Research Curator Helena Bonett of the Royal Academy's Library and Collections department shines a light on one of the hidden treasures of the Royal Academy's Collections
A fourteen-metre long, painstakingly detailed chalk drawing of the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo was an instant sensation when it was first shown in London in 1859. This astonishing work from the RA’s Collections, which is a full-scale cartoon for a mural at the Palace of Westminster, was recently uncrated for the first time in 40 years to help in an exciting new conservation project to restore the Westminster mural.
On 18 June 1815, the French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo. The victors on that day were the British and Prussians, led by the Duke of Wellington and Gebhard von Blücher. Now almost 200 years since the battle (bicentenary commemorations are planned for 2015), it is timely that a drawing of this legendary moment in history should be brought back into the limelight.
All photographs © Royal Academy of Arts, London.
The cartoon is the work of the Irish painter, printmaker and draughtsman Daniel Maclise. Born in Cork, the young Maclise moved to London in 1827 where he trained in the RA Schools, winning several prize medals. In London he also became a close friend of the writer Charles Dickens and illustrated several of his books, including The Old Curiosity Shop (1840).
Following the destruction of the Palace of Westminster in a fire in 1834, many artists took part in competitions to design murals for the new building. Maclise’s designs came to the attention of Prince Albert, who commissioned the artist to create the grand murals, 'The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher' and 'The Death of Nelson', which are still on view in the Royal Gallery in the Palace of Westminster today.
Before starting work on the mural for 'The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher', Maclise first drew the RA’s full-size cartoon. Completing it in little over a year, he then exhibited the cartoon in the Royal Gallery. The ambition of the composition – which includes 155 figures and 50 horses, of which the majority are life-sized or even larger – and the astounding accuracy with which it is drawn – including Prussian, French, Flemish, English, Scottish and Irish soldiers, all portrayed in authentic military uniform – made the work an instant hit and the object of great patriotic pride. The Art Journal described it as ‘the greatest work of its class that has been produced in England: nor is there any painter of the Continent who has surpassed it’, and a group of 43 artists took the unusual step of sending Maclise a gift of a gold porte-crayon to honour his achievement, writing that it was ‘not so much a token of our esteem and admiration as of the honest pride which, as artists and fellow-countrymen, we feel in the success of the cartoon you have lately executed’.
In the cartoon, Maclise depicts Wellington and Blücher clasping hands outside Napoleon’s former headquarters, La Belle Alliance. There was some controversy at the time over whether they had in fact first met there or whether they had ridden to La Belle Alliance together. Queen Victoria wrote to her daughter in Germany to get verification of the details from Blücher’s former aide-de-camp, who corroborated Maclise’s portrayal. Maclise began working on the mural in the Royal Gallery shortly after exhibiting the cartoon, but finding the fresco technique extremely laborious he resigned the commission. Prince Albert intervened, telling Maclise about a new mural-painting method being used in Germany called the ‘waterglass’ technique, which would make the work easier. However, not much was known about this method and it was thought that the mural soon deteriorated, although the Palace of Westminster’s conservation project is revealing that it is in better condition than previously thought.
The Palace of Westminster is working with Cologne University of Applied Sciences to better understand the German waterglass method that Maclise adopted for the finished mural. Through viewing the RA’s cartoon, the conservators are closer to understanding Maclise’s methods and now better placed to undertake conservation on the mural. Because of its enormous size, the cartoon has been in storage since it was last exhibited in 1972, so this has been a fantastic opportunity for the Royal Academy to rediscover one of its treasures.