Waterloo Bicentenary Exhibitions Back

The bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo appears to have caught the imagination of curators across the UK. The Waterloo 200 website lists no fewer than 77 exhibitions and events happening this year: although it would not be feasible to visit (let alone review) all of them, it is worth pausing to note their variety in terms of focus and scale. Exhibitions range from blockbusters at national institutions, such as those at Windsor Castle and the British Museum (reviewed here), to smaller affairs in more specific museums.

One obvious location for a commemorative exhibition would have been the National Army Museum, which is currently closed for refurbishment. The NAM has however done extensive outreach work, collaborating with regimental museums to showcase highlights from its collection and also hosting Waterloo 200 online. Indeed, one of the features of the bicentenary has been the prominence of online exhibitions, including the superb ‘200 Objects of Waterloo’. Its use of objects – some unusual, many everyday – chimes with the fashion for material culture in the contemporary humanities. Indeed the focus on materiel is a productive meeting place for military history and cultural studies, two fields that rarely have much to do with one another. The success with which objects were exhibited and interrogated was a key issue for the four exhibitions here under review.

A good example of a national museum that did put on a Waterloo show is the Royal Armouries in Leeds. ‘Waterloo 1815: The Art of Battle’ occupies a large space, in which a modest number of artworks and objects are thoughtfully presented and related to one another. There are two real showstoppers here: Lady Elizabeth Butler’s ‘Scotland the Brave’, depicting the charge of the Scots Greys in one of the most iconic and dramatic military oil paintings; and the huge panels by Daniel Maclise, depicting Wellington and Blücher meeting at La Belle Alliance. Hats off to the Royal Armouries for securing these loans in this of all years. The USP of this exhibition is the way that it identifies and presents the exact objects used in the artworks, drawing on the Armouries’ exhaustive collections. This often serves to show that the objects were anachronistic or belonging to the wrong nation. While this is interesting, it did seem to me to be a typical military history approach, which doesn’t take us very far when assessing a great work of art. Maclise’s tableau is clearly imagined and emblematic: so what if the trumpet is from the wrong decade?

A national institution that chose to mark Waterloo in a more low-key way is the British Library. In contrast with the huge Magna Carta show next door, ‘Waterloo: War and Diplomacy’ is a temporary display as part of the regular ‘Treasures of the British Library’. If the Armouries is all about the kit, the BL focuses on the documents. These include private correspondence, including Wellington’s account of the battle, and also details of Napoleon’s capture and confinement: a ledger from St Helena records the amount of wine that was consumed there. The exhibition’s coda shows us various artistic responses to the battle, including contrasting verse by Scott and Byron, and a musical score by Weber. This may be a reflection of the source types available, but overall the BL exhibition felt somewhat detached from the battle itself.

When the bicentenary has been and gone, the centre for all things Wellington and Waterloo will once again be Apsley House. The Duke’s residence on the edge of Hyde Park is both a stately home and an art gallery, and serves as a shrine to his memory. There is a huge collection of portraits of the Duke and other contemporary military and political figures, alongside an exhibition of the trophies and gifts with which he was showered in the wake of the victory. The Waterloo Gallery houses Wellington’s incomparable art collection, much of it captured from Joseph Bonaparte’s baggage train during the Peninsular War. For 2015, they have here recreated one of the annual Waterloo banquets, with a long table complete with impressive table centres. Copies of the menu give an impression of the huge number of dishes that were served at the same time, à la Française (ironically enough). In this pleasingly old-fashioned gallery – the paintings are stacked up to the ceiling in the Victorian manner – the only concession to experiential learning is a mockup of a table setting, which visitors are invited to have a go at getting right. I enjoyed my first visit to Apsley House, although some children being dragged round by their parents remained glued to their phones.

The exhibition that I visited last was also the one that I enjoyed the most. Wellington Arch is over the road from Apsley House and can be visited with a joint ticket. An exhibition on the first floor tells the chequered history of the arch: over the last two centuries it has been moved, much debated, and has served as a ventilation shaft and London’s smallest police station. The controversies around the arch itself tell us a great deal about the place of Wellington and Waterloo in British culture. Nowadays, as well as boasting one of the best views in London, it houses three small exhibition spaces. Here they have curated a superb exhibition that both offers a good introduction to the battle and dispels some misconceptions about it: in particular, it emphasises the multinational nature of the effort against Napoleon, in which Britons were very much the minority. The objects are nicely chosen, and range from the Duke’s ‘Wellington’ boots to the personal effects of a cornet in the Scots Greys, which really serve to humanise one of the protagonists in the famous charge immortalised by Butler. Like the BL, this exhibition thinks about Waterloo’s legacy, but instead of focusing on high art it gives us toby jugs, pipes and five pound notes. Oddly enough, it was this small and eccentric museum that gave me the best insight into a battle that is often obscured by its very epicness.

Waterloo 1815: The Art of Battle was at the Royal Armouries, Leeds from 22 May to 23 August 2015.

Waterloo: War and Diplomacy is at the British Library, London until 6 September 2015.

Apsley House is open Wednesday to Sunday until 1 November, then weekends.

Battle of Waterloo Anniversary is at Wellington Arch until November 2015.