Past Events

The Epic of Common Life: Genre Painting and Social Change in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain

Lecture – David H. Solkin

  • 25 October to 22 November 2004
  • 6:00 – 7:00 pm
  • National Gallery, London
Painting of three people at doorway

Thomas Heaphy, Inattention, 1808, watercolor, pen and ink, sponging, and gum over graphite on wove paper

Digital image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, B1975.3.175

This year's Paul Mellon Lectures take as their subject the new school of painting of everyday life that emerged to great acclaim in Britain during the period spanning the Napoleonic Wars and the Great Reform Bill. Initiated by David Wilkie's 'Village Politicians' of 1806, and reaching a monumenlal summation almost twenty-five years later in the work of Benjamin Robert Haydon, this movement registered the deeply ambivalent feelings of a nation in the throes of accelerating economic growth and of conflict both at home and abroad: what emerges from the imagery of its most ambitious artists is a widespread sense that the traditional boundaries between country and city are in the process of dissolving, and that a more regularised present is everywhere encroaching upon the customary past. In its fascination with the compression of space and time, early nineteenth-century British genre painting locates itself at the start of a trajectory linking the art of the Age of Revolution with the postmodern culture of the present day.

25 October

New Adventures in Space and Time: Reconfiguring Rural Life in the Age of Revolution

1 November

Trouble in Arcadia

8 November

The Subjects and Spaces of Surveillance

15 November

The Colonisation of Carnival

22 November

The End of Olde England: Remaking the Nation after Waterloo

About the speaker

  • Head and shoulders photo of David H. Solkin

    One of the world’s leading authorities on the history of British art, David Solkin taught at the Courtauld Institute of Art from 1986 until his retirement in 2016. In addition to numerous articles, he has published four important books: Richard Wilson: The Landscape of Reaction (Tate Gallery, 1982); Painting for Money: The Visual Arts and the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century England (Yale University Press; Paul Mellon Centre, 1993); Painting out of the Ordinary: Modernity and the Art of Everyday Life in Early Nineteenth-Century Britain (Yale University Press; Paul Mellon Centre, 2008); and Art in Britain 1660–1815 (Yale; Paul Mellon Centre,Pelican History of Art series, 2015) . David was the guest curator of the exhibition Art on The Line: The Royal Academy Exhibitions at Somerset House 1780–1836, which took place at The Courtauld Gallery in 2001–2002. He also edited and co-authored the collection of essays that accompanied the exhibition, for which he was awarded the inaugural William M.B. Berger Prize for British art history. Eight years later David curated Turner and the Masters, the hugely successful exhibition which opened at Tate Britain in the autumn of 2009, before going on to the Grand Palais in Paris and the Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid. 

    After completing his Pelican survey, David turned his attention to an exhibition of Thomas Gainsborough’s portraits of the artist and his relations, entitled Gainsborough’s Family Album, which opened at London’s National Portrait Gallery in autumn 2018 before travelling on to the Princeton University Art Museum. His current projects include a catalogue of the late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century portraits in the permanent collection of the Yale Center for British Art, and an exhibition of Henry Fuseli’s drawings of women, provisionally entitled Fuseli, Fantasy and Fetishism, scheduled for the Courtauld Gallery and the Pierpont Morgan Library in 2022–23.

    David Solkin was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 2012.