Algernon Newton, ‘The Surrey Canal, Camberwell’ 1935
Algernon Newton
The Surrey Canal, Camberwell 1935
© Tate
Sir Stanley Spencer, ‘Turkeys’ 1925
Sir Stanley Spencer
Turkeys 1925
© Estate of Stanley Spencer
John Wonnacott, ‘The Norwich School of Art’ 1982–4
John Wonnacott
The Norwich School of Art 1982–4
© John Wonnacott

The term seems to have come into use after the rise of modern art and particularly abstract art as a means of referring to art not substantially touched by modern developments. Not quite the same as figurative art which seems to apply to modern art in which the elements of reality, while recognisable, are nevertheless treated in modern ways, as in expressionism for example. The term figurative also implies a particular focus on the human figure.

The term non-representational is frequently used as a synonym for abstract.