The Field of Waterloo Seen from Hougoumont was used as an illustration for John Murray’s 1832-33 edition of Byron’s Life and Works, and has been described as “one of the most dramatic, best preserved and largest of all of Turner’s vignettes” (Griffith Jones, p. 54). It is one of three works that Turner painted on the subject of Waterloo (the other two were for Robert Cadell’s edition of The Prose of Sir Walter Scott), and is based on the composition for his large oil The Field of Waterloo (Tate, London, fig. 1), which had been exhibited at the Royal Academy of 1818. At the exhibition, Turner attached these words from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage to the large painting:
Last noon behold them full of lusty life;
Last eve in Beauty’s circle proudly gay;
The midnight brought the signal – sound of strife;
The morn the marshaling of arms – the day;
Battle’s magnificently stern array!
The thunder clouds close o’er it, which, when rent,
The earth is covered thick with other clay
Which her own clay shall cover, heaped and pent,
Rider and horse – friend, foe, in one red burial,
In his oil, Turner resisted trumpeting the victorious campaign and instead presented the grim realities of battle. Contemporary critics at the time commented that “it is more an allegorical representation of battle's ‘magnificently stern array’ than any actual delineation of a particular battle… The group in the centre depicts the merciless carnage of war and ravages in domestic life by the confused and overthrown assemblage of both sexes and all ages which lie in a mingled heap” (The Repository of Arts, Literature, Fashions, Manufactures, &c, London, 1818, vol. 5, p. 365). The present watercolor reflects the oil’s general composition, but Turner has amplified the dramatic effect of light from the flares, and creates a blazing other-worldly inferno beyond the gate. There are also differences in the foregrounded figures, the vignette being packed with the tangled mass of bodies, dead horses and broken weaponry, but without the women who search for their loved ones among the dead.
Turner visited the battlefield in 1817 and executed a series of sixteen drawings on the spot. His power of observation and skill as a topographer is evident, but his imaginative interpretation and distinct style of mark-making elevate this watercolor to an outstanding level of achievement.
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