Waterloo Lives.

History There's a place in Liverpool's shopping area Liverpool One, outside John Lewis, opposite some restaurants and near the Apple shop which most days plays host to some kind of promotional vehicle. A few weeks ago this was youths in t-shirts giving away free cups of Kenco Millicano, once again failing to convince me this faux-coffee house beverage doesn't taste like horse swill and last week what looked for all the world like a instabar giving away free beer.

Being essentially teetotal, or more accurately coffeetotal, I added it to the mental list of things in modern life not worth worrying about because they're so far out of my potentiality to be not worth worrying about along with foreign holidays and a relationship until the next day when I strayed closer on my way back from the cinema and noticed it was in fact a pub with no beer, a pub with no beer that was instead promoting the bi-centenary of the battle at Waterloo.

Inside, instead of pumps along the bar, iPads offered an interactive gaming experience which could lead to a holiday in Belgium to visit the site of the battle, wrangled by actors in costume improvising their way to explaining something of what happened on the 18th June 1815 through the medium of first person narrative.  With only a very basic knowledge of what happened, my interest was peaked enough to play the games and pick up the leaflets advertising local exhibitions.

This week, I've been attending those exhibitions which opened on the 6th June, at the Museum of Liverpool, the Victoria Gallery & Museum and the Williamson Art Gallery, one per day.  Each covers a different aspect of the battle and its legacy and part of a nationwide series of events and shows led by the National Army Museum.  There's plenty of others listed on this page.

Before all of that I realised I needed a primer on what actually happened and who did what to whom, so watched the useful lecture given by Peter & Dan Snow to the Hay Festival (on the occasion of the publication of their book) which is currently on the iPlayer.  Even if you're not interested in the history, it's probably still worth watching for the human interest angle of seeing the relationship between the father and son broadcasting team.

A dense hour which is sometimes difficult to follow thanks to the annoying way the editor cuts away from the explanatory maps at crucial moments it nevertheless explains in basic terms why Napoleon lost.  This boils down to him being an arrogant sod who thought himself invincible until he met a force and a tactician in the Duke of Wellington who unlike others wasn't awed by the fact that he was Napoleon, and who led an intelligent, ingenious army which wasn't afraid to try some stuff.

That was Sunday.  On Monday I spent the day at the Museum of Liverpool, though the Waterloo portion took all of twenty minutes, their contribution amounting to a single cabinet containing an engraving of the battle to take Hougoumont Farm which was an important strategic moment during the overall campaign and some miniature ship models created by French prisoners.

Despite its size, I nonetheless learnt two things from this display.  Firstly that Waterloo near Crosby is so named because of what was then called the Royal Waterloo Hotel which opened on the first anniversary of the battle and because some of the buildings in Waterloo notably the Potters Barn park buildings are replicas of the farm houses from the original Belgian area answering a lifelong question as two why we even have a place called this nearby,

The intricate models were created by prisoners placed at short notice in half-completed gaols off Castle Street as a way of earning money for them to feed and clothe themselves.  Within war during that period, the agreement was that the upkeep of prisoners was paid by their own side, but a disagreement on this occasion (over and above the actual war) meant that funds were not forthcoming and so these little ships, with their astonishing levels of detail came into the world.

At the other end of the day, my historical appetite whetted, I decided there was nothing for it but to visit Waterloo itself.  Deciding that Belgium was a bit ambitious, I went straight to James Street Station and bought a ticket for its local namesake, if only so that there'd be a decent photograph to put at the top of this blog post.  Apologies for the results.  With the best of intentions, I rushed this because I heard the train back to Liverpool and panicked.

Waterloo is the jumping off point for Anthony Gormley's Another Place, a marina and the Crosby Plaza Cinema.  But with dinner time upcoming, I simply walked the main street eyes open for any buildings which looked vaguely Belgian (none did) (not that I know anything about architecture) and visited a couple of charity shops and the most exciting thing to happen was that I banged my head on a shelf in a bookshop as I leaned over to smell a candle in the shape of a glass of coca-cola.

To Tuesday and the long, steep walk up Brownlow Hill to the Victoria Gallery & Museum for their Relics and Remembrance exhibition.  Sporadically spread throughout the building in various display cases, this group of objects focuses on the conclusion and aftermath of the battle underscoring how many of the artifacts available to view are due to the efforts of souvenir and memento hunters picking over the bodies of those who'd fallen.

In the Tate Hall on the top floor there's an Eagle Standard captured from the Napoleon's 105th Infantry Regiment by the 1st Royal Dragoons which as a symbol of empire building was an easy way of demonstrating the allies had won when it was shipped to London to declare Wellington's success.  It's not a unique object, the Emperor presented nearly a hundred to his army in 1815 but like all of the object in the exhibition it's about what it represents rather than what it is.

Elsewhere there's a French dragoon's helmet, a signalling drum from the 1st Regiment of the Foot Guards, a French Shako plate and rosette from a fallen French soldier's hat, a Legion d'honneur medal, a Waterloo medal and a camp kettle and stove all taken from the battlefield at the close of business and they're uncomfortable to look at because they're someone else's property, the property of someone who lost their life on that day.

Perhaps the most gruesome revelation for me is about the trade in the teeth of the fallen.  Many of the younger soldiers were recruited because they had good, strong teeth capable of working with ammunition if necessary which were then harvested from the battlefield after their death to be used in expensive dentures.  This was called "Waterloo ivory" and it's impossible to imagine what it must have been like for those charged with having to pull them from the corpses.

