History in the firing line as Tate Britain explores British history painting

By Sam Harris | 30 June 2015

Exhibition Review: Fighting History – 250 Years of British History Painting, Tate Britain, London, until September 13 2015

a photo of a painting featuring soldiers fighting in the streets, surrounded by houses, as families flee. Some soldiers are carried flags and in the middle of the painting one solider is being carried away after being shot.
John Singleton Copley, The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 (1783)© Courtesy Tate Britain
Once deemed the pinnacle of an academic painter’s achievements, history painting has experienced a colourful history of its own, moving from its height of prominence during the 18th Century to a perceived state of relative insignificance today.

Tate Britain's exploration of the importance of the genre and its changing position in the art world highlights historical painting across the ages and manages to bridge the gap between the past and the present.

A response to the belief that history painting in Britain is no longer relevant, Fighting History brings together paintings and projects that display the continued vibrancy of the genre as new artists take on the task of portraying history in their own unique way.

This is evident from the very first moment you enter the exhibition, to be met head-on by the large and commanding Dexter Dalwood piece, The Poll Tax Riots.

A re-imagining of that infamous day in Trafalgar Square on March 31 1990, Dalwood distorts and blends the event appropriating other artworks along the way, including Gerhard Richter’s Dutch Sea-Battle. He also surrounds the square with the Berlin Wall.

a photo of a painting featuring Trafalgar Square surrounded by the Berlin Wall. The floor of the square is vibrantly coloured and Big Ben can be seen in the distance.
Dexter Dalwood, The Poll Tax Riots (2005)© Courtesy Tate Britain
Another attention-drawing artwork is Jeremy Deller’s The History of the World. A word map drawn onto the wall with graphic and acrylic, the artwork connects two seemingly distant styles of music, Acid House and Brass Bands, via ecstasy, media hysteria and The Miners’ Strike (among other things).

This exhibition is not just a showcase of famous paintings depicting well-known events, but asks a wider question - namely: what is history and why do we paint it?

a photo of a denim jacket with many badges attached. The badges feature pro-union and miner slogans, such as "Save Our Pits".
Jeremy Deller, Jacket from The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to One is an Injury to All) (2001)© Courtesy Tate Britain
Deller’s other main contribution offers a more contemporary answer to this question, bringing together another wall painting, a map, books, jacket, riot shield and notes used to help stage a re-enactment of the 1984 Battle of Orgreave; a confrontation between police and picketing miners at a British Steel coking plant in Orgreave, South Yorkshire, during the Miners’ Strike.

The Battle of Orgreave Archive (An Injury to One is an Injury to All), shows artworks and objects alongside a hour-long 2001 documentary film, directed by Mike Figgis, about the re-enactment itself.

Deller's piece, which brought together hundreds of people, many of whom were at the actual event 17 years before, still offers a different approach to how history can be consumed and absorbed, and how issues from the past and present could be investigated in the future.

There are, of course, more classical and traditional representations of what could be called history painting.

John Singleton Copley’s The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 is the signature piece of the exhibition and is featured on the front of the exhibition guide. It shows the moment the 23-year-old major is shot by a sniper after defeating the French during the defence of Jersey and is a clear example of the heroic individual sacrifice that is a common staple of the history painting.

Richard Eurich’s The Landing at Dieppe, 19th August 1942 uses a traditional method in historical paintings, integrating various different stages of the unsuccessful Allied attack on a German-held port in France during World War Two to create an image that captures the battle in its entirety. Eurich was War Artist to the Admiralty so this picture is based on official documents, plans and models.

By contrast, John Everett Millais’s The Boyhood of Raleigh depicts a young Sir Walter listening to a sailor about life out on the seas. Described as “one of the finest historical paintings of our generation” by The Times in 1881, it was recommended by a government committee in 1927 as “a fit subject for the decoration of schoolrooms.”

a photo of a painting showing a battle during World War Two. There are lots of boats and aircraft approaching a distant coastal town. Explosions are going off in many different areas, both on land and in the sea, and black smoke drifts upwards into the sky
Richard Eurich, The Landing at Dieppe, 19th August 1942 (1942-3)© Courtesy Tate Britain
It is unfortunate that there are not more pieces like this in the exhibition; an intriguing mini-section about history portraits is limited to just three artworks and some paintings with seemingly no historical context are also included.

Millais’s painting Speak! Speak! seems a particularly strange inclusion. Featuring a man reading letters from his dead lover who then appears in front of him, the scene was the artist's own invention, set during an unspecified historical period (although his son later said it was of the Roman period despite being set in a 15th Century Scottish baronial castle). Not exactly history painting.

The layout of the exhibition also makes it hard to compare artworks with the first four rooms devoted to wide-ranging themes, including ‘250 Years of British History Painting’ and ‘Ancient History’.

It is only the final room of the exhibition that allows for any real direct comparison, with paintings picked because they use the biblical deluge of Noah’s Ark fame for inspiration.

A large painting by Dalwood, The Deluge, dominates the last room (as it does in the first), featuring references to the other artworks in the room, particularly JMW Turner’s The Deluge, which sits next to it.

a photo of a painting featuring many people running away from something through a village. Some are trying to climb up a hill, others are carrying their children and some are praying.
Winifred Knights, The Deluge (1920)© Courtesy Tate Britain
The ability to compare and witness such a measurable transition between pieces only makes the mish-mash of the previous rooms stand out more, where paintings seem to be picked because they feature some sort of link to the past.

As such, Painting History seems to strays off topic somewhat and the serious questions about history and its importance in today’s society get lost somewhere.

While there are some great artworks on display, and the documentary materials are certainly memorable, the problems surrounding historical painting are not answered with any real clarity.

  • Open 10am-6pm. Admission £9.50-£12. Book online. Follow the gallery on Twitter @Tate.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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