Thursday 5 May 2016

Book Reviews: Albrecht Adam & Faber du Faur - Visual Memoirs of Russia,1812

Napoleon's Army In Russia, The Illustrated Memoirs of Albrecht Adam, 1812

Riderless horse at Mojaisk, Albrecht Adam. This beautiful but rather sad oil painting is not in the book under review!

Albrecht Adam was a German artist, born 1786, in Nördlingen (Swabia, Bavaria), who started out training to be a confectioner, in Nuremberg, before switching to the Academy of Fine Arts, and taking up painting. He was somehow involved in the Austrian campaign of 1809 - in what capacity and on which side, I don't know - before settling in Vienna, where he caught the eye of no less a personage than Eugène de Beauharnais.

Napoleon's stepson appointed Adam as his court painter, and in 1812 he was given an officer's commission, and attached to the Bavarian contingent of Napolon's Grand Armée as an official war artist for the invasion of Russia. He would later publish the resultant artworks as a memoir of the campaign, comprising 83 images. He worked to a ripe old age, mostly painting battlefield or equestrian scenes, often helped out in later years by his sons, eventually dying in Munich in 1862, aged 76.

Albrecht Adam (photo: Franz Hanfstaengl, 1850)

Enchanted and fascinated by the tiny but tantalising reproductions, usually in monochrome, of the illustrated memoirs of Albrecht Adam and Faber du Faur, frequently reproduced in the numerous books on Napoleon's 1812 campaign I've been reading, I was thrilled when I discovered - at a Salute show several years ago - that both have been lavishly reproduced, in landscape format hardback. And what's more, both were selling at slightly reduced prices. So I snaffled them both up!

The only downside to Adam's account is that he left the campaign early, meaning that, unlike Faber du Faur, he doesn't document the slide into bedlam that was the retreat. But, in fairness to Adam, although one might well wish for more, that's because what there is is terrific. Whilst du Faur was with the artillery of the Wurttemberg contingent p, in Ney's III Corps, Adam - the former apprentice baker! - was with Eugene's IV Corps; hanging out mostly with the Italians, judging by all the Italian troops in his pictures. Actually, as already alluded to above, he was actually attached to the Viceroy's staff.

Dokzice. It should be remembered that Adam's images are from the advance, not the retreat!

Like the Faber du Faur volume, and despite the two books appearing under the aegis of two different publishers, this work is superbly edited and translated by the very erudite and capable Jonathan North, who prefaces both accounts with short but comprehensive synopses of the whole 1812 campaign, also placing the authors within their particular contexts.

As mentioned above, Adam's narrative concludes early, in Moscow to be precise. At which juncture, thanks to a certain independence in his position, he's able to get leave to depart, before Napoleon and the army as a whole cave in to the seemingly inevitable, and turn for home. But, as most accounts, - including this one - make clear, the first signs of the Grande Armée's descent into ruin are apparent long before this point.

A guard tends the bivouac at fire at Eugene's HQ. I think the version of this in this edition differs from this version.

Eugene's Corps crossing the Niemen.

Adam supplies an epilogue outlining his return journey, and some reflections on the whole experience. And, unlike Faber du Faur's book, there's even a self-portrait, amongst the superb artworks collected here. All this serves to really flesh out the humanity of the story, and of Adams himself, who comes across as a very likeable character. When relating his meeting with friends and companions, old and new, including, in the quote below, some itinerant Jewish salesmen he meets on several occasions, his humanity comes across wonderfully:

'It may have pleased them that I showed none of the prejudice that is generally shown in society to the Jews. This was not hard for me; I have always seen only the human being in a man, without regard for religion, nationality, or class, and have always found it easy to make friends as soon as I recognise a good heart and fine feelings in anyone. This policy has never let me down.'

With that kind of reasonable outlook, it's no wonder he got out of the madhouse when he did!

Near Pilony, by the Niemen. The cost in horseflesh was catastrophic, both for France and her future war-readiness, and for horse-lovers, like Adam.

Approx 28cm x 22cm, this is a somewhat smaller book than the Faber du Faur volume, and has only 72 plates compared with the latter's 92. Print, paper, and binding quality, like the artwork and written content, are of a uniform and very high standard: brilliant stuff!


With Napoleon in Russia, the Illustrated Memoirs of Faber du Faur

Christian Wilhelm von Faber du Faur, was, like Albrecht Adam, a German artist. Born in 1780, in Stuttgart, he initially took up painting, before becoming a soldier. It was in the latter role, as a lieutenant in the 25th (or Württemberg) Division of III Corps, in the Grande Armée, that he took part in the 1812 campaign in Russia.

The  sketches he made on campaign were exhibited (in 1816), and later re-worked as prints, eventually being published, circa 1831-44. Staying in the profession of arms he ultimately attained the rank of general (1849), dying in Stuttgart, in 1857, aged - as was Adam at the time of his death, by a curious coincidence - 76.

