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1816 Art After Wartime

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By the opening of the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1816, the first held since the decisive victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, artists and prospective patrons and encouragers of art had had the best part of a year to contemplate their responses to the event. As recent historians of literature and material culture have emphasised, the battle was, in Philip Shaw’s words, “from the outset, presented to the British public as a locus for the realization of national desires.”1 Within mere days of the defeat of Napoleon, tourists were travelling out to the scene of the battle; maps, prints, and pamphlets were prepared; guidebooks issued; and plans for new and more ambitious documentary and artistic projects announced.2 The question of a national monument was debated in the House of Commons before the month of June 1815 was over.3 Most ambitiously, Henry Aston Barker’s panorama of The Battle of Waterloo was on show in Leicester Square from as early as 13 March 1816, and was sufficiently successful to remain there until 1818. In its emphatic commercialism and manipulation of the viewer’s experience, Barker’s project exemplifies the “theatricalisation” of war, set out influentially by Gillian Russell, and what Shaw sees as the ostensibly democratising potential of the spectacular rendering of conflict: “a restructuring of class positions as a form of virtual emancipation, one that temporarily suspended the ‘vertical’ gradations of society so as to confirm, all the more effectively, their role in the world without.”4 So, given sight of the battle in suitably specular and artistic fashion, all sectors of the populace would be joined together in national commemoration, and the social ranking that dominated ordinary life suspended, if only briefly.

Unsurprisingly, among the 970 exhibits in the 1816 Exhibition were a number relating directly to Waterloo. In the Great Room, there was the portrait by Shee of Lt. General Sir Thomas Picton, who had died at the battle, in the Inner Room was G. Forster’s Sargent F. Stiles, of the First, or Royal Dragoons, who took one of the Eagles from the 105th regiment of the French infantry, on the 18th of June, 1815, at the memorable battle of Waterloo; in the Sculpture Room were busts of Wellington by George Garrard and Turnerelli. And the parliamentary discussion of a national commemoration had called forth architects, with at least four perspective views and designs of prospective monuments of one kind or another.5

In the Great Room, there was also George Jones’s Waterloo. Final defeat of the French: Sketch for a large picture. The view drawn on the spot (Fig. 1). In the Inner Room, there hung The Battle of Waterloo by Dennis Dighton with a descriptive caption, and elsewhere a series of paintings relating to the victory by Samuel Drummond, William Atkinson, and William Bromley.6 These were prompted by the competition announced on 18 July 1815 by the British Institution, promising a 1,000 guinea commission for a painting to be based on a sketch  of the battle, “or the entry of British and Prussian troops into Paris”.7 The British Institution’s own exhibition had featured a number of these sketches earlier in 1816, with James Ward securing the prize for an allegorical treatment of the theme. From among these artists, it was Jones who was to capitalise on the subject in the most sustained and profitable way, including a commission of a large-scale rendering of his sketch of 1816 issued by the British Institution as a special award after the main prize had been announced.8

Although Jones would go on to produce numerous versions of the subject, the Academy exhibit has, quite reasonably, been identified as the painting on panel that has appeared on the art market in recent years.9 While scarcely noticed by mainstream art history, which has generally followed the contemporary opinion expressed in 1816 that his work demonstrated “the total inadequacy of battle subjects in eliciting the higher powers of the artist”,10 Jones has been treated more fully in the literature on military art, where the Waterloo composition has been rated as “innovatory, achieving a synthesis between the Baroque battle scenes of Van der Meulen, in which the viewer is on a higher level than the field, and the panoramic battlefield view”.11 With its billowing clouds of smoke and extensive sky, this is a painting which makes efforts to be recognised as landscape, in a Turner-ian mode, as well as an ostensibly comprehensive rendering of battle based in part on first-hand observation.12

Jones’ painting provides a key point of reference for our interpretation of a picture considered more interesting in the modern literature, John Martin’s career-making Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still (Fig. 2). The subject was an Old Testament battle scene—Joshua was the leader of the Israelite tribes in their conquest of Canaan. Here, Joshua, occupying the conventionally elevated position of the military leader in battle paintings, calls upon God to stop the sun in the sky so his triumph could be completed, a scene interpreted as foreshadowing Christ’s spiritual conquests.13 Like Jones, Martin’s stormy rendering of the scene evokes Turner, particularly his Hannibal Crossing the Alps (1812). But in place of Turner’s dynamic painted surface, Martin’s picture is more straightforwardly descriptive, with the massed armies rendered in cramped detail, leading a critic in 1816 to complain of his “wiry touch”, and a subsequent comparison with the famously careful work of Nicholas Berghem.14 

