The golden age of English arts was the late 16th and early 17th centuries. The plays and poetry of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) are the greatest legacy of this period. Shakespeare's contemporaries included dramatists Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, essayist Francis Bacon and composers Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Orlando Gibbons. These writers and musicians expressed both the optimism and the conflicts of an age of exploration, religious upheaval and England's growing political power.

 The arts also flourished during the Restoration in the late 17th century, when Charles II took the throne following 11 years of republican rule. The poets John Milton and John Dryden, the diarist Samuel Pepys, the playwright William Congreve, the composer Henry Purcell and the architect Christopher Wren, who designed St. Paul's Cathedral in London, belong to this period.

In the 18th century, the portraits painted by Thomas Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds, the dictionary compiled by Samuel Johnson and the furniture designs of Thomas Sheraton and Thomas Chippendale expressed a sense of order and rationality.

 The 19th century, a time of urbanization and great social change, saw the rise of the novel as a literary form. At the beginning of the century, Jane Austen's novels depicted the social life of country families, but by the end of the century, Charles Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell portrayed the lives of merchants and poor workers in the cities. At the same time, poets such as William Wordsworth and John Keats and artists such as J.M.W. Turner rejected the rationality of the 18th century and focused on the life of the senses and the heroism of the individual.

The beginning of the 20th century saw a flowering of nationalism, expressed in music by Edward Elgar and in literature by Rudyard Kipling. During the First World War, poets such as Wilfrid Owen and Siegfried Sassoon wrote of the horrors of trench warfare. The mid-20th century was a time of great literary and artistic creativity. Art by David Hockney and Henry Moore, music by Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippett, and poems by W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin enriched English cultural life.

 The late 20th century saw the rise of popular culture. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones made the country famous for pop music. Musical theatre was enlivened by the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice and popular detective fiction was dominated by writers such as Agatha Christie and P.D. James. Countless films were produced at the Pinewood, Elstree and Ealing studios. Today, the works of English writers, film-makers, artists, musicians and composers are enjoyed around the world.

  Did you know?
English writers have given the world some of its best-loved children's stories, such as Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, the illustrated stories of Beatrix Potter, The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and the recent Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling.