In an age when engraving and photography were making artistic images available to a much wider public, artists were able to influence public attitudes more powerfully than ever before. This book examines works of art on military themes in relation to ruling-class ideologies about the army, war and the empire. The first part of the book is devoted to a chronological survey of battle painting, integrated with a study of contemporary military and political history. The chapters link the debate over the status and importance of battle painting to contemporary debates over the role of the army and its function at home and abroad. The second part discusses the intersection of ideologies about the army and military art, but is concerned with an examination of genre representations of soldiers. Another important theme which runs through the book is the relation of English to French military art. During the first eighty years of the period under review France was the cynosure of military artists, the school against which British critics measured their own, and the place from which innovations were imported and modified. In every generation after Waterloo battle painters visited France and often trained there. The book shows that military art, or the 'absence' of it, was one of the ways in which nationalist commentators articulated Britain's moral superiority. The final theme which underlies much of the book is the shifts which took place in the perception of heroes and hero-worship.
This introduction presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book examines oil paintings on military subjects exhibited at public metropolitan venues in the century 1815-1916. It also examines works of art on military themes in relation to ruling-class ideologies about the army, war and the empire. The book also presents a chronological survey of battle painting, integrated with a study of contemporary military and political history. It discusses the intersection of ideologies about the army and military art and concerns with an examination of genre representations of soldiers. The book describes the relation of English to French military art. It attempts to chart the process of transformation in the images of the army and its soldiers from Waterloo to the eve of the Great War.
This chapter shows that the Prince Regent's desire to appropriate the Peninsular, Trafalgar and Waterloo victories, resulted in patronage for a genre of battle painting not legitimised by the tenets of academic theory. The Prince Regent's decision to display Lawrence's portraits rather than his battle paintings for his Waterloo gallery has been noted. One High Art form of military painting which had flourished in England in the late eighteenth century was the exemplum virtutis painting such as Benjamin West's Death of General Wolfe or John Singleton Copely's Death of Major Peirson. The British Institution (BI) for Promoting the Fine Arts in the United Kingdom, had been formed in May 1805 by important members of the Royal Academy and members of the aristocracy who were patrons and amateurs of art. The aristocratic connoisseurs of the BI showed themselves out of sympathy with the majority of urban middle-class art consumers.
The Palace of Westminster competition was significant in the history of British battle painting. French battle painting was very much in the minds of British painters and critics during the period of the Westminster project. The three painters, Sir William Allan, Thomas Sidney Cooper and Edward Armitage, are considered individually, since their career patterns and choice of pictoral sources indicate the range of practitioners of the battle painting genre in the early 1840s. The reviews of their pictures suggest that the Westminster Hall competition should be considered in the context of the continuing dispute about the existence and nature of the 'English school'. The only battle picture to win a premium in the Westminster Hall competition was perceived by many critics to belong to the tradition of history painting.
The Crimean war was a watershed in civil-military relations. With the outbreak of the Crimean war Thomas Jones Barker began to produce more military subjects, perhaps hoping, as did Henry Selous, that the war would result in patronage for military pictures. At the outbreak of the war the astute Ernest Gambart commissioned Edward Armitage to go to the Crimea and produce two oil paintings which could be engraved and mass-produced. Armitage's two battle paintings, Inkermann and Balaclava, were exhibited in Gambart's Pall Mall Gallery in 1856, just after the close of hostilities. They formed part of a 'Crimean exhibition' designed to appeal to a public patriotically celebrating the peace and congratulating themselves on victory. Large-scale battle painting did enjoy a revival in the Crimean period, though outside the Academic or state systems.
The Crimean war was used as evidence of the aristocracy's 'unfitness' to rule the army. The British painter Louis William Desanges was important, as Thomas Jones Barker had been, in assimilating French military art into British subject matter. Desanges working for a middle-class audience, transformed middle class gentlemen into 'god-like' military heroes. Desanges' intention was to depict the incidents which had won the Victoria Cross for its holders. The inability of either Barker or Desanges to gain admittance to the Royal Academy suggests that there was still resistance to their genre at a number of levels. Desanges was an aspirant History painter, competing unsuccessfully in the Westminster Hall competition. The deficiencies of various strands of battle painting had been identified in the context of the Palace of Westminster competitions. In Academic art, representations of the rebellion in genre scenes outnumbered battle paintings.
The period from 1874, the year of the Ashanti expedition, until 1914 saw a dramatic increase in the number of battle paintings displayed at public exhibitions. Many commentators at the time reflecting on the upsurge in the popularity of the genre, attributed it to the influence of one artist, Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler. The few nonfeminist authors who have examined Butler's career have sought confirmation of crude jingoism in bourgeois ideology in High Victorian England. Elizabeth Butler regarded her own work as an antidote to the 'disease of the 'Aesthetes' whose 'sometimes unwholesome productions' she saw at the Grosvenor Gallery. The absence of violence in her paintings was a deliberate strategy, designed to accommodate the conflicting ideologies of anti-imperialism and pacificm as well as patriotism and militarism. Some strands of anti-imperialist thought were linked with pacifism and anti-militarism.
The large number of battle paintings exhibited at the Royal Academy during the period 1874-1914 makes it impossible to account here for the genesis of more than a few. This chapter examines the paintings inspired by the Zulu war of 1879-1880. The Zulu war was regarded as the most important of the colonial wars up to the Sudan campaign in 1883-1884. Frederick Villiers exhibited two battle paintings at the Royal Academy, in 1882 and 1883, so far as is known his only excursions into academic art, both now lost. The first was based on the Afghan war of 1878-1880, which he had covered for The Graphic. The second seems, however, to have been a battle scene, Fighting Arabi with his own Weapons: Tel-el-Kebir. Villiers became a well known personality in the late Victorian newspaper industry. Late Victorian battle painters manipulated a number of stock characters.
The period 1885-1914 was the most prolific time for the production of battle paintings and other celebrations of the military glory of the empire. Despite the large numbers of 'eye-witness' artists who were rushed to the front to 'record' the Boer War, the battle pictures which resulted were traditional in their selection of subject and method of representation. The Boer war can be considered the final break between the 'sporting', self-confident attitude of the early imperial era and the growing sense of grim struggle. During the Boer war Elizabeth Butler turned back for her subject matter to the Crimea, the last time the British had fought a full-scale war against an army of the same race. It is usual to see the second Boer war as the point at which British attitudes hardened into the jingoism that led to the First World War.