A beginner’s guide to Daniel Maclise

Published 28 August 2015

His prestigious wall-painting commission is still in the Houses of Parliament and Dickens’s last public appearance was a tribute to him. So why don’t we know Daniel Maclise? As his epic cartoon goes on show, here’s a quick guide.

  • Sketch star

    Born in Cork, Ireland in 1806, Maclise showed a prodigious talent for sketching from a very young age. His father, who had previously served in the British army, ran a tanning and shoemaking business, but the young Maclise was encouraged by local collectors and amateur artists to pursue his talents, and he enrolled at the Cork School of Art before moving to London in 1827 to attend the Royal Academy Schools. A model student, he won prizes for his draughtsmanship and a gold medal for his painting The Choice of Hercules in 1831. You can still see his name on the board of medal winners in our Schools’s “cast corridor”.

    Literary Londoner

    In London, Maclise mixed in literary circles and became a close friend of Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli. His portrait sketches and paintings of famous friends and other celebrities helped make his name. At the same time he was in great demand as a book illustrator, and also developed a particular style of history painting with lively scenes, full of historical detail that were often based on literary sources like the plays of Shakespeare. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1835 and a full Royal Academician in 1840.

    Parliament painter

    During the 1840s Maclise was one of the artists selected to paint frescoes in the new Houses of Parliament. The Spirit of Chivalry and The Spirit of Justice can still be seen in the chamber of the House of Lords. Through his epic cartoon for The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher after the Battle of Waterloo, recently conserved and on show at the RA until January, Maclise secured the prestigious commission to paint a whole cycle in the Royal Gallery. After painting the Waterloo scene and its companion piece, the Death of Nelson (1865), however, his contract was cancelled due to the early death of Prince Albert, who had been leading the Fine Art Commissioners at Westminster. These two first works were a critical success, but the project was a challenging one that eventually took its toll on Maclise’s spirits and health.

  • Daniel Maclise RA, The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher after the Battle of Waterloo

    Daniel Maclise RA, The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher after the Battle of Waterloo, 1861.

    Water-glass wall painting. 285.8 × 3535.7 cm. House of Lords, Palace of Westminster, London. Parliamentary Art Collection.

  • Adored by Dickens

    Maclise died from pneumonia in his house at Cheyne Walk, London, on 25 April 1870. He is buried in Kensal Green cemetery. At the Royal Academy annual dinner that took place just a few days after Maclise’s death, Dickens paid tribute to his old friend whom he described as the “gentlest and most modest of men…incapable of a sordid or ignoble thought, gallantly sustaining the dignity of his vocation, without a grain of self assertion, wholesomely natural at the last as at the first.”

    This turned out to be Dickens’s last public appearance. He was in poor health by this stage, and the below obituary, held by the National Portrait Gallery, was published just a few months later; he died shortly after, suffering a stroke. Read the full speech, including his tribute to Maclise, below.

    • Dickens' final public speech

      A tribute to Maclise

      Giving the final toast at the Royal Academy annual dinner in 1870 – celebrating a recent move to our galleries in Piccadilly – Dickens delivered the following speech to an audience of 200, that included then Prime Minister William Gladstone, the Prince of Wales Albert Edward and RA President Sir Francis Grant.

      Mr. President, your Royal Highnesses, my Lords and Gentlemen, I beg to acknowledge the toast with which you have done me the great honour of associating my name. I beg to acknowledge it on behalf of the brotherhood of literature, present and absent, not forgetting an illustrious wanderer from the fold, whose tardy return to it we all hail with delight, and who now sits or lately did sit within a few chairs of or on your left hand. I hope I may also claim to acknowledge the toast on behalf of the sisterhood of literature also, although that “better half of human nature,” to which Mr. Gladstone rendered his graceful tribute, is unworthily represented here, in the present state of its rights and wrongs, by the devouring monster, man.

      All the arts, and many of the sciences, bear witness that women, even in their present oppressed condition, can attain to quite as great distinction, and can attain to quite as lofty names as men. Their emancipation (as I am given to understand) drawing very near, there is no saying how soon they may “push us from our stools” at these tables, or how soon our better half of human nature, standing in this place of mine, may eloquently depreciate mankind, addressing another better half of human nature sitting in the president’s chair.

      The literary visitors of the Royal Academy to-night desire me to congratulate their hosts on a very interesting exhibition, in which risen excellence supremely asserts itself, and from which promise of a brilliant succession in time to come is not

      Charles Dickens

      Charles Dickens

      by John Proctor, after Mason & Co (Robert Hindry Mason), 1870. National Portrait Gallery

      © National Portrait Gallery, London

  • I was one of the two most intimate friends and most constant companions of the late Mr. Maclise

    Charles Dickens

  • wanting. They naturally see with especial interest the writings and persons of great men historians, philosophers, poets, and novelists, vividly illustrated around them here. And they hope that they may modestly claim to have rendered some little assistance towards the production of many of the pictures in this magnificent gallery. For without the patient labours of some among them unhistoric history might have long survived in this place, and but for the researches and wandering of others among them, the most preposterous countries, the most impossible peoples, and the absurdest superstitions, manners, and customs, might have usurped the place of truth upon these walls. Nay, there is no knowing, Sir Francis Grant, what unlike portraits you yourself might have painted if you had been left, with your sitters, to idle pens, unchecked reckless rumours, and undenounced lying malevolence.

    I cannot forbear, before I resume my seat, adverting to a sad theme (the recent death of Daniel Maclise) to which his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales made allusion, and to which the president referred with the eloquence of genuine feeling. Since I first entered the public lists, a very young man indeed, it has been my constant fortune to number amongst my nearest and dearest friends members of the Royal Academy who have been its grace and pride. They have so dropped from my side one by one that I already, begin to feel like the Spanish monk of whom Wilkie tells, who had grown to believe that the only realities around him were the pictures which he loved, and that all the moving life he saw, or ever had seen, was a shadow and a dream.

    For many years I was one of the two most intimate friends and most constant companions of the late Mr. Maclise. Of his genius in his chosen art I will venture to say nothing here, but of his prodigious fertility of mind and wonderful wealth of intellect, I may confidently assert that they would have made him, if he had been so minded, at least as great a writer as he was a painter. The gentlest and most modest of men, the freshest as to his generous appreciation of young aspirants, and the frankest and largest-hearted as to his peers, incapable of a sordid or ignoble thought, gallantly sustaining the true dignity of his vocation, without one grain of self-ambition, wholesomely natural at the last as at the first, “in wit a man, simplicity a child,” no artist, of whatsoever denomination, I make bold to say, ever went to his rest leaving a golden memory more pure from dross, or having devoted himself with a truer chivalry to the art goddess whom he worshipped.