Hats off to Wellington: ‘Triumph, Politics and Passions’ at the National Portrait Gallery

I’ve just recommended the National Portrait Gallery’s Wellington: Triumph, Politics and Passions exhibition to someone, telling them it has superb loans, a well-written catalogue and is, crucially, free. It closes on Sunday June 7th, so there’s a week and a bit still to see it in.

The NPG is running two free exhibitions at the moment – the other is on Cornelius Johnson, of which more next time – and it is strikingly generous of them. I’ve been to Wellington twice now, and both visits were a huge treat.

Wellington’s life spans what is probably the swiftest, most dramatic transition in this country’s history. You’d have to look at America a hundred years later to find a period of comparable transformation. Between 1769 and 1852, Britain went from agricultural society to industrial powerhouse, sort-of aristocracy to sort-of democracy, world trader to world ruler. And all of this rested on the unrivalled military prestige for which Wellington was personally responsible.

This was also a period of comparable evolution in the visual arts. And since Wellington lived most of it in the public eye, his iconography stretches from the giants of late Georgian portraiture to early photography, and the explosion of the popular satirical print. Paul Cox, the exhibition’s curator, has been preparing Wellington for years; the catalogue is an important addition to Wellington literature, and the quality of the loans he has secured is breathtaking. In this Waterloo Bicentennial year with other exhibitions being staged throughout Europe, it is staggering to see the famous portraits by Goya and Lawrence in one room together.

Lawrence’s famous ‘five pound note’ portrait painted in 1817 (Apsley House, image (c) English Heritage) is like a Baroque bust in paint, weighty as marble and full of motion at the same time – the cord flying free of Wellington’s shoulder is a stroke of genius. But it is as much a portrait of the ‘idea’ of Wellington as the man himself. The man behind the mask remains elusive.

It’s interesting, then, to see two portraits by artists who knew Wellington less well at the time they painted him. The portrait painted by John Hoppner c.1795 (a rarely-seen loan from the Duke of Wellington’s collection at Stratfield Saye) shows a young Wellington when he was Lieutenant Colonel of the 33rd Regiment of Foot aged about 26.

Wellington Hoppner

(c) Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust/ image from The Times

It is a fantastic painting. The reproduction doesn’t do justice to the brilliant colouring, but it gets a sense of how free and sketchy it is, with a sure, broad handling that reminds you why Hoppner was the best-selling British painter at auction a century later. This is what Boldini and Sargent were aiming for. It also shows a more diffident sitter – almost shyly turning away from the viewer with slightly-parted lips that give Wellington a more human, less monumental aspect. It is the same face that Goya captures twenty years later in the famous National Gallery portrait.


(c) National Gallery, London

Even the parted lips are the same, which – if this was a habitual expression – explains the tightly-pursed look of the Lawrence portraits, Wellington’s parade-face. Goya’s portrait, like Hoppner’s, is a revealing glimpse of the man behind the legend. Goya’s small red chalk drawing (British Museum) shows an even more haunted figure, almost bowed down by the weight of the Peninsula Medal round his neck and showing the strain of one of the most desperate, hard-fought campaigns in British military history.


(c) British Museum

The large round medal is absent from the finished painting, where it has been overpainted by the Order of the Golden Fleece and the Army Gold Cross. I hadn’t realised that Goya’s portrait was begun in 1812  but not finished until 1814, because the artist had to keep adding and repainting Wellington’s various Orders and decorations as they were awarded. The execution of these is characteristically broad, but the last of these, the Army Gold Cross, is almost perfunctory. You can imagine it was added in rather a strained atmosphere. ‘And a Gold Cross. There! The one time I had a suit made I kept changing my mind about details like cuff-buttons, and what to have jetted or boated or fly. By 1814 I imagine Goya sounded rather like the tailor after a few of my phone calls.

This beautiful and familiar Lawrence of c1821 acquires a new dimension when it is discussed in the catalogue. It was commissioned by the Duke’s friends Charles and Harriet Arbuthnot, and for all its hauteur – the Duke is a-swagger with his military greatcoat and Order of the Golden Fleece – it engages you on your own eye-level as an equal.


