Joseph Mallord William Turner

The Field of Waterloo

exhibited 1818

On display at Tate Britain

Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1473 x 2388 mm
frame: 1860 x 2773 x 180 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

Display caption

The Battle of Waterloo (1815) saw Britain and Prussia defeat France, putting an end to the Napoleonic wars and more than a decade of conflict. Turner visited the battlefield, already a tourist attraction, in 1817. He filled a sketchbook with drawings and notes, and later made studies of soldiers’ uniforms in preparation for this painting. In it, Turner emphasises war’s tragic consequences for all its victims. With the painting he quoted Byron’s poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, lamenting ‘friend, foe, in one red burial blent!’. Many other works by Turner are on display here in the Clore Gallery.

Gallery label, February 2016

Catalogue entry

138. [N00500] The Field of Waterloo Exh. 1818

Canvas, 58 × 94 (147·5 × 239)

Coll. Turner Bequest 1856 (60 ‘The Field of Waterloo’ 7'10" × 4' 10 1/2"); transferred to the Tate Gallery 1910.

Exh. R.A. 1818 (263; Paris 1983–4 (33, repr.)).

Engr. By F. C. Lewis in mezzotint 1830 (repr. Wilton 1980, p. 156).

Lit. Thornbury 1862, i, pp. 300–01; 1877, p. 435; Hamerton 1879, pp. 168–9; Monkhouse 1879, p. 130; Bell 1901, p. 102 no. 141; Armstrong 1902, p. 236; MacColl 1920, p. 13; Whitley 1928, p. 285; Davies 1946, p. 187; Clare 1951, p. 64; Finberg 1961, pp. 249, 251, 478 no. 200; Lindsay 1966, pp. 154, 156; Gerald E. Finley, ‘Turner's Illustrations to Napoleon’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes xxxvi 1973, pp. 391, 393; A. G. H. Bachrach, ‘Turner schildert Waterloo’, Spiegel Historiael xii 1977, pp. 585–97, repr. pp. 585 and, details, 586; Gage 1980, pp. 134, 149; Wilton 1980, pp. 77–8, 155–6; Bachrach 19812, pp. 4–13, pls. 1 and, details, 3, 4 and 5.

Exhibited in 1818 with the following quotation from Byron's Childe Harold iii, 28:

‘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 marshalling 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 blent!’

This painting was the largest result, and probably the main cause, of Turner's first journey to the continent after the conclusion of the Napoleonic war. He left London on 1 August 1817 and was at the field of Waterloo by the 16th. Subsequently he went up the Rhine as far as Mainz and returned to Yorkshire via Holland. He seems to have spent only a single day on the battlefield. In 1816 the British Institution had offered a prize for the best painting to commemorate the battle, but pressure of work seems to have prevented Turner from leaving England until the following year.

During this tour Turner used, and lost (see ‘Itinerary Rhine Tour’ sketchbook, CLIX, p. 101), a copy of Charles Campbell's The Traveller's Complete Guide to Belgium and Holland, first published in 1815 but of which the ‘improved’ edition of 1817 included a new chapter devoted to ‘A Walk over the Field of Battle at Waterloo’. This reprints appropriate verses by Scott, Southey and, significantly, those lines from Byron's Childe Harold quoted by Turner. Campbell also describes the rockets used to light the field and scare off looters.

There are a number of sketches of the battlefield, including the Château of Hougoumont which is shown burning on the right, in the ‘Waterloo and Rhine’ sketchbook (CLX-17 verso to 26; examples repr. Bachrach, 19812, pp. 12–31), and of soldiers and details of their uniforms in the ‘Guards’ sketchbook (CLXIV-24a to 52a). A note in Turner's hand on CLX-24a reads ‘Hollow where the great Carnage took place of the [French] Cuirassiers by the [British] Guards’, and the bodies of the Cuirassiers with their womenfolk searching among them for news or signs of life fill the foreground.

A variant of this composition was painted in water-colour (W.1229, repr. Bachrach op. cit., pl. 6) for the title-page of vol. xiv of The Works of Lord Byron, engraved by E. Finden in 1833. A very similar water-colour (W.1097) was engraved in vol. v of Scott's Prose Works (‘Paul's Letters’) by W. Miller in 1834. A different wide-spreading view with a flash of lightning was engraved after Turner's watercolour (W.1116, repr.) by W. Miller for vol. xvi of Scott's Prose Works (‘Life of Napoleon’) in 1835. Other sketches were used for the finished watercolour of c. 1816 (W.494, repr., and in Bachrach op. cit., pl. 2; Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, from the Fawkes collection); this shows the area around La Haye.

Bachrach sees an influence in general terms of Rembrandt's Night Watch (repr. 19812, pl. 8). Turner had seen the painting in Amsterdam on 7 September 1815 (see CLIX, pp. 10 and 100).

Newspaper criticism rather surprisingly ranged from scorn to outright praise. The Annals of the Fine Arts wrote, ‘Before we referred to the catalogue we really thought this was the representation of a drunken hubbub on an illumination night, and the host as far gone as his scuffling and scrambling guests, was, with his dame and kitchen wenches looking with torches for a lodger, and wondering what was the matter’. The Literary Chronicle for 22 June referred to the picture as an ‘abortive attempt’. On the other hand, the Sun for 15 May 1818 described the picture as ‘a terrific representation of the effects of war’. The Repository of Art for 1 June described it as ‘more an allegorical representation of “battle's magnificently stern array” than any actual delineation of a particular battle ... It possesses a strong claim to attention from the arrangement of powerful masses of colouring, descriptive of the smoky elements of a wide-spreading conflagration ... There is a good deal of grandeur in the effect of this picture as a whole, and the executive parts are handled with care and attention’. The radical publication The Examiner for 24 May 1818 also praised the work, dwelling on the artist's magical illustration of ‘the fiery explosions and carnage after the battle when the wives and brothers and sons of the slain come, with anxious eyes and agonised hearts, to look at Ambition's charnel-house after the slaughtered victims of legitimate selfishness and wickedness’.

The picture was cleaned and restored in 1983, following at least two earlier restorations.

Published in:
Martin Butlin and Evelyn Joll, The Paintings of J.M.W. Turner, revised ed., New Haven and London 1984