‘The Return of the Great White Whale’ by David Alker features in A Tall Order restrospective

words Lee Taylor

When David Alker emailed me this image of a painting he created in 1985 ‘The Return of the Great White Whale: SS Canberra on Southampton Water’ it brought back loads of memories and emotions.

david alker artist

It’s subject is the troop ship SS Canberra heralded as a sort of hero ship as our troops were sent out to the Falkland Islands to do battle with the Argies as they were then labelled. I remember the TV footage at the time and the surge of patriotism too. I was a long haired hippy rocker and this war cut through into my post-school hazy world. I remember feeling excited and appalled in equal measure. I watched events play out like some horrible game with deaths on both sides as the British media cheered on from the sides.

His painting is now featuring in ‘A Tall Order’ a retrospective of artworks from an era where Exhibition Officer Jill Morgan and her team set about revolutionising Rochdale Art Gallery and bring underrepresented voices to the front.

“Our policy is to encourage new audiences for art, particularly women, black communities, young people, those with disabilities, and to encourage cultural activity for working class communities. Broadly, to change the domination of art by a white middle class male audience and producer. A tall order!”

Jill Morgan, in a letter dated 16 March 1987

Back to David’s painting, I asked him a few questions about it and its historical place in time.

When was the painting created?

“I made the painting in the spring of 1985.”

Why did you come up with idea for the painting at the time?

“This was one of a group of paintings I made in 1984-5 called ‘Terms of Office’.  I wanted to make works which reflected contemporary events. There was a clear relationship between the language of political rhetoric and the way in which events were reported at the time and this was a driver for me. 

The SS Canberra was a kind of shipping celebrity

It had been a P&O passenger ferry before the Falklands War and featured in the James Bond film ‘Diamonds Are Forever’. David Hockney painted a mural in one of the lounges. In 1982 however it was requisitioned by the Royal Navy as a troop ship and nicknamed ‘The Great White Whale’ sailing to the South Atlantic. My painting shows the Canberra as an apparition, a kind of ghost ship coming back from the Falkland Islands to Southampton on 11th July 1982.”

Can you recall what was going through your mind as you created the painting?

“I was involved in making ‘History Painting’ which is a term dating back to the 17th Century to describe works which document historic events. But I was updating this for the 1980s, so the image in the painting came from a mash up of Turner seascapes; newspaper photographs and the 1956 film ‘Moby Dick’. The Turner reference was particularly important as the ‘seascape’ has become a signifier of maritime power and history. In the Falklands conflict the role of Great Britain as a historic maritime power was a constant reference point.”

How long did the painting take to finish?

“The whole series took about a year to make. Some paintings were on canvas and some on paper. The painting in the Rochdale exhibition ‘A Tall Order’ is painted on a very thick, heavy, single sheet of paper.”

What goes through your mind as you look at the painting today?

“I am showing my painting in the gallery alongside extracts from texts written at the time; newspaper coverage and documentation to provide a context. When the Canberra returned from the Falklands to Southampton Water in 1982 the quayside was thronged with cheering crowds and brass bands. The event was televised and the Canberra was draped with hand-made banners. One of the banners read 


So when I look at it now . . .after years of debating nationhood, BREXIT, industrial unrest,…  I’m alarmed by how contemporary it seems.”

A Tall Order: Rochdale Art Gallery in the 1980s’ at Touchstones Rochdale. Friday 3rd February 6.00pm and the show continues until 6th May 2023.


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