Private Collection (c) Artdaily.com

Outsiders speculated whether Mrs Arbuthnot was his lover – Sir Robert Peel was convinced of it. But the truth was that Wellington enjoyed the Arbuthnots for their intellectually -stimulating company and for the discretion that could be lacking in others – not least Harriette Wilson whose publisher tried to blackmail Wellington with her forthcoming memoirs, and earned the response ‘Publish, and be damned!’ Wellington was famously devoted to the Arbuthnots, and the portrait that they commissioned from Lawrence is painted in the same spirit of well-bred discretion:

Harriet [Arbuthnot] herself noted in her diary that all other pictures of Wellington ‘depict him as a hero’ whereas her portrait shows the softness and sweetness of countenance which characterise him when he is in the private society of his friends.’ (Catalogue p.42)

This late portrait commissioned by the Countess of Jersey was an unexpected treat. Lawrence died midway through painting it, and Lady Jersey wisely left it unfinished. Until it was sold at Sotheby’s December 4th 2013 it hadn’t been seen in public for sixty years. The owner has since very generously placed it on loan with the NPG. Before it reappeared at Sotheby’s, the portrait was known only from a black and white reproduction in Kenneth Garlick’s monograph. As Mr Cox has said, a photograph only hints at the portrait’s sense of presence. It was completely new to me, and I was blown away.

by Sir Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1829
by Sir Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1829

This portrait was painted as a private commission. Lady Jersey was a friend and admirer of the Duke, and you have a sense here of the private man. It is a true speaking likeness, as if Wellington has been captured mid-conversation, and the curl to the lips gives his face an unexpected sensuality. Lawrence’s earlier portraits are Wellington as I imagined him, icy-cool like Christopher Plummer in Waterloo – ‘What is your plan, Your Grace?’ ‘Why, to beat the French of course.’ Lawrence’s late portrait has a devilish, Byronic air. You can understand how Baroness Burdett-Coutts, a close friend in later years, could have proposed to him when he was in his seventies and she was forty years his junior.

Lady Burdett-Coutts commissioned the posthumous portrait of the Duke in his seventies playing with his grandchildren – he had been a remote father but an indulgent grandfather – but the most revealing image of Wellington in old age is this daguerrotype by Antoine Claudet, showing him on his seventy-fifth birthday in 1844, as the catalogue says, a respected elder statesman enjoying a well-deserved retirement.


Image: courtesy of Iconic photos

If the daguerrotype reminds you that Wellington’s life crosses the epochs from Hoppner to photography, another work makes a similar point. James Ward’s bizarre Triumph of Wellington was painted in 1816 and won first prize in the British Institution’s competition for a Waterloo subject.

(c) The Royal Hospital Chelsea; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) The Royal Hospital Chelsea; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

The Rubensian treatment was exactly what that academic body wanted – serious, high art, down to the architectural framing with its Solomonic columns as though it was to be turned into a tapestry. Except no sooner had they awarded the prize than they realised it wasn’t what they wanted at all. Ward’s allegory was so complex that it had to be understood with an accompanying printed key. In a damascene flash it felt two hundred years out of date. The BI awarded a second prize to a work far more in tune with the times, a painting of the battle by Captain George Jones, who had served in the latter part of the campaign. Ward’s full-size painting lapsed into obscurity. Its present whereabouts are unknown and only the sketch survives. In fairness to Ward, much of his work of this period is in the same romantic, visionary key as Turner and even Blake, so why he decided to be so slavishly retro in this commission is unclear. Perhaps it seemed the only way to express the sheer weight of such a victory. Whatever the reason, this was the last gasp of Baroque allegory in British painting.

(c) The Royal Hospital Chelsea; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
(c) The Royal Hospital Chelsea; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Jones’s painting caught the modern mood – a topographically accurate piece dramatic reconstruction based on eye-witness accounts. There was such demand for views like this that Jones became known as ‘Waterloo Jones’ from the sheer number he produced.  Jones – who did look rather like the Duke – said that people often mistook him for Wellington. ‘Mistaken for me is he?’ said Wellington. ‘That’s strange, for no one ever mistakes me for Mr Jones.’ When one man allegedly did just that, saying, ‘Mr Jones, I believe,’ Wellington answered: ‘If you believe that you’ll believe anything.’ (Elizabeth Longford Wellington Pillar of State p.148 1975 wikipedia).

