William Roberts

Trooping the Colour


Not on display

William Roberts 1895–1980
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1829 × 2743 mm
Purchased 1981

Display caption

'Trooping the Colour' represents the military parade which takes place before the Queen every June on her Official Birthday. She is seen on the only chestnut horse, with the Duke of Edinburgh to her left. Roberts has compressed into a single work a convincing sense of the variety of human and equestrian movement in this ceremony, as well as a wealth of detail in the uniforms. A significant element is the standard which bears the names of twentieth-century battles famous in British history. Roberts not only served on the Western Front from 1916-18 but his military service began on Horseguards Parade, the setting of this painting.

Gallery label, August 2004

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Catalogue entry


Inscribed ‘William Roberts’ bottom right
Oil on canvas, 72 × 108 (183 × 274.3)
Purchased from Ernest Cooper (Grant-in-Aid) 1981
Exh: R A, May–August 1959 (171); William Roberts A R A: Retrospective Exhibition, Tate Gallery, November–December 1965 (96, repr.), and tour to Newcastle and Manchester, January–February 1966; on loan to Southampton Art Gallery 1967–72; Paintings and Drawings by William Roberts, R A from the Ernest Cooper Collection, Worthing Art Gallery, April–June 1972 (53, repr.in colour on catalogue cover); British Painting 1952–77, R A, September–November 1977 (312)
Lit: Stanley Bonnett, ‘The Strangest Royal Picture Ever’, in Daily Mail, 1 May 1959, pp.1 and 3 (detail repr.); Emmwood, cartoon in Daily Mail, 2 May 1959, p.6 (repr.); William Roberts, ‘My Trooping the Colourand the ‘Errors’ of the Daily Mail, broadsheet published 6 May 1959
Repr: R A Illustrated, 1959, p.11; William Roberts ARA, Paintings and Drawings 1909–1964, n.d. [1964], frontispiece (in colour); The Tate Gallery: Illustrated Biennial Report 1980–82, 1983, p.47 in colour

The compiler is indebted to the staff of the National Army Museum for information on military and ceremonial aspects of this picture, which is incorporated into this entry.

This painting represents the military parade which takes place annually in celebration of the Official Birthday of the Sovereign. At the right, Queen Elizabeth 11 is mounted on the only chestnut horse in the painting. Between her and the viewer is her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, and immediately beyond her, her uncle the Duke of Gloucester (both mounted). The Birthday Parade to which this picture relates most closely is that of 12 June 1958, when the colour trooped was the Queen's Colour of the 1st Bn., Scots Guards. The Tate's painting shows clearly the central feature of this colour, the motto ‘En Ferus Hostis’ (‘Behold a Fierce Enemy’). The part of the ceremony depicted is when the colour is being trooped through the lines of Guards other than those who are escort to the colour. The space between the Queen and her party and the standing and marching troops has been compressed. The Household Cavalry seen in the background would not be in that position at that stage of the ceremony.

The Birthday Parade takes place on Horse Guards Parade, London. In his autobiographical 4.5 Howitzer Gunner, RFA, 1916–1918: Memories of the War to End War 1914–18, n.d. [c.1974], p.2, Roberts wrote: ‘On 4 April 1916, I received my “call-up”...On the following day at 9.30a.m. I joined a crowd of recruits on Horse Guards Parade assembled for dispatch to their units. Also on the parade ground was a company of the Guards marching to and fro to the stirring music of the drums and fifes, their rifles at the slope with fixed bayonets glistening in the sun of the spring morning. This martial scene was intended, no doubt, to be an appropriate sendoff to our military careers’. Roberts's war service was as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery. He served in France from August 1916 to April 1918. Visible in the Tate's painting on the colour being trooped are the names of two of the battles in which Roberts served, Ypres and the Somme. In 1918, he was commissioned by the Canadian War Records Office to paint ‘The First German Gas Attack at Ypres’ (which records an event of 1915). The colour which was trooped at the Birthday Parade of 1958 bore the names of thirty nine battles, ten of them in the First World War. Roberts shows only nine of these names (four of these being from the First World War), and has re-arranged their order.

