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1815 The Battle of Waterloo and the Pace of Art

One function of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions was to provide a forum for the commemoration of national events. But in 1815, political developments and artistic production moved at different speeds. The most notable political and military event of that year, the final defeat of Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo, took place in mid-June, near the close of the Academy Exhibition. Of course, the disconnect between the pace of political events and the time it took to produce major works in painting and sculpture was hardly unique to this year. As Eleanor Hughes has shown, from the very beginning of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, the delay between battles and their visualisation created “a repetitive and ideologically productive cycle of commemoration that was further complicated by a tendency in times of war for the commissioning and exhibiting of past histories.”1 But for artists exhibiting in 1815, the timing of recent events produced specific challenges. In the previous year, when their works were conceived, the war against Napoleon was believed to be over. The French Emperor had abdicated and been exiled to Elba; Wellington had been made a duke; thanksgiving services were held at St. Paul’s Cathedral; and allied sovereigns and ministers visited London to celebrate the victory.2 It was only in March 1815, two short months before the Summer Exhibition opened, that Napoleon escaped from Elba and resumed the conflict. With very little warning, what was to have been the first exhibition of the post-Napoleonic era became the last exhibition of the Napoleonic wars. The Exhibition of 1815, therefore, included numerous images celebrating a victory that, as it turned out, was not yet won.

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Chief among these works were a series of monumental portraits by the President of the Academy, Sir Thomas Lawrence, conceived in 1814, during the visit of the allied leaders to London. Ringing the Great Room were Lawrence’s full-length depictions of Prince Regent, the Duke of Wellington (Fig. 1), the Prussian field marshal Gebhard von Blücher, and the Russian leader Count Platov, as well as a half-length of the Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich.3 Lawrence had painted these canvases with uncharacteristic speed, and one critic upbraided him for producing works with “carelessness in the drawing” and an “unfinished” appearance.4 But for all Lawrence’s haste, events nonetheless outpaced him. Lawrence’s paintings belonged to a whole group of images awkwardly situated due to the resumption of the war, such as Thomas Wyon’s medal, Europe Restored by the Assistance of Britannia, or the many designs for proposed national monuments presented among the architectural drawings.5 Lawrence’s portrait of Wellington depicts him brandishing the sword of state in his ceremonial role at “the (premature) thanksgiving service” held at St. Paul’s in 1814.6 Such triumphalist imagery may have seemed ill-timed, given Napoleon’s return, or it may have functioned as a prophecy of future victory. Similarly, the portrait of Blücher was conceived as an image of a general  whose leadership at the Battle of Leipzig and the Battle of Laon had helped force Napoleon’s abdication in 1814.7 But by the time the Summer Exhibition had opened in 1815, this image took on a new interest, given Blücher’s role as leader of the Prussian forces awaiting Napoleon in Brussels. Lawrence was not alone in sending depictions of these two leaders to the Academy, and those who had were able to fortuitously capitalise on their new status.8 In the very last days of the Exhibition, the significance of these portraits shifted once again; after news of the Battle of Waterloo reached London on 22 June, these works represented the generals who had once again defeated Napoleon.9  

In contrast to this bevy of military officers is the almost complete absence of common soldiers and sailors, with whose lives these victories were purchased. In fact, in studying the catalogue I was able to identify more images of military officers’ horses, such as Abraham Cooper’s Delpini, a Charger, the Property of Major T.P. Miles, 14th Light Dragoons, than of rank-and-file service members.10 Of the works exhibited in 1815, only Samuel Drummond’s Jack Tar Spending His Prize Money appears to represent a working-class British service member, and its title suggests that it treats the sailor as a figure of fun.11

The repercussions of the war for ordinary people were foreshadowed in one major work, David Wilkie’s Distraining for Rent, which shows a landlord’s agents seizing the property of a farming family, who have been unable to pay rent (Fig. 2). Such scenes were to become increasingly common in the economic slump that followed Waterloo. But the prophetic nature of this work was entirely unintentional on the part of the artist, and most likely unwelcome. Wilkie began the sketch for Distraining in early April 1814, a few days before Napoleon’s first abdication, and thus well before the post-war economic hardships had begun.12 As Martin Meisel has shown, it was only later, after the Academy Exhibition of 1815, that the work’s subject may have begun to seem too painfully topical.13 Moreover, as Nicholas Tromans has persuasively argued, the notion of Distraining as “an attack on landlords per se” is “an absurd idea given Wilkie’s conservative politics.”14 Instead, like Lawrence, Wilkie had been caught up in events he could not have anticipated when he first put his design to canvas.

