The 200ths anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo is being marked by a new exhibition at the Royal Armouries, writes Neil Hudson
The conflict left no corner of the nation untouched, taking husbands away from their wives, fathers from their children and plunging the remaining population into wretched poverty. Set against a background of an increasing industrialisation, many were left out of work , unable to provide for their families.
A report from the Leeds Mercury shortly after the wars had ended told how one family used rancid flower to make oatmeal biscuits, which they then hung on nails in the ceiling so they would have something to eat over the long, cold winter months.
After the war, unemployment was rife. Waterloo Lake at Roundhay Park is so named because it was dug out by demobbed soldiers, who were employed thanks to the philanthropy of Thomas Nicholson, then owner of the Roundhay estate.
Now, to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, a major exhibition has been planned at the Royal Armouries, showcasing seldom seen objects and artefacts, including the Duke of Wellington’s telescope, which he used in battle.
But perhaps the most impressive object is a ‘cartoon’ by Daniel Maclise, on loan from the Royal Academy and on view to the public for the first time in 40 years.
It shows the meeting of Wellington and his ally, General Blücher, after the battle - it took a whole year to complete and is considered a masterpiece. It was produced as a full-scale preparatory drawing for a wall-painting measuring 14m by 3m that can still be seen in the House of Lords.
A spokeswoman from the Royal Armouries, Leeds said: “Royal Armouries Leeds will mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo – one of the most significant battles in European history – with a special exhibition which brings together works of art, arms and armour.
“The exhibition focuses on four points in the campaign. From the retreat from Quatre Bras to the meeting of Wellington and Blücher on the field of Waterloo, it was a battle that ended an Empire and captivated the imagination of artists, writers and historians for many years to come.
“The centrepiece of the exhibition will be the Maclise. Other works of art include the magnificent Scotland Forever! by Lady Elizabeth Butler, on loan from Leeds Art Gallery, The Retreat from Quatre Bras by Edward Crofts, on loan from Sheffield Art Gallery and The British Squares Receiving the Charge of the French Curassiers by Felix Henri Emmanuel Philippoteaux, on loan from the Victoria & Albert Museum.
“These stunning works of art will be displayed for the first time alongside remarkable objects, on loan and from the Royal Armouries own collections, which together help to unfold the dramatic story of the events of June 18, 1815 and to illustrate the displayed works of art.”
Stand-out items include the Duke of Wellington’s five draw telescope which he carried during the battle.
The telescope is closely associated with the Duke and features in the Maclise Cartoon and many times in other artistic representations.
There are also poignant reminders of the thousands of lives lost in the battle, including a rare cuirass, a type of breastplate worn as body armour by French cavalry, which has been shot through with a cannon-ball - it is on loan for the exhibition from the Musée de l’Armée in Paris.
Mark Murray-Flutter, senior curator responsible for the exhibition said: “This exhibition has taken a different approach to reflecting on this harrowing and remarkable battle. Exploring the representation in art together with arms and armour has helped us to understand and cast a different light on the events of that fateful day. The result is a moving and compelling retelling of the story of the battle of Waterloo.”
Also on display will be Captain William Siborne’s famous model of the battle of Waterloo, completed in 1843. The huge model, measuring 5.6m by 2.3m, comes apart in ten sections.
The scene shows in marvelous detail an area around the La Haye Sainte farmhouse and adjacent crossroads at approximately 2pm on June 18. The battlefield is populated by more than 3,000 finely modelled and painted lead and tin figures including soldiers, horses and artillery.
Siborne went to great lengths to establish the accuracy of the model, controversially interviewing surviving enemy soldiers, whose accounts often differed from those of the victors. The model has undergone painstaking conservation over the last few months and will return to permanent display at the museum.
From Saturday June 13 to Sunday June 14, the Armouries will host a weekend of Napoleonic war gaming, including an impressive 6mm ‘re-fight’ of the battle of Waterloo itself.
The exhibition opens on May 22 and runs until August 23, entry is free. See royalarmouries.org/leeds