Some of the most remarkable portraits of Wellington and his officers were made on campaign in the Peninsular. Thomas Heaphy produced a series of watercolour head-sketches preparatory to a large painting of Wellington and his staff. The completed painting – now lost but we get a good idea of it from an engraving – looks rather like a montage of cigarette cards, but the sketches breathe life and character. It was a lucrative project. Heaphy charged 40 guineas a head – the same price Sir William Beechey was charging in oil at this date – which he raised by ten guineas ‘danger money’ after he found himself under fire on one occasion.

The war didn’t just feed the portraitists. The period witnessed a great leap in public interest in the details of war, and military life. As early as the 1790s, Thomas Rowlandson had produced detailed watercolours of the Duke of York’s army on manoeuvres and in camp in the Low Countries. Just as the Crimean War was the first ‘newspaper war’ and the Vietnam War was the first war to be televised, the Napoleonic War was the first war that people back home could be kept up to date with news and conditions by a regular stream of eye-witness illustrations.  Dennis Dighton’s battles and uniforms were for the Prince Regent’s eyes only – part of the Prince’s military enthusiasm, which earlier gave us those fantastic paintings of Dragoons by Stubbs; but the watercolours of Major, later Major General, Thomas Staunton St Clair, a serving officer, were engraved by Charles Turner in Views of the Principal Occurrences of the Campaigns in Spain and Portugal 1814. These views, full of on-the-spot detail, were the news photographs of their day.


The Battle of Fuentes de Onora, May 5th 1811. Image: 1st-art-gallery.com


Troops Bivouacked near Villa Velha, May 19th 1811. Image: 1st-art-gallery.com

The images which strike the modern viewer most forcefully were never seen by the public, however. A diary like Lieutenant Edmund Wheatley’s illustrated journal was always intended to be private – and remains tantalisingly so in the exhibition. It was written for his fiancée and is displayed open only on a profile portrait of one of his brother officers – ‘an accurate likeness of his drunken face’ – and a windmill which survived cannon-fire only to be broken up later for firewood. Wheatley’s tone is jocular, but his experiences on campaign weakened his health, and contributed to his early death two decades later.

The most shocking eyewitness image of Waterloo in this exhibition is Dighton’s watercolour of the gate at Hougomont on the day after the battle. Prussian officers watch as orderlies tip naked corpses of French grenadiers into a mass grave. Their uniforms are discarded in the foreground, while further bodies await burial to the right. The walls and gate of the chateau behind are pockmarked with shellholes and smeared with blood. It is a very contemporary image of war, and resonates far more than the finished painting for which it was a study, showing a desperate moment in the Coldstream Guards’ defence. There is no image of it online – a good reason to see the real thing in the exhibition.

Wellington’s political career, when he joined the Government 1818 as Master General of the Ordnance, introduced him to a new but not wholly unfamiliar world. The exhibition makes the important point that Wellington had pursued politics in tandem with soldiering from the beginning. His elder brother Richard Earl of Mornington, later Marquess Wellesley – whose superb portrait by Hoppner c.1795 is a pendant to his brother’s – had advanced Wellington’s political career from as early as 1790 when, as Arthur Wellesley, he entered the Irish House of Commons. In the same way, when Lord Mornington was Governor-General of India later that decade, he would fast-track Wellington’s promotion in the Indian army.  Lord Mornington’s strategy was for the two brothers were able to act as a political tag-team in mutual support of each other. When he faced recall and scrutiny for his performance as Governor-General in 1805, he got his brother elected to Parliament for Rye to defend him in Parliament. From the start, Wellington understood that generals needed political co-operation to do their job, and in his brother, and later in Lord Liverpool he had men who understood how to support him in Parliament while he was on campaign.

This was undoubtedly a different experience to being in Government, and by the time Wellington became Tory Prime Minister in 1828 the gloss of victory had began to fade. In his introduction to the catalogue, William Hague quotes Wellington’s brilliant line after his first Cabinet: ‘An extraordinary affair. I gave them their orders and they wanted to stay and discuss them.’ Wellington’s style and views put him at odds with the public over Electoral Reform, which he didn’t believe in, and with his own party over Catholic Emancipation, which he did. Wellington’s pro-Catholic agendum is sent up in two famous caricatures published in 1829 by William Heath, Doing Homage – where the Duke kisses the Pope’s toe – and The Field of Battersea – where he fights a duel dressed in a monk’s habit. I didn’t know that the caricaturist – real name Paul Pry – is thought to have been a soldier in the wars, and had previously supplied illustrations for The Wars of Wellington 1819. He turned to caricature when the public interest in the war began to wane. As Wellington says in A Regular Turn-out or cleansing the Augean Stables, John Phillips’s cartoon of 1830 where Government are swept out of office by John Bull: ‘What? Treat your Waterloo idol in this way, Johnny.’ During the Reform crisis, crowds had broken the windows of Apsley House, and there were even rumours of a plot against his life. It was a sad business.

