Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Daniel Maclise and the Waterloo Cartoon

Artist Daniel Maclise (1806-1870) was one of the significant artists of the Victorian period in Britain, but he is mostly known today (at least, outside of Britain) for his drawings in the original editions of The Cricket on the Hearth and The Chimes by Charles Dickens, as well as a portrait of Dickens painted in 1839 (see below). The two had met in 1836, introduced by their mutual friend, John Forster.

Daneil Maclise, 1857
Dickens was the better known at the time they met, his reputation buoyed by the popularity of his Sketches by Boz. But by 1840, Maclise’s reputation was growing as well, particularly with his acceptance into the Royal Academy of Arts. He painted numerous works throughout his lifetime, but his two monumental achievements were two large murals in the houses of Parliament, “The Meeting of Wellington and Blucher” (1858) and “The Death of Nelson” (1864).

The two paintings are oil on glass, a technique Maclise learned in Berlin after being urged by Prince Albert (Queen Victoria’s husband) to study it. For each, though, he created monumental drawings, which were referred to as “cartoons.”

For the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the Royal Academy exhibited the Waterloo cartoon, which is almost 10 feet tall and more than 42 feet wide. When I saw it in London last fall, it was somewhat eclipsed by the big Ai Weiwei exhibition that had just gotten underway. But I found my way to the side gallery where the cartoon was exhibited, through a doorway from the gift shop past some stairs and then across a small atrium. There was no entry fee if you had a ticket to Ai Weiwei.

The cartoon depicts the meeting General Blucher of the Prussian Army and the Duke of Wellington, shortly after Napoleon has been defeated outside Brussels. It includes a range of officers and soldiers from both sides, living, wounded and dying.

The drawing’s size is overwhelming. It’s a work of art all of its own, essentially in black and sepia tones. I had the good fortune of being there when a small group was led into the room for a special short lecture on the cartoon by one of the Academy’s curators. No one minded that I stayed to listen.

The exhibit of the cartoon closed January 3, but the Royal Academy has a special web site that allows you to explore the drawing and its background. The Academy has also published a short book, Daniel Maclise: The Waterloo Cartoon, by Annette Wickham and Mark Murray-Flutter. Murray-Flutter is the senior curator of sporting firearms and weapons at the Royal Armouries in Leeds. Wickham is the curator of works on paper at the Royal Academy, and the one whose short lecture I was able to hear. As short as it is (all of 48 pages, including illustrations), the book provides considerable details about Maclise and the creation of the drawing and the painting.

Maclise died in 1870 after a distinguished artistic career. Charles Dickens gave one of the eulogies at the banquet held in Maclise’s memory at the Royal Academy of Arts. It was Dickens’ last public appearance; a few weeks later, he, too, was dead.

Illustration: The Waterloo Cartoon by Daniel Maclise, on display at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

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