Maclise Meets His Waterloo


This wall painting, The Meeting of Wellington and Bluecher, is to be found in the Royal Gallery of the Westminster Palace (House of Lords),  London.  I have stood before it – you can’t miss it at 12 feet high and over 46 feet long. Actually the prevailing mood is grim and tragic. More abattoir than glorification of war. Both commanders look old and tired and all about are images of death and destruction. In the left foreground (see detail below) a French artillery officer lies across his gun, while beside him an English soldier is having his leg bound and another is being carried off.

At the time I saw this painting I never knew of the artist but I have just came across Daniel Maclise as I’m currently reading Claire Tomalin’s Charles Dickens: A Life. Maclise, who came of poor Irish parents, was a close friend of Dickens, who himself liked other self made men, and shared his taste for low life joining him for night-time jaunts through the rough parts of London, mixing with criminal classes, keeping an eye out for pretty street girls and drinking more than was good for them. Maclise also provided illustrations for several of Dickens’ novels.

In 1858 Maclise was commissioned to paint two giant frescoes for Westminster Palace, the painting above and The Death of Nelson on the opposite wall. These were the greatest achievements of his career but at the cost of shortening his life. The works took 7 years to complete and at one stage, he almost gave up. He begun in fresco, a process which proved unmanageable and Maclise wished to resign from his commission, but, encouraged by Prince Albert he studied a new method of water-glass painting, and continued in that medium. The sheer concentrated effort took its toll. He became reclusive, his health declined and he died in 1870.

Here is a photo of the Royal Gallery itself. You can get some idea of the scale of these paintings. I can’t help but feel that what with depictions of the battles of Waterloo on one side and Trafalgar on the other the English lords must take mischievous pleasure in showing their French visitors around.

Here is some iconic detail from The Death of Nelson. Admiral Nelson, mortally wounded in the hour of victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Having learnt from his experience with the companion painting Maclise accomplished this one in “just” 18 months. Both paintings surely labours of love and death for the artist.

The Times article 20th April 2018 

A commission from Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, to paint two giant murals of British military glories should have been the pinnacle of Daniel Maclise’s career. Instead the artist found himself being accused of incompetence after the works, hung in parliament’s Royal Gallery, quickly started to darken and fade.

 It now appears that Maclise was unfairly maligned. He had not failed to master his new technique: 19th-century pollution was to blame.

Research on the murals, each 50 sq m, depicting the battles of Waterloo and Trafalgar, has revealed that Maclise’s relatively untried technique of painting on dry plaster was sound. The darkening that occurred soon after the works were finished in the 1860s was the result of exposure to London’s filthy air. Dozens of interventions, such as adding wax coatings, over the following century compounded the problem.

“The story for many years has been criticism of Daniel Maclise for not being good enough,” Malcolm Hay, parliament’s curator of works of art, said. “Research has enabled that tale of woe to be turned round.”

Conservators from the Perry Lithgow Partnership and Opus Conservation have now embarked on a restoration programme. Caroline Babington, the parliamentary art collection’s care manager, said that different lighting in the gallery could also be transformative


About The Weary Traveller

I like to walk up and down hills. I've been so very fortunate to have lived most of my life in the Far East (Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam) and the Middle East (Qatar, Oman and U.A.E). I now live and work in Bangkok. I'm past the half century now and can't help but feel that some of the mountains that I've climbed lately I should have done yesteryear. The mind is willing if the legs are not always so. Here are some stories and realized dreams of hills climbed and, dales and deserts crossed. With a bit of art thrown in. I hope you might enjoy.
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2 Responses to Maclise Meets His Waterloo

  1. Willi Brand says:

    Thank you for an entertaining and interesting read. Just one small correction: It should be “Wellington and Blücher” (the latter name can be transliterated as “Bluecher”).

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