Following the destruction of the old London Houses of Parliament in a fire in 1834, the new “Mother of Parliaments” was rebuilt and decorated in the 1850s. For the Royal Gallery, the Fine Arts Commission (led by Prince Albert) decided on a decorative scheme of 18 monumental frescos illustrating British military history. One of them “The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher after the Battle of Waterloo”, was commissioned in 1858 and the painter chosen was the Irish-born artist Daniel Maclise (25 January 1806 – 25 April 1870).
Maclise was an obvious candidate for the commission. Keen on Romantic scenes, he had arrived in London in 1827, entering the Royal Academy schools the following year, where he won many prizes. In 1843, Queen Victoria gave Maclise’s painting “Scene from Undine” to Prince Albert as a gift on his birthday, and the Prince had commissioned Maclise to execute one of the frescoes in the Garden Pavilion at Buckingham Palace. Maclise began working enthusiastically on the Waterloo commission. After extensively researching the subject, including consulting eye-witnesses, he began work on a full-scale drawing (or “cartoon”) dividing it into ten panels which allowed him to work on it in his London studio.
The cartoon was exhibited a year later at the Royal Gallery and then at the Royal Academy (the ten panels having been cleverly reunited to appear as a single work). It was met with great acclaim by his contemporaries, and praised not only for its powerful composition but also for its almost obsessive accuracy of detail.
The whole scene extends over a width of nearly 14 metres and more than 3 metres in height. The lower three-quarters of the composition are occupied by a total of nearly a hundred men and about twenty horses, densely represented in a very foreshortened space. The moment depicted is 9.15pm on the evening of 18 June, 1815. In the centre of the composition, the Duke of Wellington is shaking hands with his Prussian ally Generalfeldmarschall Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher directly in front of the sign of an inn appropriately-named “à la Belle Alliance”. Wellington is mounted on his famous horse Copenhagen, and immediately beside him to the right are Lord Arthur Hill, General Somerset and the Hon Henry Percy (the aide-de-camp who would deliver Wellington’s victory message to London), together with various Life Guards and Horse Guards. Blücher is accompanied by Gneisenau, Nostitz, Bülow, and Ziethen. The scene is dominated by the dead and wounded, men and horses from all regiments, emphasizing the tragedy of war rather than glorifying it.
Maclise met with difficulties when he began to reproduce the composition in its definitive form as a “fresco” in the Royal Gallery. Painting onto wet plaster, which dries quickly, he found he was unable to realise the work with as much detail as he wanted. As Maclise proposed to abandon the commission, Prince Albert persuaded him to travel to Berlin to learn a new technique called “waterglass”, which involves fixing pigments painted onto dry, porous plaster with ‘liquid glass’ (potassium silicate). After studying the technique also in Munich and Dresden, Maclise returned to London and would complete the painting in under two years.
One of the most remarkable features of the work is the central position of the words “Belle Alliance”. There had been ‘debate’ in Britain concerning the veracity of the meeting between the two generals, Wellington famously doubting that it had occurred. In the decade after the battle, there had been vociferous Prussian demands that battle be named ‘of the Belle Alliance’ and not “of Waterloo”, after Wellington’s headquarters. The choice would seem to reflect Albert’s (and Victoria’s) desire to cement the marriage of their daughter to the Prussian crown prince (a ‘belle alliance’ indeed). This underlining of a Prussian-British alliance also took place in the context of mistrust of Napoleon III and his action in Italy – Palmerston was to demand the building of forts in the Channel against a potential French invasion.
“The Meeting of Wellington and Blücher after the Battle of Waterloo” in the Royal Gallery was central to the exhibition ‘Waterloo, Wellington and Westminster‘ (18 June – 24 September 2015). The cartoon, a work of art in itself, was bought by the Royal Academy in 1870 after Maclise’s death and was restored in 2015. It was exhibited as part of “Waterloo 1815: The Art of Battle” at the Royal Armouries in Leeds (UK), until 23 August 2015, and then at the Royal Academy, in London, (UK) from 2 September – 3 January 2016.
Rebecca Young, June 2015
[Update June 2020] The above illustration was provided to us in 2015. Between 2017 and 2019 this waterglass fresco underwent a major conservation project together with its pendant work also by Maclise which recalls the Battle of Trafalgar.
A series of four videos traces this exciting operation, and also provides a fascinating insight into the history and many sumptuous details of this monumental work.