Daniel Maclise’s murals of Waterloo and Trafalgar dramatically illustrate the sacrifices of war.
For nearly 150 years, British politicians have filed past two massive murals lining the walls of the Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament. Painted by Daniel Maclise, a brilliant Irish portraitist working in London in the mid-19th century, they were commissioned in 1858 to commemorate the defining British victories against the French at Trafalgar in 1805 and at Waterloo in 1815. Oddly, the paintings are anything but heroic. The victors are subdued, and the murals teem with death and turmoil, highlighting the perils of war. Maclise was acutely aware that they would be seen daily by those with the power to stop senseless military endeavors—that the works, in the words of one art critic, would be “a silent monitor to the members of our government when they have the destinies of peace and war to decide.”
Did art trump politics? In this case, perhaps not, as Britain, bent on maintaining its crumbling empire, would become enmeshed in war after war in the century after the murals were completed—the Zulu and Boer wars, World War I, World War II, and the Falklands, just to name a few.
Daniel Maclise moved from Ireland to London at 21, having already established a reputation as a fine painter of portraits, including that of Sir Walter Scott. A decade later, he was exhibiting scenes from English history such as An Interview Between Charles I and Cromwell; he also painted several canvases based on Shakespeare’s works.
Described as a handsome young man, Maclise was a great friend of Charles Dick ens and traveled in London’s artistic and social circles. Naturally he won a commission in the competition to design murals for the Palace of Westminster (home to the Parliament), which was under construction between 1840 and 1870. The Royal Commission of Fine Arts planned for 18 murals celebrating the history and glory of the country, and in the words of one member, “the acquisition of the countries, colonies, and important places constituting the British Empire.”
Maclise had already completed other scenes in the new Parliament building when in 1858 he embarked on the frescoes of Trafalgar and Waterloo for the Royal Gallery, described in an 1865 guidebook as “a spacious, lofty, and magnificent apartment designed to accommodate the royal procession on its way from the Queen’s robing room to the House of Peers.” He was to complete two murals, each 12 feet high by 45 feet wide. Before commencing work on the plaster surface for the first scene designated by the commissioners—the meeting of Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and Prussian field marshal Gebhard von Blücher after the battle of Waterloo—the artist spent over a year creating a full-size, 10-section chalk design known as a cartoon. Maclise extensively researched the costumes and weapons of the period, examining uniforms supplied by the War Office, reviewing contemporary publications, and interviewing veterans.
The fruits of that research went on display in May 1859, when the monochrome cartoon was hung. Featuring over 50 lifesize figures of men and horses, it was a remarkable piece of art, and the reviews were favorable—so much so that a group of fellow artists presented Maclise with a gold pencil case in appreciation. Maclise soon began painting, but found it tedious to work in fresco with wet plaster, and it took considerable time and effort to get the many military details correct on such a large scale.
Frustrated, the artist aired his concerns to Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, president of the arts commission and an eager proponent of the mural project. The prince suggested Maclise eschew wet plaster in favor of paint and a solution of water and silica applied through a syringe. Though an improvement, the new technique was still maddeningly slow. Other nuisances compounded his woes. Passersby distracted him. Dust from construction lay everywhere. Light from stained-glass windows along the top of the corridor threw what he termed “gorgeous hues” upon the mural, interfering with his painting.
In December 1861, Maclise finally finished The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher. It swarms with humanity, struggling and writhing as the battle draws to a close. In the center, the two commanders on their mounts exchange a handshake in front of the ruin of La Belle Alliance, the inn that had served as Napoleon’s headquarters. While Blücher appears satisfied, his British counterpart is more guarded, perhaps affected by the human toll that surrounds him. Behind Wellington are the surviving members of his staff, including Lord Edward Somerset and Lord Arthur Hill. Remnants of the Second Life Guards, an elite British army unit, can be seen behind the officers. To the left of Blücher (who is wearing his forage cap) is his staff, Generals Friedrich Bülow, Hans Ernst von Ziethen, and August von Gniesenau, and others before a Prussian mounted band—which allegedly played “God Save the King.”
As often happens with historical paintings, questions were raised about the accuracy of the scene, ranging from Blücher’s headgear to the movements of various figures. Letters in the press questioned when, where, and even if the two commanders actually met. Finally, Queen Victoria intervened and asked the Princess of Prussia to check the facts with an aged Prussian officer, General August Ludwig von Nostitz. Nostitz, who had served as aide-de-camp to Blücher at the battle, confirmed the details, and by February 1862 the commissioners approved the installation.
The 56-year-old artist now turned to a depiction of the death of Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805. Maclise again thoroughly researched the subject. He visited HMS Victory and noted the brass plate marking where Nelson fell. He interviewed veterans and examined other prints and paintings. A wax funeral effigy of Nelson in full regalia was on display at Westminster Abbey, and the artist was able to borrow the admiral’s hat to sketch.
This time he did not have to create the cartoon that painting in fresco required. Instead, he produced an oil “sketch” nine feet long, which was then enlarged by “squaring” it onto the large plaster space. (A grid was drawn on the sketch, then each grid square was reproduced at a larger scale on the wall.) Even this process demanded considerable effort—labor made all the harder because Maclise now worked in a narrow space enclosed by immense screens.
Like its companion, the Trafalgar scene bristles with activity; more than 70 life-size figures fill its frame. Although there was some question as to whether Nelson died on the deck or below, Maclise placed at center stage the mortally wounded Nelson, collapsed on the main deck, surrounded by his surgeon, Dr. William Beattie, and Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy, who commanded the Victory on that fateful day.
Maclise created a scene that, while celebrating a great victory, focused on the price paid by the common man. In the wake of British military disasters in the Crimea and India, people were in no mood to glorify war, and this must have weighed heavily on Maclise. The foreground, like that of the Waterloo mural, is crammed with the dead, dying, and wounded. A few women care for the injured. As one reviewer put it, “It makes one’s eyes moist to look over the wreck of human beings.”
While reactions to the murals were positive, the artist was exhausted and depressed that he had not received wider recognition. Though he had originally been asked to paint several more murals, the arts commission discontinued the project after the Nelson mural was completed in 1864. Maclise died of pneumonia six years later, in 1870, having never been fully paid for his work.
Peter Harrington, a frequent contributor to MHQ, is curator of the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University.
Originally published in the Summer 2012 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.