The famous exploits of the Duke of Wellington were so long ago that the next sentence is going to sound fanciful, but it’s true. The National Portrait Gallery currently has on display a photograph of Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington. It’s a Daguerreotype from 1844 when he was 75 and although it’s not as amazing as finding CCTV footage of Thomas Beckett’s murder it still comes as a shock amidst the oil paintings and engravings.
Nowadays he’s more famous for his boots than his military victories, but in June it will be 200 years ago since this British hero routed Boney on the fields of Waterloo. In celebration, or more politically correctly, to mark the 200th anniversary, the NPG is showing Wellington: Triumphs, Politics and Passions. Oddly, given that the battle was on 18th June, the exhibition closes on the 7th June.
The free exhibition is only in three rooms but a lot of works are on show. It is divided into five small sections some of which are just one wall. Waterloo is of course the biggest display, but there are also areas focusing on Wellington’s political career and family. Compressing such a life is difficult but the exhibition briefly recaps the story that we’ve all forgotten since school. Curated by Paul Cox with close support from Dr Lucy Peltz, this biographical exhibition uses portraits and a few Waterloo-commemoration objects to explore Wellington’s military career and his less successful political and personal life.
Goya’s portrait that normally hangs in the National Gallery has pride of place, along with official portraits and full-pomp commemorations of the battle. But there are also poignant images by junior soldiers and some plans and diagrams of manoeuvres on the day. Later in his career Wellington became Prime Minister, which was not a position suited to his military character and resulted in controversy. Some of the (unfunny) caricatures from that period are on display. Modern cartoonists must look back with amazement at how easy it appears to have been to make people laugh back then.
One and a half million people are estimated to have turned out to see Wellington’s funeral procession. A 67 foot panorama of the entire procession was created by Samuel Henry Gordon Alken and George Augustus Sala. Unsurprisingly this is the largest portrait in the NPG’s collection, and only a few panels are on display in this show. These include the simple but moving image of Wellington’s horse being led in the procession with his master’s empty boots reversed in the stirrups. The entire piece has been filmed and unfolds on a nearby video screen, but more excitingly the entire print will be displayed throughout the length of the Victorian Galleries in a free one-hour event on Thursday 18 June. You can also take the work home with you (in a manner of speaking) by buying the iPad app.
An exhibition that tells the story of one of Britain’s heroes, it is more interesting for the historical information than the works on show, though the portraits by Thomas Lawrence, including an unfinished oil of the main man and a delicate chalk of his wife Kitty are definitely worth a gander.
Verdict: Pop in if you’re passing
The exhibition is part of the Battle of Waterloo 200th Anniversary Commemorations.