A new free exhibition opens at the National Portrait Gallery devoted to that Great British hero, the Duke of Wellington. Amazingly, this is the first gallery exhibition to focus on the man who was not only an extraordinary military leader but also a great statesman who served twice as Prime Minister. Wellington: Triumphs, Politics and Passions at the NPG is just one of many Waterloo200 exhibitions and events scheduled this year to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo of 1815.
It was great to see some of the less well known portraits of Wellington, such as the one of the young officer by John Hoppner from 1795. Known at that time as Arthur Wesley (before he changed the family name back to the earlier variant Wellesley), the young officer looks out from this early portrait rather tentatively and somewhat forlornly – he was apparently, at this stage in his career, not even sure if the military life was for him. All quite different from the much more familiar haughty, bombastic stare of the later portraits of the victorious hero of Waterloo.
There are plenty of battlefield scenes from Waterloo on show here too – Wellington on horseback brandishing his hat in the charge towards the fleeing French – all good stirring stuff. Also some commemorative objects including a Staffordshire Waterloo jug from 1815 – with yes, Wellington on horseback again but this time brandishing a sword. It is interesting to see how visual culture played a strong part in the creation of a hero such as Wellington.
One of the highlights of the show is a portrait of Wellington by Sir Thomas Lawrence that has never been publicly displayed in the UK before. It was commissioned in the year after Wellington became Prime Minister for the first time by Sarah, Countess of Jersey, a leading political hostess of the day. It was still unfinished at Lawrence’s death in 1830 but, unlike most other clients, the countess refused to allow it to be finished by a studio assistant. This portrait has remained in a private collection and has not been on public display since it was painted.
The final section of the exhibition looks at the later life of the great man and some of the people closely associated with him. Especially beautiful is a captivating portrait of Harriet Arbuthnot by Sir Thomas Lawrence. The Duke of Wellington was famously unhappily married and Harriet Arbuthnot was long rumoured to be his mistress but, disappointingly, Arbuthnot’s diaries published in 1950 would seem to suggest that their friendship was nothing more than platonic.
The exhibition culminates with the 67 foot long panorama of the Iron Duke’s funeral, on show for the first time having been stored in the National Portrait Gallery’s Archive since 1911. The panorama is the largest portrait in the gallery’s immense collection. In the exhibition, eight panels of the work are visible and above it a screen shows the whole length of the work as a moving image.
Exhibition continues until 7th June 2015
National Portrait Gallery
St Martin’s Place
Open daily 10am – 6pm
Thursday & Friday until 9pm
Entry to the Gallery and this exhibition is Free
On Thursday 18th June, the date of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, the National Portrait Gallery will display the whole 67 feet of the print in a specially made display case that will run the length of the Victorian Galleries in a free one-hour event.