London Art Reviews

Magazine of art press and reviews from London

The fascinating Wellington exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of London.

David Franchi – Monday, 15th June 2015.

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1815-16 © Wellington Collection, Apsley House,  London (English Heritage)

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1815-16 © Wellington Collection, Apsley House, London (English Heritage)

The Wellington exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery of London has been intriguing. “Wellington: Triumphs, Politics and Passions” was the first gallery exhibition dedicated to the Duke of Wellington, at the National Portrait Gallery, London. It commemorated the 200th anniversary year of the Battle of Waterloo in 2015.

The exhibition was focused on the political and military career of Wellington, but also on his personal life through portraits of his family and friends.

It was a tiny but significant exhibition of three only sections, however displaying 59 portraits and other art works. Some of the objects were rarely seen before, including loans from the family such as a portrait by John Hoppner of the young Duke as a soldier and a daguerreotype portrait by Antoine Claudet, in the new medium of photography, taken on Wellington’s 75th birthday in 1844. The family has also loaned Thomas Lawrence’s beautiful drawing of Wellington’s wife, Kitty (née Pakenham).

An important highlight of the exhibition was the renowned portrait of Thomas Lawrence painted at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), usually displayed at Apsley House, the home of Wellington in London. This iconic image of Wellington was used as the basis of the design of the British five pound note from 1971 to 1991.

The exhibition “Wellington: Triumphs, Politics and Passions” brought together many different stories. For example, the real account of soldiers fighting in Wellington’s armies, eyewitness reports through prints based on sketches by serving soldiers and the illustrated diary of Edmund Wheatley, a young officer who wrote it in a lively style, addressed to his beloved girlfriend.

The exhibition ended with a video, in section 3, of the duration of 8 minutes. It screened the Funeral Procession of Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, KG GCB GCH PC FRS. Or better, it displayed the longest portrait in the National Portrait Gallery, a view of the Wellington funeral, stored in its Archive since 1911. On show for the first time, the impressive view is at 67 feet long, the length of two London buses, or 67 Wellington boots laid end to end.

Eight panels were fully visible in the exhibition in a specially made display case housing the entire work. The Gallery

Detail of Panoramic View of the Entire Funeral Procession of Arthur, Duke of Wellington, the panel showing the Funeral Carriage by Samuel Henry Gordon Alken and George Augustus Sala, 1853 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Detail of Panoramic View of the Entire Funeral Procession of Arthur, Duke of Wellington, the panel showing the Funeral Carriage by Samuel Henry Gordon Alken and George Augustus Sala, 1853 © National Portrait Gallery, London

will display the print throughout the length of the Victorian Galleries in a free one-hour event on Thursday 18 June, (10-11am) to commemorate the Battle of Waterloo. This will be the first time the panorama will have been seen at full length at the Gallery.

The exhibition “Wellington: Triumphs, Politics and Passions” also examined his private life which was not as good as his soldier carrier. Born Arthur Wellesley (1st May 1769 – 14th September 1852), he was an Anglo-Irish soldier and statesman, and one of the leading military and political figures of 19th-century Britain. He defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo the 18th June 1815, becoming an international military protagonist. During his excellent military carrier, Wellesley was involved in around 60 battles.

A native of Ireland belonging to the Protestant Ascendancy, Wellesley was the third son of Garret Wesley, 1st Earl of Mornington, a minor peer in the Irish aristocracy.

His first war experience was in Holland during the French Revolution Wars (1796). Then Wellesley was sent to India, where he fought Tipu Sultan and in Assaye. During this period he adopted the old family name Wellesley.

In 1805, he came back from India. Wellesley rose to prominence as a general during the Peninsular campaign (Spain) of the Napoleonic Wars, and was promoted to the rank of field marshal after leading the allied forces to victory against the French at the Battle of Vitoria (1813). Then in 1814, he served as the ambassador to France and was granted a dukedom.

In 1815, during the Hundred Days, Wellesley commanded the allied army which, together with a Prussian army under Blücher, defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.

Wellesley is celebrated for his adaptive battle defensive style, achieving many victories against a numerically superior force, while minimising his own losses. He is considered as one of the greatest defensive commanders of all time, and many of his tactics and battle plans are still studied today in military academies around the world.

Catherine ('Kitty') Pakenham, Duchess of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1814 © Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust

Catherine (‘Kitty’) Pakenham, Duchess of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1814 © Stratfield Saye Preservation Trust

Despite of being a triumphant soldier, his private life was a failure. He had a very unsatisfactory marriage, they almost separated. By the end of 1791, he met Kitty Pakenham, the daughter of Edward Pakenham, 2nd Baron Longford. In 1793, he sought her hand, but was rejected by her brother Thomas, Earl of Longford, who considered Wellington to be a young man in debt, with a very poor future. Distressed by the refusal, he burnt his violins in anger, and resolved to pursue a military career in earnest. Gaining further promotion (largely by purchasing his rank, which was common in the British Army at the time), he became a major.

In 1805, Wellesley returned from India, and now he was reconsidered for his new title and status; Kitty Pakenham’s family consented to the marriage. Wellesley and Kitty were married in Dublin on 10th April 1806.

The marriage did not work well and Kitty developed a depression, while Wellesley had a “vigorous sexual appetite” and was engaged in many amorous liaisons. He enjoyed the company of intellectual and gorgeous women for many decades, particularly after the Battle of Waterloo and his successive Ambassadorial position in Paris.

In 1831, Kitty died of cancer and apparently Wellington was greatly saddened. He had found consolation for his depressed marriage in his passionate friendship with the diarist Harriet Arbuthnot, wife of his colleague Charles. When she died of cholera in 1834, it was a great loss for both Wellington as her husband, so that the two spent their last years together at Aspley House.

Wellington relationship with his sons was often distant, because he was absent for much of their childhood. However, during his last years Wellington enjoyed his grandchildren. His eldest son became 2nd Duke of Wellington and chief mourner at his funeral.

After his active military career, Wellesley returned to politics for the Tory party. He was twice British Prime

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1829 © On loan to National Portrait Gallery by kind permission of Mr. & Mrs. Timothy Clode

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1829 © On loan to National Portrait Gallery by kind permission of Mr. & Mrs. Timothy Clode

Minister: from 1828 to 1830 and for a couple of weeks in 1834. He continued as one of the leading figures in the House of Lords until his retirement and remained Commander-in-Chief of the British Army until his death.

His commitments in politics found many obstacles. While in office, he was entangled with two main controversial political issues: the Catholic emancipation to remove the restrictions on Roman Catholics’ rights to participate to politics and the reform to revise the allocations of seats in the House of Commons.

For the first one, Wellington supervised the approval of the Catholic Relief Act 1829, but opposed to the Reform Act 1832. His position divided his party in two and alienated him from the extreme right wing. He also opposed to the reform of the Commons, but had an impressive loss of reputation. A main problem was that in the army, he was used to issuing orders, rather than seeking consensus, so was unable to manage the politics. His time at the office was a failure, and satirized by the caricaturists.

After his death, a re-evaluation of the life of Wellington took place, on the occasion of his sumptuous state funeral.

The exhibition “Wellington: Triumphs, Politics and Passions” was at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from 12th March until 7th June 2015.

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