Saturday 11 July 2015

A Damned Serious Business - Waterloo 1815, the Battle & its Books (Cambridge University Library)

I'm really revelling in all the stuff that's currently going on to mark the bicentenary of Waterloo. 

It's especially nice when there's something good to see locally. Earlier in the year there was the excellent show of prints at the Fitzwilliam Museum (click here to read my post about that exhibition), and now there's another print heavy show - A Damned Serious Business - this time at the Milstein Exhibition Centre, in the basement of the very austere Cambridge University Library [1].

Cambridge University Library.

I ended up spending nearly two hours at this small one room show. It's small, yes, but it's also jam-packed with excellent stuff. 

Unsurprisingly, given the exhibitions subtitle and the fact it's taking place in a library, the exhibits are predominantly drawn from books published during the period, with an emphasis on printed matter. 

There are some terrific books on display here, and it's so nice for ordinary members of the public to have access to stuff that's generally only looked at (and that very rarely) by scholars.

One of the largest and most de-luxe of the books, whose partial title is 'The campaign of Waterloo : illustrated with engravings of Les Quatre Bras ... and other principal scenes of action' is credited to Robert Bowyer. The notes on this particularly impressive exhibit go on to say:

'The artist of the original drawings for the plates in this large-format volume of The campaign of Waterloo is not named, but appears to have visited the site in the weeks following the battle. Bowyer acknowledged an obligation to Captain Wildman, an aide-de-camp to the Marquess of Anglesea (the former Earl of Uxbridge, Wellington’s cavalry commander at Waterloo), for the ‘accuracy and fidelity’ of the ‘grand view of the battle’ which forms the centrepiece of the volume.'

Below is an embedded version of the CUL online image browser for the show, which allows you to zoom in in the artwork (and others from the same book) described above:

This beautiful image, when opened out as a double page spread, is about a metre across. Looking at this image using the CUL picture browser - embedded above - allows one to zoom in and admire the detail and skill. Terrific!

An attractive map, published 1814, showing Napoleon's new domain, upon his first abdication, the island of Elba.

There are quite a lot of maps, such as that shown above, most of which are terrifically beautiful. Sadly they've chosen not to display any of the actual original maps from Siborne's history of the campaign, which used a special technique to achieve a 3-D effect. 

One of these maps is reproduced on one of the info boards (but the 3-D effect is diminished), and several are shown in one of the accompanying videos. In the pan-and-scan shots of these maps they look both 3-D and phenomenally beautiful. 

It would have been great to have seen one of these incredible maps on display. Especially if it were to be lit directionally, from above the top of the page, so as to show off the 3-D effect.

One of Siborne's amazing maps (this is one of two depicting the battle of Ligny). The 3-D effect is exceedingly cool, and the overall detail and quality are stunning.

The books and other items on show already make this a terrific little exhibition, but it's made richer still thanks to several interactive elements.

Two of these were, I felt, particularly good: firstly, there's an enormous rectangular screen, like a very large flat screen telly, but laid more or less flat, on which you can flick through electronically scanned versions of four of the books that are on display; secondly, there's a much smaller screen (an iPad in fact), with attached headphones, on which you can watch three short films. 

The first of these allows one to see scans of all the pages from four of the books displayed in the show, in addition to whatever spreads the curators have chosen to display using the actual physical book. 

Blucher's fall at Ligny.

The second, the three short films, are all good - the first of them is hopefully viewable at the top of this post - being very interesting and surprisingly well done. 

The longest of these films is presented by the curators of the show, Mark Nicholls and John Wells, who also wrote the texts for the presentation boards - which are referred to on the exhibition website as 'themes' - that tell the story of the show as you go around the room (also reproduced in a handsome if small booklet that accompanies the exhibition). 

Then there's one featuring Bernard Simms, Cambridge academic and author of several books on the period, including the short but superb The Longest Afternoon, about the Hanoverian defence of the farm of La Haye Sainte. 

The shortest of the three is about maps. Once again this last is, whilst very good and very interesting, not as good as it could have been, had they looked at and talked about Siborne's maps.

Ponsonby's demise at Waterloo.

There are, in addition to all the books, handbills, broadsheets, and a number of letters, some written by such famous central protagonists as Wellington, and others by less well known folk, and other ephemera, including a musket ball and other 'relics' or battlefield mementoes.

A nice print of Austerlitz.

This online image in no way conveys the utter gorgeousness of what is a massive print in a huge book! [2].

One exhibit - Napoleon's own copy of the writings of Montaigne, from his library in exile on St. Helena - is both book and relic! Astonishingly beautifully bound, in a marbled calf-skin binding that almost looks like burred walnut, adorned by the imperial 'N' and those cutely regal gilt Napoleonic bees, Napoleon's Montaigne is almost talismanic. 

It's also a reminder that whilst we now have an abundance of cheap mass-market books, making us a far more literate society than existed 200 years ago, for those with the money (then or now) some books are of a completely different order, as works of art and craftsmanship.

Then there are the several enormous books, with prints that are both huge and utterly exquisite, or the bizarre but amazing fold-out depiction of Wellington's funeral procession (twenty-two yards, if fully extended!). These, like Napoleon's edition of Montaigne, are also clearly as much status symbols as utilitarian objects.

This film shows the whole of the extended fold-out artwork, as depicted in the remarkable prints in the book illustrating Wellington's funeral procession (source: the National Portrait Gallery.)

An image from a book by Guibert, showing concentration of firepower from three bodies of troops deployed in line.

