- Philip James De Loutherbourg 1740–1812
- Oil paint on canvas
- Support: 2626 × 3722 mm
- Accepted in lieu of Inheritance Tax by HM Government and allocated to Tate 2020
This very large painting was created in 1794 as a commercial speculation soon after Britain declared war against France, following the French Revolution and the execution of the French king, Louis XVI, in January 1793. It shows the siege of Valenciennes, in northern France, the first military engagement of the war really to engage public attention in Britain. The viewpoint is an elevated spot looking towards the town of Valenciennes, which is shrouded in smoke as the allied bombardment intensified on the 25 July 1793. Various figures from the allied Austrian and British troops occupy the foreground. The British military commander Frederick, Duke of York is the highest-placed figure on horseback to the left, gesturing downwards towards the Austrian commander, Prince Josias of Saxe-Coburg.
The siege of Valenciennes took place between May and July 1793, during the campaign in Flanders (in modern-day Belgium) led by the Duke of York. Although commemorated by the familiar nursey-rhyme ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’, Frederick had limited abilities as a military leader and Valenciennes proved to be the only victory in the campaign. After the surrender of Valenciennes, French troops regrouped and the British retreated back to the coast.
Nonetheless, after news of the surrender of French troops at Valenciennes on 28 July 1793 reached Britain, there was a rush of military-themed spectacles, musical entertainments, prints and songs, and even fashion items. Several artistic projects were also initiated. The plan to produce a huge painting and an engraving by the prominent French-born artist Philip James de Loutherbourg was announced in the press as early as 1 August 1793. This was a commercial venture, organised by the engraver Valentine Green, his son Rupert Green and the Swiss print-seller Christian von Machel. De Loutherbourg was paid a large fee and, accompanied by the printmaker James Gillray (1757–1815), he went to the battlefield in September 1793. Gillray, best known as a caricature artist, produced portrait studies and details of uniforms and equipment. De Loutherbourg’s painting was produced in London in only nine months. The resulting painting was first exhibited in a private royal viewing at Buckingham House (now Buckingham Palace), before opening to the public in the Historic Gallery in Pall Mall, a commercial gallery space run by the publisher Robert Bowyer.
The painting was a great success, with many critics commenting on what they considered to be the accuracy as well as the grandeur of the scene. The sheer extent of the picture, with its expansive sky, plumes of smoke and billowing clouds, was intended to create effects that contemporary critics would recognise as Sublime – newly in vogue as the grandest, most emotionally overpowering category of art. However, the painting was also a straightforward piece of propaganda. At a time when Britain’s war against revolutionary France was much criticised by dissenters, pacifists and the range of political radicals who wished also to overthrow the much-hated monarchy and establish democracy in Britain, the picture created a spectacular view of British military triumph that flattered the royal family and political establishment. The Duke of York is given a prominent role, whereas, as the radical writer Thomas Holcroft noted when he saw the picture in 1798, ‘the Austrian General, who actually directed the siege, is placed in a group, where, far from attracting attention, he is but just seen’ (quoted in Shaw 2016).
De Loutherbourg’s picture remained on display at the Historic Gallery for at least three years. It was joined by another huge painting by de Loutherbourg, dating from 1795 and showing Lord Howe’s Action, or the Glorious First of June (now in the National Maritime Museum, London, under the title The Battle of the First of June, 1794). However, the war with France caused economic decline and the print market collapsed. Valentine and Rupert Green were declared bankrupt in 1798 and the painting was sold at auction in 1799. The large print originally announced in August 1793 was eventually published together with a descriptive key in 1801.
Anthony Griffiths, ‘The Contract for The Grand Attack on Valenciennes’, Print Quarterly, vol.20, no.4, December 2003, pp.374–9.
Oliver Lefeuvre, Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, Paris 2012, pp.287–9.
Philip Shaw, ‘Picturing Valenciennes: Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg and the Emotional Regulation of British Military Art in the 1790s’, in Erika Kuijpers and Cornelis van der Haven, Battlefield Emotions 1500–1800: Practices, Experience, Imagination, London 2016.
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