At first glance, these immediate temporal concerns have little to do with one of the most celebrated exhibits of 1815, then and now: J.M.W. Turner’s Dido Building Carthage. This resplendent landscape depicts another time altogether, seemingly untouched by the contemporary political concerns that entangled Lawrence and Wilkie in 1815. And yet, Dido contains its own commentary on time and its effects, one conceived, as were all of the exhibits in this year, before the final outcome of the war was known. At the Academy Summer Exhibition of 1815, Turner offered an image of an empire at its dawn, and yet also an image of an empire known to have fallen.15

  1. Eleanor Hughes, “Sanguinary Engagements: Exhibiting the Naval Battles of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars”, in John McAleer and John M. MacKenzie (eds), Exhibiting the Empire: Cultures of Display and the British Empire (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), 93.↩︎

  2. See Alexander Rich and Jerzy Kierkuć-Bieliński (eds), Peace Breaks Out!: London and Paris in the Summer of 1814 (London: Sir John Soane’s Museum, 2014).↩︎

  3. Michael Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005), 183–193.↩︎

  4. “Fine Arts: Royal Exhibition, Somerset House,” La Belle Assemblée, August 1815, 40. The Prince Regent commissioned the portraits of Blücher, Platov, and Wellington in summer 1814, and sat for his own portrait, commissioned by Lord Stewart, in August, that year. Oliver Millar, The Later Georgian Pictures in the Collection of Her Majesty the Queen (London: Phaidon, 1969), xxxii, 65, 44, 77. Levey speculates that the rapid execution of these works was due to their royal patronage. Levey, Sir Thomas Lawrence, 189.↩︎

  5. These included: W. Capon, Sketch of an Idea the National Monument, or Naval Pillar, of Allegoric Architecture, to Commemorate the Achievements of our Naval and Military Heroes; H.W. Inwood, View of a Design for a National Mausoleum, to Commemorate Naval and Military Heroes; and T. Wilson, A National Mausoleum, Designed to Commemorate British Naval and Military Heroism.↩︎

  6. “Sir Thomas Lawrence, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington”,↩︎

  7. A. Cassandra Albinson, Peter Funnell, and Lucy Peltz (eds), Thomas Lawrence: Regency Brilliance and Power (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 231–233.↩︎

  8. Likenesses of Blücher were exhibited by Maria Singletons and Peter Turnerelli (a bust); of Wellington by William Grimaldi (in enamel) and Humphrey Hopper (a bust).↩︎

  9. The Exhibition closed on 24 June 1815. Royal Academy of Arts Archive, Council Minutes, RAA/PC/1/5, 199. Thank you to Mark Pomeroy for sharing this information with me.↩︎

  10. Even a work exhibited without a military rank in its exhibition title, James Northcote’s Young Sailor, turns out to depict a member of the officer class, the midshipman Zachariah Mudge. Jacob Simon, “The Account Book of James Northcote”, The Walpole Society 58 (1995/1996): 99. A work featuring foreign fighters, James Ward’s Portraits of Prince Platoff’s Favorite Charger, and of Four of his Cossacks, treats horse and soldiers alike as accessories to the absent aristocratic general.↩︎

  11. On this trope, see Geoffrey Quilley, “Duty and Mutiny: The Aesthetics of Loyalty and the Representation of the British Sailor c. 1789–1800”, in Philip Shaw (ed.), Romantic War: Studies in Culture and Conflict, 1789–1815 (Farnham: Ashgate, 2000), 80–109.↩︎

  12. Alan Cunningham, The Life of Sir David Wilkie (London: John Murray, 1843), Vol. 1, 388.↩︎

  13. Martin Meisel, Realizations: Narrative, Pictorial, and Theatrical Arts in Nineteenth-Century England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 156.↩︎

  14. Nicholas Tromans, “David Wilkie: Painter of Everyday Life,” in Nicholas Tromans (ed.), David Wilkie, 1785–1841: Painter of Everyday Life (London: Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2002), 20.↩︎

  15. For the lack of recorded contemporary commentary on this work and the theme of “the rise and fall of empires”, see Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1984), Vol. 1, 83 and 85. But, as Kathleen Nicholson has shown, Carthage was compared to both Britain and France in the context of the Napoleonic Wars. Kathleen Nicholson, Turner’s Classical Landscapes: Myth and Meaning (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 108–109.↩︎

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