It's not all about Waterloo either, the exhibition beginning with stuff produced by ultra-loyalists during the British invasion scare of the early 1800s, and containing all kinds of things covering all sorts of aspects of the period, from manuals depicting the drills for the complex battlefield manoeuvres (see above), to depictions of other battles and campaigns, from Austerlitz to the Russian 1812 campaign. 

And neither is it all serious, the superb artist George Cruikshank, for example, contributing his fantastic artistic skills to both straight and satirical works in this show.

Title page of The Life of Napoleon, a Hudibrastic Poem in Fifteen CantosIllustrated by George Cruikshank.

One of the last Cruikshank illustrations to the Hudibrastic Poem.

I feel I have to say that I was a little surprised and disappointed to see an exhibition at such an illustrious academic institution being rather obviously and overtly partisan, in respect of their negative judgement on Napoleon, who is ultimately portrayed here as a warmonger, and even, via a borrowed summary quote, a 'bad man'. 

They do concede that British triumphalism wasn't always welcomed, even at home, never mind abroad. It's even very subtly suggested that whilst the Duke of Wellington's generalship helped win Waterloo, and his moderate conciliatory actions ushered in a welcome half century of European peace, nevertheless his conservatism wasn't all good news, either in terms of domestic British social politics, or even in terms of his military legacy. 

This is very vaguely alluded to in terms of domestic British politics, but more concretely so militarily, via a scribbled sketch by Lord Raglan. 

[insert Raglan sketch!?]

This very sketchy scrawled image, perhaps the  ugliest exhibit in the whole show, nevertheless speaks volumes. It does so because it illustrates how the conservatism that dominated the British army at the time resulted in the infamous debacle of the charge of the Light Brigade, which is what Raglan's sketch depicts. 

Essentially this was old-fashioned Napoleonic cavalry manoeuvring dashed to pieces on the teeth of evolving technology. Napoleon, artilleryman that he was, was instrumental in this evolution even as the wars that bore his name progressed. Admittedly the charge was a result of several errors, but that it could happen at all was the result of a certain post-Waterloo culture. 

That the early Victorian British army ossified as it did under Wellington's influence is shocking but fascinating, given that it was the result, in part, of deference and hero worship in relation to a man who helped defeat Napoleon by learning from him. But such are the twists of fate!

Prussian cavalry captures Bonaparte's carriage.

But returning from judgements on Wellington to those on Napoleon, it's somewhat sad to see, in this exhibition, that despite the efforts of such a high profile historian and author (and now TV and radio presenter to boot) as Andrew Roberts, the British establishment - this also remains true of the National Army Mueseum's treatment of the Siborne 'large model' (and that in spite of the works of writers like Hofschröer and others) - remains entrenched in what I'd describe  as a very deep-rooted old-fashioned 'High Tory' type conservative reading of Napoleon Buonaparte, as the Corsican upstart, and disturber of the peace, etc. [3]

Nevertheless, despite a potentially jaundiced position, and even considering that they could've enriched the show very significantly by including some of Siborne's original books and maps, this remains a terrific little exhibition. One that I would thoroughly and unhesitatingly recommend to all Napoleonic history nuts.

The exhibition runs till September 16th (Monday to Friday 9-6, Sat. 9-4.30), and is free.

APPENDIX - Some interesting related matter.

The Siborne maps:

After writing this article I went online to try and find out what the name of the technique that Siborne employed for his 3-D type maps. At the time of adding this postscript I still haven't found out what that technique was called (can anyone enlighten me?), but I did discover that the CUL have put all the maps from Siborne's accompanying 'folio' up online. Bravo! They can be found here:

Siborne maps

The Life of Napoleon:

As another interesting footnote, an original 1st Edition copy of the book from which some of the Cruikshank images are derived is on sale, here:

Life of Napoleon, a Hudibrastic Poem in Fifteen Cantos

A far cheaper way to see the great artworks, however, is to visit this link:

Cruikshank's Life of Napoleon (a Hudibrastic Poem, etc)  at pastnow blog.

Edward Orme:

One of the books from which several images in the exhibition are derived is entitled 'Historic, Military, and Naval Anecdotes, of Personal Valour, Bravery, and Particular Incidents Which Occurred to the Armies of Great Britain and her Allies, in the Long-contested War, Terminating in the Battle of Waterloo' by Edward Orme, published in 1819. At the link below is a listing for the sale of a copy at Bonham's. A snip at £2,375!

'Particular Indcidents ... Terminating in the Battle of Waterloo'



[1] Designed by the architect Giles Gilbert Scott, of K2 phone box fame, who also designed such iconic structures as Battersea and Bankside power stations, the latter of which now houses Tate Modern.

[2] I've said elsewhere (e.g. in a TMP post publicising this post) that the online experience of this exhibition is as good, possibly even richer - for having more material available from archives - than the actual show 'in the flesh', so to speak. Well... not in all respects! Some of the more lavish prints and other objects really need to be seen in situ to be properly appreciated.

[3] Roberts, a thorough going modern Tory, points out an interesting change that's taken place since Napoleon's own times: originally Napoleon was the doyenne of the radical left, and it was the conservative right that sought continually to tear him down. Nowadays he's as likely to be vilified by liberals and leftists as old-fashioned conservatives, and more likely to find support on the right, whether it be from the moderate (ish) right of a Thatcherite like Roberts, or the scarier extremes of the right such as Hitler.


  1. A great blog article, many thanks!

    1. Thank you Chasseur! Glad you enjoyed it. Regards, Sebastian