From the sublime: Napoleon and the Grand Armée At The Kaluga Gate, Moscow.

To the ridiculous: title...

As I mentioned in relation to Adam's illustrated memoirs, reading widely on the disastrous French invasion of Russia in 1812, I'd become aware of the works of Albrecht Adam and Faber du Faur, their illustrated memoirs frequently supplying such books with evocative imagery. I remember frequently thinking, especially whilst reading Zamoyski's gripping account of the campaign, 'wow, I'd love to see more of these pictures: I wonder if they've been published in book form?'

Well, fortunately for us they have, and both books are superb. As already noted, Faber du Faur's has a distinct advantage over Adam's, which is nonetheless wonderful and well worth having, because, unlike Adam - who, we recall, rather wisely opted to head home before everything started falling apart - he saw the whole campaign through, from it's glorious beginnings to it's abject end.

Crossing the Niemen.

Wondering why they ever crossed the Niemen.

As a result du Faur's work has the fuller coverage, including, as it does, the descent of the Grande Armee into a crazed rabble of patchwork harlequin scarecrows, caught up in a tragically apocalyptic farce, humanity running the full gamut from the heroic to the horrifyingly brutal.

The artworks are really phenomenal, and Greenhill Books has printed the book beautifully: it's large format (in landscape orientation), and Jonathan North's translation of the text reads very well. Such specialist books can sometimes suffer from poor editorial quality control, or slightly odd or even just plain poor, writing. Thankfully the synopsis of the 1812 campaign given here is very good, and there's a decent map of the theatre of operations.

And, this bears repeating, the artwork itself, the heart of the book, is just fabulous.

A beautifully evocative image of Cossacks attacking the straggling French and their allies as they retreat through a misty snowbound wood.

The sad fate of much of Mother Russia, where almost all the buildings in 1812 were wooden.

So many aspects that simply reading about this fascinating subject can't quite convey are brought vividly to life: the realities of life on campaign, mostly spent travelling, camping outdoors - more often than not unprotected from the elements - foraging, bivouacing, eating, etc. The landscapes, the architecture, the importance of logistics - the sheer volume of horses, wagons, and such like is wonderfully evoked - and dealings with the native inhabitants - commerce between the Grande Armee and Russian Jewry is a noticeable feature in both Adams' and Faber du Faur's books - all are depicted.

Almost all the books I've read on this subject, from those written now to these two much older sources, stress how things went terribly wrong right from the start. But visible manifestations of the harrowing descent into a motley bedlam, despite this, only really start to become strongly apparent on the retreat. The haggard, skeletal, fancy dress scarecrows, amidst the appalling squalor, suffering and sheer dehumanising brutality, make for compelling characters, in this excellently draughted material.

I love the logistics of large campaigns, and it's great to see this oft-overlooked aspect depicted.

Another classic image of the retreat.

A stunningly beautiful and well realised edition, this is a classic document of Napoleon's hubristic over-reaching, the pivotal moment, where over a million lives were grist to the mill of what proved to be his unrealisable imperial ambitions. The French and their allies, having rapaciously looted and laid waste to much of Russia, would soon be jettisoning nearly all the booty, in the scramble to survive.

Fortunately for all concerned, this jewel of a book is one of the only real treasures to come back to us from the campaign, and I really can't recommend it highly enough.

As a little footnote: whilst doing picture research for this post I discovered that Bonham's auctioned an original edition (sadly the info on the lot doesn't indicate the date) of this set of artworks, achieving a sale price of $50,000! So, if you can get this for anything under £20-30, I'd say it was a bargain! The info on that sale was illustrated by the rather idyllic looking bivouac pictured below.

Join the army, see the world; the Russian 1812 campaign doesn't look too bad, in a scene like this.

Skirmishing in the suburbs. Fabulous reference for the wargamers or modeller.

Trying to get the artillery uphill... In knee/axle-deep mud!

Joining battle.

Taken together these two handsome volumes make for a marvellously evocative depiction of the Russian campaign. Whether you were to acquire them singly or together, no matter; if you're remotely interested in Russia, 1812, just get 'em!


  1. Excellent book reviews! I put them on my wishlist!
    One remark: The date of birth of Albrecht Adam is wrong in your review. It has to be 1776. ;-)


  2. Glad you enjoyed the reviews Peter. They're definitely worth having.
    Re Adam's birth, I got the date here:
    ... and it's the same on the English language entry for him as well. So I'll stick with that for now. Where did you get your date?
    Best, Seb

    1. Hey Seb, you have written 1876 but he died in 1862. Your info is right but you made a mistake in your review. That 8 has to a be a 7. :-D


    2. Just checked the Wiki link again. Date of birth 16 April 1786 and he died on 28 August 1862. Please delete my previous post. The dat is wrong there to! :-D


    3. Ah, yes, a moment of visual 'lesdyxia' on my part. I meant 1786, but as you say, wrote 1876! Duly corrected; thanks for making me aware.