Picture the scene: it’s the summer of 1815 and a cluster of veterans huddled around an old pensioner reading from a newspaper have just received confirmation of the Allied victory over Napoleon at Waterloo on Sunday 18 June.
You register various responses. There’s the ardent appeal of the Glengarry Highlander on the left, whose searching gaze and pointed hand gesture seeks further corroboration from the mounted light-horseman who has just delivered the paper. There’s the blithe self-satisfaction of the man seated at the table at the centre of the scene dining on oysters. The carefree expression of the mildly inebriated Irish light-horseman, relaying the news to the hard-of-hearing pensioner on his left. And then the gleeful attentiveness of the black foot soldier, leaning in to the Irishman’s right.
David Wilkie’s Chelsea Pensioners Receiving the London Gazette Extraordinary of Thursday June 22th, 1815, Announcing the Battle of Waterloo (1822), to give this well-known picture its full, temporally exacting, and declamatory title, is often cited by historians of the period, such as Linda Colley and Stephen Brumwell, as a set piece display of cheerful unanimity in the aftermath of war. The painting works exhaustively to weave almost every one of its approximately 50 subjects into the magic circle of enthusiasm emanating from the white heat of the newspaper.
Vestiges of war
There are just one or two instances of potential dissent. A mother wears an anxious expression as she scans the paper for the name of a beloved, her screaming infant giving symbolic vent to pains remote from this portrayal of near unalloyed joy. And a peg-legged ex-serviceman in front of the pub has a quizzical demeanour that seems at odds with the prevailing mood of celebration.
But whether or not Wilkie included these figures as subtle reminders of the violent underpinnings of national unanimity – the blasted, pierced, shot, crushed and trampled bodies on which victories are raised – one must attend very closely, and for a prolonged amount of time, to allow such impressions to cloud the scene.
What viewers are meant to and do in the main perceive in Wilkie’s painting is the sense of Waterloo as an unequivocal affirmation of national solidarity. The artwork stresses the involvement of men and women of all classes and from all corners of the British Isles and its imperial domains, as well as a decisive blotting out, manifested in the radiant glow of the London Gazette, of the ignoble realities of war.
The text that forms the focus of this composition is the Duke of Wellington’s dispatch, written on June 19 and addressed to Earl Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. In Wilkie’s painting the duke’s report is received with unqualified enthusiasm, yet at the time of its publication many readers were left perplexed by the document’s apparent obliquity.
Those left in Britain – women, workers, pensioners – only found out about the victory four days after the battle. Communication relied on newspapers, letters painstakingly travelling back by horse and boat. And so the long and circumlocutory missive that announced the end of war may have been perplexing to many.
The first half of the dispatch focused on allied losses sustained in the action at Quatre Bras on the June 16. So it seemed, if anything, to presage defeat for the Allies. It was not until well over the half way mark that the description of the outcome of the engagement at Waterloo on June 18 confirmed the defeat of the French:
The attack succeeded in every point: the enemy was forced from his positions on the heights, and fled in the utmost confusion, leaving behind him, as far as I could judge, 150 pieces of cannon, with their ammunition, which fell into our hands.
Some readers complained of the dullness of the duke’s description, noting its signal failure to convey the importance of Napoleon’s defeat, but others succumbed to its mounting power, recognising in the rousing final declaration the rhetorical equivalent of a nation’s long-delayed release from bewilderment and uncertainty.
Looking again at the pensioner reading from the paper at the centre of Wilkie’s composition, it’s clear from the direction of his gaze that this single, climatic phrase has just been uttered, and that it is Wellington who is responsible for the displays of enthusiasm, joy and relief circulating around the painting. And unsurprisingly – Wellington himself commissioned it.