The Waterloo Cartoon: a poem by Owen Shears

Published 28 August 2015

To mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, and the Academy’s display of Daniel Maclise RA’s extraordinary drawing, Owen Sheers writes a poem considering its significance in the context of war art.

  • The Waterloo Cartoon
    I spread my fingers
    and watch the image bloom across the screen,
    the cross-hatch drawing closer,

    to bring me eye-to-eye
    with a Prussian Hussar in panel two,
    his wary stare beneath his czapska

    fixed on the hands
    that couple this piece
    at just off-centre.

    I stroke the pad
    and travel the faces, the braids,
    through a congress of horses,
    their bridles double-reined,
    past one dark-welled eye,
    and down Wellington’s stirupped boot

    to where a trumpeter lies
    as draped as his flag, prone
    against the wheel of an undone canon.

    I shrink the window.
    Check my Facebook page,
    scroll the posts to find the last from Dan.

    It’s 6 years today it reads, since I lost my legs
    in Afghanistan. Went to Manchester.
    Thanks Phil, Grant, for making a shit day good.

    A fingertip, and I’m back at Waterloo
    with that trumpeter,
    still lying at the charger’s hooves.

    And again, it’s the eyes that have it,
    cast back in suspicion, distrustful
    of this dream world he’s been woken to –

    this scene he’s sure he knew,
    but now made strange, off-centre,
    an unnatural panorama.

    A place of no blood,
    where weapons kill and wound
    but leave no mark.

    Where men, though dead, are fully whole.
    Where ruin, that signature of war,
    remains unsigned across their flesh, their bone.

    No sugarloaf stumps.
    No entrails purpling the pale.
    No lance’s puncture, or sabre’s bloody furrow.

    No grapeshot gaping sores.
    Just this drawing he’s been woken to –
    a preparation for a painting,

    and in its completion
    in the palace where the ayes still have it,
    for all our future wars.

  • Daniel Maclise, Cartoon for 'The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher After the Battle of Waterloo'

    Daniel Maclise, Cartoon for 'The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher After the Battle of Waterloo', 1858-59.

    Chalk on paper, on ten separate sheets attached to individual panels. 337 x 1381 cm. © Royal Academy of Arts, London. Photographer Prudence Cuming Associates Limited.

  • The Waterloo Cartoon is an epic chalk drawing more than 13 metres in width and over 3 metres in height, created by Daniel Maclise RA in preparation for his water-glass wall painting in the Palace of Westminster, The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher after the Battle of Waterloo (1861). To mark the bicentenary of the battle, the RA has undertaken extensive conservation of the ten panelled-work, and this autumn brings it out of decades of storage for presentation in the Academy’s Weston Rooms.

    This is no ordinary cartoon, but also, as curator Annette Wickham describes it, a “calling card” designed to impress Westminster’s Fine Art Commissioners. Maclise’s hope was that in delivering a work of such high detail and finish, the cartoon would pave the way not just for the painting it pre-shadows, but also for his longer term aspirations to embark upon a cycle of paintings in the Royal Gallery. These would illustrate what the Commissioners in 1847 described as the “military history and glory of the country”.

    It is this secondary purpose that fuels the work’s fascinating dialogue between documentary precision and the artistic representation of its composition. Maclise painstakingly researched the weapons, uniforms and tools of Waterloo, often obtaining originals to draw from life in his studio. In his composition, however, and with the Commissioners’ permission to deviate from “strict history”, he took a more imaginative approach to the broader scene.

    The meeting leaders, who in reality were probably almost alone, are surrounded by men at arms, with a background of skirmishes and a foreground of dead and wounded soldiers. And it is here, as in so much art of conflict, that the drawing’s formal pattern – documentary detail of the specific, combined with a compositional poetic licence – begins to loosen. Besides a single ‘Petit Screw’ tourniquet, the dead and dying are unmarked. As such, rather than belonging to the precise details of the battle in which they lie, they become instead part of the cartoon’s symbolic scene-setting.

    Waterloo, we know, was a particularly bloody engagement, rife with amputation and gore. And yet, while the weapons in the cartoon are portrayed faithfully, what they did to human and horse flesh is not. This subjective blurring of the artistic gaze, this coyness in the face of the truths of war – where its ruin may be shown on a building but not on a body – marks an ongoing societal tension between our desire to remember and our reluctance to remember in full. It is with this tension in mind, and its contribution to humanity’s most persistent failure, that I wrote the poem above in response to Maclise’s work.

    Owen Sheers writes poetry, novels and plays. His new novel is ‘I Saw a Man’ (Faber & Faber)

    Explore the Waterloo Cartoon in detail with our interactive feature.

    Daniel Maclise: The Waterloo Cartoon is in the Weston Rooms at the RA from 2 September — 3 January 2016.

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