes and exoticism in a narrative inspired by various issues such as religion, film, popular culture and personal experiences.[7]

An anthology of Ofili's oeuvre:

Chris Ofili, Untitled (Afromuse), 1995-2005. Watercolor and pencil on paper – 24.4 × 15.7 cm. Collection New Museum, New York.

Chris Ofili, The Adoration of Captain Shit and the Legend of the Black Stars (Third Version), 1998. Oil, acrylic, polyester resin, paper collage, glitter, map pins, and elephant dung on linen – 243.8 × 182.9 cm. Collection New Museum, New York.

Chris Ofili, Satyr and Selkie 2, 2020. Oil, charcoal and gold leaf on linen – 157.5 × 96.5 cm. Courtesy Victoria Miro.

6/25: Jenny Saville (b. 1970)

Portrait of Jenny Saville next to her work. Photo: Royal Academy / Widewalls.

Jenny Saville, born in 1970 in Cambridge, England, resides and works in Oxford, England. Saville, an original YBA member, is known for her captivating paintings, merging a Rubens-like appetite for voluptuous bodies with Cubism, American abstraction and a photographic figuration.[8]

The works by the hand of the British painter are characterized by her fascination and pathological perceptions of the body. As a result, Saville depicts meaty and grotesque human bodies, mostly female. Issues such as obesity, gender binary, beauty ideal, the individual perception of the body and more, discussed in a dialogue dominated by flesh.[9]

An anthology of Saville's oeuvre:

Jenny Saville, Brace, 1998-1999. Oil on canvas – 302,3 × 181,6 cm. Courtesy Gagosain.

Jenny Saville, Still, 2003. Oil on canvas – 274,3 × 366,1 × 8,1 cm. Courtesy Gagosian.

Jenny Saville, Odalisque, 2012-2014. Oil and charcoal on canvas – 217 × 236,5 cm. Courtesy Gagosian.

7/25: Mark Alexander (b. 1966)

Portrait of the artist with his work. Photo: Mark Alexander (c).

Mark Alexander, born in 1966 in Horsham, West Sussex, England, resides and works in Berlin, Germany.

His work is marked by his reinterpretations of iconic images of the past, such as cultural objects as the Shield of Achilles or famous portraits. His paintings are characterized by a labour-intensive brushwork. These meticulously rendered paintings combine classicism, photography and contemporary photorealism.

An anthology of Alexander's oeuvre:

Mark Alexander, This Land Is Your Land? This Land Is My Land!, 2019. Oil on canvas – 92 × 73 cm. Courtesy Anthony Wilkinson Gallery.

Mark Alexander, Goldfinch, 2019. Oil on canvas – 76 × 58 cm. Courtesy of Anthony Wilkinson Gallery.

Mark Alexander, Red Mannheim, 2010. Oil on canvas – 258 × 190 cm. Courtesy Anthony Wilkinson Gallery.

8/25: Nigel Cooke (b. 1973)

Portrait of Nigel Cooke in his studio. Photo: Justin Sutcliffe / Independent.

Nigel Cooke, born in Manchester, England, resides and works in Kent, England. Cooke is known for his atmospheric paintings, depicting figures woven into their environment.

The British painter balances between figuration and abstraction, resulting in a distorted visual language. This fragmentation results in a certain ambiguity, where one is not sure anymore if the painting is a portrait, a landscape, a still life, a figurative painting, or an abstract composition.[10]

An anthology of Cooke's oeuvre: