Charles Saumarez Smith

Painting the Past

Art in Britain 1660–1815

By

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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.

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