Here Dr Iain Gordon Brown, historian and Honorary Fellow of the National Library of Scotland, tell us more about a painting that upon closer inspection depicts a significant scene on the eve of Waterloo.
All who took part in the great battle on Sunday, 18 June 1815 remembered the dreadful weather of the preceding night which soaked men, horses, supplies and equipment. The British and Allied armies, encamped along the ridge of Mont St Jean beyond the village of Waterloo, found it a particularly uncomfortable experience. The ground was sodden and it took some hours of the morning for it to dry sufficiently to enable the huge numbers of infantry, cavalry, and especially artillery, to be deployed.
The attribution of this painting, in oil on panel, is thought be to the Scottish artist James Howe (1780-1836). The painting was acquired by the present owner forty years ago with the title ‘Troops from a Highland Regiment round the Camp Fires’. It was apparent that the painting in fact illustrated rather more than that, though the figure of a sentry standing beside piled muskets and a drum belongs to the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment (The Black Watch). It was not difficult to see that this picture represented an actual scene much more specific than the merely generic subject of Scottish soldiers in their camp. This was nothing less than a previously unrecorded image of the eve of Waterloo. Two Highlanders, one from the Black Watch wrapped in his frieze-coat and smoking a pipe and the other a sergeant, perhaps intended to be of the 92nd Gordon Highlanders and holding his spontoon and a canteen, occupy the centre ground. Other Scottish troops appear as observers of the scene at the left where two men carve up a looted pig with their broadswords and dirks as a corporal brings along a barrel of grog. This is one of a number of telling ‘vignettes’. Groups of soldiers of various regiments and corps of the British Army are shown round camp-fires, or trying to catch some sleep or find shelter from the weather. At the right, a man emerges from the makeshift protection of a canvas awning. There are men of various English line infantry regiments, unit distinctions being shown by differently coloured plumes on their shakos, some ‘lying upon their arms’ (as the phrase went); an occasional artilleryman in blue; a man with his face swathed in a bandage (wounded at Quatre Bras, perhaps?), and now with a comforting bottle in his hand; troopers of the Life Guards, Royal Dragoons and other cavalry regiments including Light Dragoons and Hussars.
Apart from the Highland soldiers in the foreground, perhaps the most noticeable figure is that of a trooper of the 2nd Royal North British Dragoons, calming a prancing grey horse – one of the distinctive mounts which lent the regiment its familiar and better-known, name: the Scots Greys. The next day, as part of the Union Brigade, they would make a famous charge against the ranks of the French infantry that would live in the imagination of succeeding generations and which, at the time, drew even the grudging admiration of Napoleon himself.
The size of the army encamped is clear from the details: the fires of bivouacs stretch away into the distance across fields and woodland and two of these have tiny but effective representations of men around them, their figures and those of horses silhouetted against the firelight. Most dramatic of all is the light which comes from an unseen source at the left, illuminating varied activity: a Life Guards trooper and two other English soldiers watch in keen expectation of a meal shared (their faces are lively with anticipation) as the two Scottish soldiers prepare to enjoy the animal they have slaughtered and roasted. Looking on are some officers, one clearly very senior in rank. Is this, perhaps, intended to be the Duke of Wellington himself, going the rounds of the camps, clad in his habitual battlefield dress of a plain ‘civilian’ blue coat? This is merely one of a host of small but fascinating touches in a composition so evocative of the eve of one of the most significant dates in modern European history.