British artists’ imaginative depictions of the 1857 sepoy rebellion helped fan the flames of public outrage.
To say that the outbreak of the sepoy rebellion in northern India in the spring of 1857 shocked and appalled the British would be an understatement. Although rumors of a pending crisis had run rife throughout India earlier in the year, no one in the homeland expected an armed native revolt. Within days of the first news came accounts of terrible atrocities disloyal Indians had perpetrated upon British officers and their families. Shock turned to horror, followed quickly by outrage. The public demanded immediate retribution.
That many of the atrocity stories turned out to be unfounded did not matter. Most Britons felt compelled to react without mercy, and they did. Troops of the empire summarily executed thousands of Indians, many by a barbaric Mogul method, strapping the unfortunate prisoner to a cannon muzzle, lighting the fuse, and watching as he was “blown away.”
Having only barely recovered from a nasty, brutal, and ultimately unsuccessful military campaign in the Crimea just over a year earlier, Great Britain was in no mood for yet another war. Many Britons had put the bitter memories of their troops spending the winter besieging Sevastopol behind them and were enjoying springtime, with the promise of summer just around the corner. It was business as usual for the leading capitalist nation on the globe.
Unlike in the Crimea, where British troops fought beside French and Turkish soldiers against Russians, the sepoy rebellion was to be a very different kind of war, one with no large pitched battles, and one in which soldiers directly targeted civilians. By the end of the conflict in 1859, numerous women and children—Europeans as well as Indians—would be listed among the dead. This civil-military rebellion challenged the imagination of artists and writers alike, unaccustomed as they were to portraying such unconventional warfare.
Without artists on the spot, the two London-based illustrated papers, the Illustrated London News and its cheaper rival, the Illustrated Times, scrambled to publish images of the conflict to provide a visual reference to the numerous accounts appearing in the press. At first they resorted to generic scenes of Indian locales. As the News put it on July 11, 1857, “While awaiting the arrival of sketches from Delhi…it may be interesting to present to our readers a few illustrations of the celebrated city.”
On the same day, the Illustrated Times printed an engraving claiming to show the “mutinous” sepoys on their way to Delhi pursued by cavalry, but more likely this work was inspired by an active mind working in the London editorial offices. In fact, the News did not publish images of the actual campaign until August 22, and those were based on sketches sent in by soldiers at the front. For the next year or so, both papers filled their pages with wood engravings of the rebellion, both reliable and imaginary, based on sketches and photographs.
Even after hostilities ended and the realization began setting in that bad British administrative policies and ignorance of Indian customs might have contributed to the revolt, many could neither forgive nor forget the suffering of noncombatants in the twice-besieged city of Lucknow. Nor could they forget those apparently murdered by the “bloodthirsty miscreants of Bengal” who had revolted at Meerut, rampaged through Delhi, and attacked the Europeans trying to flee Cawnpore.
Several British artists adopted the plight of the innocents as an underlying theme, usually coupling it with the unimaginable but inflammatory idea, again unfounded, that Christian women had been violated by the heathen “hindoo” or “musselman.” The result was a unique group of paintings and prints that some found highly disturbing. They represented the first time that civilians caught up in war had been depicted in British art. Other artists avoided such overt imagery by using the metaphor of the British lion pitted against the Bengal tiger.
Although the rebellion broke out in the spring and summer of 1857, the first paintings of the uprising did not appear until early 1858. Feminine stoicism is exemplified in Frederick Goodall’s anecdotal albeit apocryphal work The Campbells Are Coming, exhibited at the British Institution that February. In it a women known as Jessie Brown climbs on a defensive breastwork at Lucknow, seemingly unaware of the danger of such an act, to call attention to the distant sound of bagpipes heralding the relief force’s arrival. The subject had already been fodder for the pencil when the Illustrated Times published a wood engraving on January 2, 1858, of the same event. The editor admitted that the incident was “one so beautiful and so romantic, that doubts have been thrown on its authenticity.”
Death looms large but is absent from the painting. The Flight, by Abraham Solo – mon, shown at the Royal Academy in the spring and summer of 1858, is in the same vein. Although the rebellion was still raging, British forces were gaining the upper hand. The early events of the crisis had now been fully documented in books and essays, so the struggles of civilians to stay alive in those first dark days of May 1857 were well known. Solomon simply put brush to canvas.
The result is a typical painting of the mid-nineteenth century, with its almost preRaphaelite pretensions arousing little comment in the press at the time. The artist has chosen two women of the same approximate age as his focal point. Dressed in finery suggesting that their escape has been hurried, one offers the other support. Behind them, their native nursemaid clutches a sleeping little girl, while farther back another family group also hurries along the dirt path with a young child.
The British were particularly outraged at stories relating misconduct of the sepoys toward women and children. Sensing a growing hatred toward the native soldiers—even though many, particularly the Sikhs, had stayed loyal—two artists gave visual expression to the prevailing British sentiment, one in real terms, the other in a metaphorical sense.
Joseph Noel Paton’s In Memoriam gained the most notoriety of any mutiny-inspired piece, coming as it did from the brush of a highly respected academic painter. It was no surprise that at least one lady fainted when she saw the scene on the wall of the Royal Academy exhibition of 1858. In fact, the furor that surrounded the painting, considered by one critic “cruel and in woeful bad taste,” forced Paton to alter his composition.
In the original version, a group of women and children await their fate as a sepoy, “with his blood-spotted legs, and his clenched musket,” enters through a back door. They have obviously already witnessed unimaginable horror as a severed hand lies before them, close to a trusting child who sleeps, oblivious to what is about to unfold. In the expression on the mother’s face—resigned to her terrible fate—the artist epitomized everything that was seen by the British as noble and strong in Victorian womanhood. Resolute to the end in the wake of pending doom, the mother provides comfort and inspiration to those around her.
Even after Paton altered the scene, transforming the threatening sepoy into Highlanders of a Scottish regiment coming to the rescue and changing the severed hand into a discarded glove, the woman’s expression was equally fitting. As with The Flight, this picture includes a native servant offering comfort, the artist reaffirming the loyalty that many Indians showed to their European masters.
Edward Armitage’s Retribution, shown at the same exhibition, nicely complemented Paton’s touching melodrama. Fresh from his sojourn in the Crimea, Armitage found inspiration for a suitable canvas in a full-page engraving that appeared in the satirical paper Punch in August 1857, following the news of the Cawnpore massacres. Titled The British Lion’s Vengeance on the Bengal Tiger, the engraving depicted the lion pouncing on a tiger that has just killed a woman and her baby. The meaning was not lost on anyone viewing the picture, and it summed up perfectly the sentiments of the British people. Armitage merely transformed the lion into a powerful, protective figure of Britannia about to plunge her sword into the tiger’s murderous heart, and gave it a universally acceptable title. He also added a living but defenseless child at the tiger’s feet, further justifying Britannia’s impending blow.
In the 150 years since the sepoy revolt, the British Empire has passed into oblivion, many Indians now consider Britain their home, and India has become the world’s largest democracy. Revisionism and political correctness have all but relegated the 1857 mutiny to the back shelves, but the images of that conflict, however impulsive and jingoistic, deserve to be revisited, if only to better appreciate the cost of cultural ignorance.
Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.