Providing context is a near contemporary aquatint by Matthew Duboury created in 1817 showing the morning after the battle, the anguished faces of those still in pain on both sides, a different kind of heroism in the air from them and those treating them.  Not that there seems to be much air.  A fire at the near centre of the image is sending black smoke into the sky creating an overcast battlefield on an otherwise clear day,

At the absolute centre of picture amid the pain and suffering and looting, a farmer stands calmly with a well to do gentleman and his son, point across the field, explaining it seems the previous nights events, beginning, already, perhaps, the process of mythologising the battle, the first tour guide.  But unlike present day when visitors can only imagine the victories and horrors which occurred in the surrounding fields, here they're all too present.

Just this sort of visual reportage is the focus of the Williamson's exhibtion, which with the aid of some objects from the actual battle on loan (as most of the items in these exhibitions are) from the National Army Museum, offers some historical background to one of the largest paintings in their collection, Thomas Sidney Cooper's The Battle of Waterloo, 16–19 June 1815, the Defeat of Kellerman's Cuirassiers, which you can view on Your Paintings here.

As Dan Snow eloquently describes in the Hay lecture, this is the moment when the French Cuirassiers were sent, without other support, up a ridge towards the Allied army in a futile attempt to break through, which an Ensign Rees Howell Gronow of the 1st Foot Guards, quoted selectively in the accompanying text but in full here:
"You discovered at a distance what appeared to be an overwhelming, long moving line, which, ever advancing, glittered like a stormy wave of the sea when it catches the sunlight. On they came until they got near enough, whilst the very earth seemed to vibrate beneath the thundering tramp of the mounted host. One might suppose that nothing could have resisted the shock of this terrible moving mass."
Wanting to take everything in, approach the painting almost like a film, I took a chair from a stack within the centre of the display room and sat down in front of it. After about five minutes I took out my notebook and jotted down some odd comments which will be the basis of the next paragraph, but the experience was overwhelming in a way which is rare with still images.  As I keep having to remind myself, most classical form art work deserve longer than the glances we usually give them.

Cooper paints the scene almost like a sea landscape.  Half of the canvas is consumed by the sky, a grey, forbidding miasma created, much like in the Dubory aquatint, by fires, this time in the far distance.  In the foreground, the ridges of the Mont St Jean are laid out like rocks on a beech, the whites and blues of the French soldier uniforms and horses crashing against them in waves.  Although the faces of man and beast are distinct, the overall impression is positively abstract.

The painting was originally submitted into a competition for creating works of art to be displayed in the new Houses of Parliament in 1847 and goodness knows where it would have hung even if it is portraying an Allied victory.  After the fall of Napoleon, relations between the British and France thawed so perhaps its not surprising that it didn't end up there but in the collection of a provincial art gallery.

Accompanying the painting are other items from the Williamson's collection related to Waterloo and the Napoleonic period.  There are three other paintings by Cooper which suggest he was otherwise interested in more sedate subjects, Cattle by a Stream, Sheep on a Hillside and Cattle in a Stream.  Painted a few decades earlier, the style is markedly steadier, more clinical, though it's clear that in these moments he's learning mammalian anatomy ready for his future adventures.

There's also a large collection of caricatures depicting international relations in the period leading up to Waterloo by James Gillray and Isaac Cruikshank, though they sadly both died before they could tackle the ensuing hostilities.  A clear forerunner of modern newspaper cartoonists, Napoleon is generally shown as a small man out of proportion with his world, Josephine as a corpulent vessel and French soldiers as grotesques.

The Emperor comes off badly from the brush of William Daniels in his portrait too, with his smudgy, indistinct skin and features resembling Peter Lorre in The Man Who Knew Too Much.  His portrait of Wellington is far more heroic and dynamic though the painter notorious fell out of favour with the Duke after turning up late and drunk for an appointment.  The Duke, finding the artist on his doorstep told him that he didn't want to have anything more to do with him.

The rest of the works are pure mythology.  Lady Elizabeth Butler's watercolour Napoleon's Retreat from Moscow and the three nearby illustrations of British soldiers by Richard Caton Woodville are of the sort you might expect to find in educational school books concerning themselves more with itemising the uniforms and landscape rather than the reality of the kind which can only really be discovered in the eyewitness accounts of the time.

After spending nearly a week learning about the battle of Waterloo, what have I learnt about the battle of Waterloo?  Everything and nothing.  On the basis of the displays and objects, if I hadn't watched the lecture by the Snows on Sunday, I'm not sure I would have had a clearer sense of the great movements of the battle, the historical signifance of some of these objects, the strategic importance of, for example, Hougoumont Farm.

Given the advertising and hype, it was disappointing to visit the Museum of Liverpool on Monday only to be greeted by a single display case which is actually smaller than the advertising banner in the foyer, especially since it has the same prominence as the other exhibitions in the publicity leaflet.  Expectations are expectations.  Which isn't to say the objects within aren't precious, and I didn't know that French soldiers had been held in the city centre.

It's through these rare objects that we get some sense of what it must have been like on that battlefield in the those days just trying to retain some sense of being, for soldiers on both sides of the battle.  Perhaps it is because there aren't too many of them that we're forced to spend more time scrutinising them, really concentrate on the implications what it means to be in their company two hundred years later.

Waterloo Lives continues at the Museum of Liverpool, Victoria Gallery & Museum and the Williamson Art Gallery and Museum until 24 October 2015.

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