Queen Elizabeth

British History in Painting

It has become a cliché to say that a picture paints a thousand words, but works of art – just like documents and personal accounts – have chronicled the history of Britain and, as such, provide a valuable interpretation of its events.

War and revolution is, as we would expect, a common theme. The Battle of Hastings is embroidered into the Bayeux Tapestry and has been studied for centuries. The tradition of making a pictorial record of conflict has continued over the years, including JMW Turner’s atmospheric representation of the end of the Napoleonic Wars, entitled The Field of Waterloo in 1818. Official war artists originated during World War I; Gassed by John Singer Sargent is characteristic of the work of those appointed to document the horrors of the Western Front. In 1946, Laura Knight recorded the Nazi war tribunals in her painting The Nuremberg Trial and it now seems almost as important to send artists as soldiers to any war zone.

Portraits can be an authoritative source of information for the student of past times. Elizabeth I’s sitting for Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (The Ditchley Portrait, shown above) is a mini history lesson. Here we view her in all her glory; upon a map of England, storms behind her and sunshine ahead of her. In contrast, Peter Lely was instructed by Oliver Cromwell to paint him ‘warts and all’, although he still flattered his sitter’s military bearing.

There are also paintings which capture a ‘moment’, such as The Execution of Lady Jane Grey by Paul Delaroche although, because almost 300 years elapsed between the event and its depiction, there are some inaccuracies, such as the location of her death. Social history, too, can be enhanced by studying, for example, William Hogarth’s Gin Lane or Ford Madox Brown’s Work; each adding much to our awareness of what it meant to be poor or wealthy in the past; and Joseph Wright’s canvases are a pictorial accompaniment to the scientific innovations of The Enlightenment.

We need to be aware, of course, that art as much as literature can be biased, but the significance of the painted image should not be overlooked when making a full study of an historic event.

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I have been working for Oxford Open Learning since 2010 and love helping my students with their English and History courses. As a teacher and personal tutor, I have taught pupils from all around the world, aged from three to adult. I am often to be found with my head in a book and sometimes I have four or five on the go at the same time. I love learning about History and Art and am passionate about literature.

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