But then in the next decade, something rather wonderful began to happen. Wellington began to regain his old popularity. It is true that in this country you can overcome almost any negative press by living long enough. Wellington had the advantage that when he found himself at daggers with the public it was on matters of deep principle and personal experience. He had believed in Catholic Emancipation on principle since his early days in the Irish Parliament, and in practice because he knew first -hand the contribution Catholic Irishmen had made serving in his armies. And he was prepared to defend his belief in the famous duel with the Ultra-Tory Earl of Winchilsea in Battersea Park. Both men fired in the air; it was the principle that mattered. He opposed Reform, because it seemed – to one who had spent his whole career fighting post-Revolutionary France – to be the thin end of the revolutionary wedge. But he also recognised that the peace of the nation was the most important principle of all, and he came to accommodate Reform in time. And in the 1840s, he helped to persuade fellow landowners to support Sir Robert Peel overturning the protectionist Corn Laws in order to feed the victims of famine in Ireland.

Thackeray, that scourge of humbug and toadying, spares few targets in his Book of Snobs 1844, but in a world of excess, Wellington appears as a figure of dignity and good taste:

I myself have seen at my favourite Club (the Senior United Service) His Grace the Duke of Wellington quite contented with the joint, one-and-three, and half-pint of sherry, nine; and if His Grace, why not you and I?

And in the author’s conclusion, he is the only person in the entire peerage worth a bow:

We will take our hats off to Wellington, because he is Wellington.

My favourite, final glimpse of Wellington in the catalogue, however, reveals an unexpected lover of Victorian gadgety who fitted central heating and flushing lavatories to his houses, experimented with new designs for waterproof overcoats, and replied to a mass of other people’s bright ideas with ingenious pre-printed letters. A lithograph of one example from 1830 is reproduced in the catalogue.

FM [Field Marshal] the Duke of Wellington presents his Compliments to [space blank for name]. The Duke has nothing to say to inventions. He has no power or authority to incur one Shilling of Expence on any account whatever, or to order or authorise such expence or to adopt any plan or improvement of armament or equipment which can occasion expence. It is useless therefore for inventors to apply to him. [space blank for name] must address the Master General of the Ordnance.

Wellington’s vast funeral procession in 1852 – the illustrated print-reel fills both endpapers of the catalogue and takes several minutes to file by onscreen in the exhibition – was the final expression of his apotheosis. The exhibition does not spare Wellington’s faults: it was fortunate for Kitty Pakenham that she was so devoted to her husband, or their marriage would have been unbearable for her, and their sons regretted that Wellington was such a remote father. The catalogue also makes the interesting point that Wellington’s opposition to reform in the army left it too inflexible when Britain became involved in the Crimean War the year after Wellington’s death – though I was reminded of George MacDonald Fraser’s observation (via his hero in Flashman at the Charge 1973) that the reformed army of 1899 could make just as much of hash of things in the Boer War.

In the last analysis, we are left agreeing with Lord Bolingbroke’s verdict on the Duke of Marlborough a century before: ‘If there had been such faults in so great a man I had forgotten them.’ Somewhere I thought I had a note of Queen Victoria describing Wellington as ‘the conscience of the Nation.’ I may not be right, but this is the role he fulfilled by the end of his life. The late Georgian world was bathed in a rather scandalous light by the 1840s, like a faded print by Rowlandson, rum-noses, plump backsides in tight britches and low-cut mistresses in ostrich feathers. Wellington, survivor of that world and its greatest hero, was the acceptable face of the past, the nation’s grandfather, and he had come to embody its greatest virtue, an uncompromising sense of Duty.

When I wake up before five every morning, and think about rolling over and resetting the alarm, it’s Wellington’s voice I hear saying: ‘When it’s time to turn over it’s time to turn out.’ I don’t always do as he suggests. But I know it’s what I ought to do.

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