Roberts's painting ‘The Salute’ (Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, exh. RA 1963; repr.R A Illustrated, 1963, p.14) is a self-portrait in which Roberts associates his military service with his work as a painter. Inscribed ‘The Ex-service Man’ by Roberts on a label on the reverse, it shows him standing in front of a blank, stretched canvas, saluting. He wears a cap, and pinned on his jacket are the Allied Victory Medal 1914–19 and the British War Medal 1914–18, both of which were awarded to Roberts and still in his possession at his death.

On 6 May 1958, as recorded in his posthumously- published Early Years 1982, Roberts was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy by the casting vote of the President, Sir Charles Wheeler. Mrs Sarah Roberts told the compiler that Roberts decided to mark his appreciation of the honour bestowed by the Royal Academy by painting a picture on a royal theme; the result was ‘Trooping the Colour’. Roberts further associated his military service, his role as an artist, the Royal Academy and the royal family in his cover design for the catalogue of his retrospective exhibition at the Tate Gallery in 1965. In this design a self-portrait, palette in hand, is framed by a panel adjoining three others each of which depicts a different scene. It seems clear that each of these three panels is intended to represent a scene in Roberts's own life and that Roberts himself appears in each. In the central panel of the three, soldiers are seen firing a large gun. The panel beside it to the right shows a ceremony which the Secretary of the Royal Academy confirms almost certainly represents Roberts receiving his Associate's Diploma from the President of the Royal Academy. The President stands beneath a royal portrait.

Mrs Roberts confirmed the report in the Daily Mail (loc.cit.) that in preparation for the Tate's picture, Roberts was present at the Trooping the Colour in 1958, where he made notes, and that he did documentary research on the correct detail of uniforms and ceremonial. She added that he also attended rehearsals of the 1958 Trooping the Colour. Mrs Roberts owns a pencil drawing 7 1/8 × 4 7/8in., of the Duke of Edinburgh on horseback. She and Mrs Helen Capel each own squared-up pencil drawings (respectively 9 7/8 × 12in. sight, and 12 × 18 1/8in.) and Miss Elizabeth Gawne a watercolour 8 1/8 × 11 7/8in., all of which are for the whole composition and show the Queen's head upright. In the finished work the Queen's head is bent forward slightly. Roberts's son suggests that this change was probably made to show that the Queen is acknowledging the homage being paid by her Guards.

All seventeen criticisms of Roberts's painting by the Daily Mail (loc.cit.) concerned matters of uniform, posture or ceremonial and were stated in the Daily Mail article to have been made by officers and men at Wellington Barracks and at Horse Guards Parade on the basis of a photograph. The Daily Mail article also reported that on being told of the Guards' criticisms, Roberts replied ‘I made the paintings as nearly accurate as I was able to do...I hope I shall be more correct next time-should I paint a military subject’. The detail of Roberts's published rejoinder (op.cit.) contradicted the first part of this statement, and he there explicitly denied making the second. Roberts divided the seventeen criticisms into nine which he considered too silly to answer, five which he described as ‘sham’ and barely discussed, two which he admitted but justified on the ground that his departure from accuracy made a better design, and one (the ‘reversal’ of the Duke of Edinburgh's sword) which he justified on grounds both of composition and credibility. In a letter of 16 November 1982, the Department of Uniform of the National Army Museum gave detailed opinions on the Daily Mail's seventeen points. They judged that of the nine criticisms which Roberts considered too silly to answer, seven were just and two groundless; that five of the criticisms which Roberts described as ‘sham’ were indeed groundless; and that of the remaining three criticisms, the two admitted by Roberts were justified and the third not. In addition, the National Army Museum noted a further eleven errors in the picture from a military standpoint.

All the evidence seems, however, to make clear that Roberts did not intend a strictly accurate representation of this ceremony, either specifically in 1958 (when by contrast with the strong sunlight in the Tate's painting, the Trooping of the Colour took place in rain) or in general; but that subject to the requirements of a strong design, he went to some lengths by both observation and research to give a convincing impression of the look and atmosphere of the ceremony.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984

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