This huge canvas is an exercise in painting on several levels of seriousness. It is, first of all, a work in what used to be known as the “grand manner” – the record of a moment of drama in history. The drama in question is the notorious poll-tax riot in Trafalgar Square in March 1990, just before the introduction of the “Community Charge”, which was seen at the time as a version of the poll tax, which since medieval times had been to the working people of England as a red rag to a bull. 

Bartlett’s title is, then, an accurate description of the picture while at the same alluding to the whole genre of large-scale historical subjects that were considered the most serious form of painting in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The type drew upon sources going back to the Renaissance, when masters like Titian, Caravaggio or Rubens made large celebrations of the military or religious events of national history or from the Bible.

Bartlett alludes to this tradition in other ways: the scattered implements on the pavement, with its regular square slabs, are a reference to a fifteenth-century historical painting, the Rout of San Romano by Paolo Uccello, which makes play with the recently developed laws of perspective in a similar way. Simultaneously, the subject offers the artist an opportunity to display his not inconsiderable skills in pictorial composition and as a draughtsman not only of the human figure but also of horses and architecture. 

He has deliberately chosen a scene from recent history to bring these skills to bear on a contemporary subject matter, including the combat uniform of the police, contrasting with the informal clothing of the civilian participants and a helicopter, that inevitable accompaniment to any urban disturbance nowadays. 

The action is set into a broader chronological context by the way the space is defined by the plinths of two historical monuments: Hubert Le Sueur’s statue of Charles I of 1633 and the Nelson Column, from the mid-nineteenth century. Both rear up above the violent action, out of the picture-space altogether. 

In the background, beyond a wall of flame, is the National Gallery, which was the actual backdrop of the riots and the repository in which great historical paintings are displayed – including Uccello’s Rout of San Romano

Serious, witty, technically accomplished: a remarkable work – and a rare one too, for its period in the late twentieth century.