The United Kingdom has a long history of excellence in the arts. British contributions to literature are remarkable in their richness, variety, and consistency. For many centuries in Britain and elsewhere, art and music were the domain of the nobility, who patronized the arts and set the tone and style from early modern times to the Victorian era. Britain's artistic output was focused on literature in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the country came late to Renaissance influences in art and architecture that had been prevalent on the Continent since the 15th century. As a Protestant nation, Britain did not experience the full flowering of the baroque era that followed the Renaissance in Roman Catholic countries, such as Italy and Spain, during the 17th and 18th centuries (see Baroque Art and Architecture). English style during the late 18th century was more reminiscent of the classical world of the Greeks and Romans. In the 19th century, a movement called romanticism sought to make art more emotional. Exotic places, the beauty of nature, and fascination with the Middle Ages were themes that became the hallmarks of romantic artists and writers.
During the Victorian era Britain became the world's first urban, industrialized society, and a vast middle class developed. More people had the time, education, and inclination to appreciate the arts, and the middle class developed an interest in literature, art, and music. A close relationship evolved between this large audience and the creators of art and literature because authors wrote about and painters depicted characters, situations, and scenes either familiar or interesting to large numbers of middle-class people. Although some of the works created were trite and ordinary, such as sweet paintings of dogs and children, many others were not.
The time and money spent on the arts continued to increase in the 20th century, particularly after World War II ended in 1945. Popular music and film have had the widest audiences, although classical music and literature still attract significant numbers of people. In the postwar era, serious musical compositions by modern composers such as Cornelius Cardew, Peter Maxwell Davies, and Harrison Birtwistle have been controversial. The visual arts have also appealed to smaller segments of society. The modernistic sculpture of Sir Jacob Epstein is an example of modern artwork that has received mixed acceptance and appreciation.