I remember meeting David Solkin in the corridors of the Henry Cole Wing of the V&A some time in the mid-1980s. He declared, ‘It’s war,’ implying that I, like he, should be at war with the powers that be – in other words, everything represented by traditional art history. He provides a short encapsulation of this attitude in the introduction to his magisterial new Art in Britain 1660–1815, in which he declares that ‘there is no longer a universal consensus of belief that art’s histories should be written around a parade of individual “great” male artists or canonical masterpieces; that its most important questions concern matters of quality, attribution and dating, the facts of which can be assessed objectively by a judicious combination of connoisseurship and archival research’. He has devoted himself to radically reinterpreting British painting while serving as dean and deputy director of the Courtauld Institute, the traditional capital of art history.
Solkin’s new history appears more than sixty years after the first edition of Ellis Waterhouse’s pioneering and authoritative Painting in Britain 1530–1790, one of the first volumes in the Pelican History of Art series, which Allen Lane and Nikolaus Pevsner hoped would be a definitive survey of art throughout the