Both the pictures considered here combine Turner-ian atmospherics, and to a limited degree his painterly freedom and emphatic chiaroscuro, with more exacting descriptive aims. And while they indulge a degree of panoramic perspectival extension, they are, still, oil paintings, on familiar supports and formats, framed pictures which do not resist the logic of the fixed perspective which in turn fixes the viewer in place.15 They are not pictures that we need either to handle, or to walk alongside, or to turn our heads around to enjoy. And here it is worth noting that oil painters were relatively sluggish in their productions compared to the print publishers, panoramists, and pamphleteers: the medium lacked the immediacy of print, or even of the panorama painting which for all its size could be dashed off.

The democratising influence of commercial spectacle had its place, but also its limits: the Academy Exhibition was, arguably, one of those limits, with Jones and Martin occupying the boundary—neither full-bloodedly populist nor securely rarefied. What Martin and Jones set out in 1816 was the glimmer of an emerging “middlebrow” visual culture, wedded to the conventions of oil painting but reaching out for subjects and treatments orientated to a mass public. This work was “democratising”, in Shaw’s terms, in offering temporary optical excitement as well as more elevated, enduring values associated with genre and style, and in all of this was fundamentally conflicted, compromised, and uncertain.

  1. Philip Shaw, “‘Shocking Sights of Woe’: Charles Bell and the Battle of Waterloo”, in John Bonehill and Geoff Quilley (eds), Conflicting Visions: War and Visual Culture in Britain and France c. 1700–1830 (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 190. On the culture of Waterloo, see also Philip Shaw, Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Mary A. Favret, War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010); and Neil Ramsey and Gillian Russell (eds), Tracing War in British Enlightenment and Romantic Culture (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).↩︎

  2. Shaw, Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination, 83.↩︎

  3. “Address for a National Monument, and Monuments to Officers who fell in the Battle of Waterloo”, House of Commons Debates, 29 June 1815, Vol. 31, cc1048–57,↩︎

  4. Gillian Russell, The Theatres of War: Performance, Politics, and Society, 1793–1815 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995); Shaw, Waterloo and the Romantic Imagination, 85.↩︎

  5. The architectural designs included: J. Sanderson, “Perspective view of a design for a National Monument to commemorate the glorious Battle of Waterloo, combining in its structure the arts of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture … Trophies executed in bronze from the cannon taken’ and colossal sculpture of Wellington”; J.B. Papworth’s design for a monument to the late Col. Gordon, “now erecting to the memory of the late Col. Gordon, on the field of battle at Waterloo”; J.M. Gandy’s “A proposed town residence for the Duke of Wellington, to commemorate the battle of Waterloo”; and W. Harris’ “Design for a triumphal building, to commemorate the battle of Waterloo, including a military library”.↩︎

  6. Samuel Drummond, “General advance of the British lines, driving in the broken columns of the French army, after Buonaparte’s last desperate effort to break through our right centre with his Imperial guards … Painted from sketches made on the ground a few days after the Action; and from information from the Duke of Wellington and Marquis of Anglesea’s Staffs, Royal Engineer department, &c &c &c”; the works by William Bromley and Atkinson were nos 510 and 517 respectively.↩︎

  7. Thomas Smith, Recollections of the British Institution (London: Simpkin & Marshall, 1860), 70–71.↩︎

  8. See Peter Harrington, “The Battle Paintings of George Jones, RA (1786–1869)”, Journal of Army Historical Research 68 (1989): 239–252.↩︎

  9. Appearing for sale at Bonhams, London, 1 April 2015.↩︎

  10. Press cutting quoted in J.W.M. Hichberger, Images of the Army: The Military in British Art, 1815–1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1988), 16.↩︎

  11. Hichberger, Images of the Army, 19.↩︎

  12. Jones had served in the army and was in Paris at the victory; he went on to publish an account of the campaign battlefield based in part on his visits there. See also Joany Hichberger, “Captain Jones of the Royal Academy”, Turner Studies 3, no. 1 (Summer 1983): 14–20.↩︎

  13. See Martin Myrone (ed.), John Martin: Apocalypse, exhibition catalogue (London: Tate Britain, 2011), 94–96.↩︎

  14. See the review of the Royal Academy exhibition of 1816 in Annals of the Arts 1 (1817): 80; and a review of the British Institution exhibition of 1817 in The Examiner, 18 February 1817.↩︎

  15. On the fixing of the viewer, see Peter de Bolla, The Education of the Eye: Painting, Landscape, and Architecture in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).↩︎

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