THE DUKE OF WELLINGTON
The full title is The Duke of Wellington Mounted on Copenhagen as at Waterloo
This portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence was painted in 1818. Lawrence (1769-1830) was a revered portrait artist of the eighteenth century and today is considered by many to be the last truly great one. He was a master at combining the new Romantic ideas with the classical tradition. The painting is in the private collection of Earl Bathurst at Cirencester Park, the Bathurst country estate. It is an oil painting on canvas and measures 156 x 6 inches (13 x 8 feet; 396 x 244cm).
In this portrait of the Duke of Wellington, you get a real sense of the battlefield, with the cannon smoke in the background, the fading sunlight as the General rides away from the scene of his most famous victory, his hat held aloft in salute. Indeed, you can almost smell the smoke and powder residue. Yet the focus is clearly on the Duke and his illustrious horse, Copenhagen.
Described by French artist Delacroix as ‘a flower of politeness’ and by that assertion it can therefore be supposed a gentleman, Lawrence has, with great subtlety, created an imposing image of both an English aristocrat and a commander. The Duke is wearing the same uniform and Copenhagen carries the arms and saddlecloth that they used on 18th June 1815. When the painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy, it was listed as The Duke of Wellington in the dress that he wore and on the horse that he rode, at the battle of Waterloo.
Copenhagen was, of course, the horse Wellington rode for the whole of that momentous day – a stretch of almost eighteen hours. He is frequently termed a charger, for that is a suitable appellation for a battle horse, although the reality is he was not often required to perform that role. A general’s mount has to remain steady and calm under fire and yet be fleet enough of foot to convey his master to any part of the battlefield in moments. Copenhagen was the ideal general’s mount.
He is depicted by Sir Thomas Lawrence as a rich chestnut, his neck arched in a pose which subtly suggests arrogance and superiority. It has been suggested that he appears to be doing a lateral movement seen in the higher levels of competition dressage – a movement called ‘shoulder in’, where the horse travels at a slight angle, his body turned away from the direction he is moving. I can see where the idea has come from, since such suppling positions, aside from being natural movements witnessed in horses at play, originally were developed as both defensive and offensive measures when man first saw the potential of mounted combat. The ‘airs above the ground’, such as the courbette, the croupade, the pirouette, the levade and the capriole demand high levels of athleticism and skill from the horse as well as the rider. Medieval knights spent hours schooling their prized war horses to be quick, responsive and nimble. The shoulder in, for example, which is one of the best suppling exercises, can be used to prevent an enemy foot soldier getting close enough to strike a blow at the rider, or even to barge him to the ground. In this painting, the Duke demonstrates by his balance, depth of seat and easy carriage in the saddle, that he was an accomplished horseman, well capable of such disciplines.
However, that is not my perception, as someone who loves horses and drawing but is no art expert.
Copenhagen was the preferred height for a cavalry horse, standing just above fifteen hands (a hand equals four inches, measured to the base of the neck where it joins the body). The Duke was a fairly tall man, which is evident from the length of his legs in the stirrups, and yet Copenhagen is not made to appear pony-like. The pose gives him a powerful presence, the raised forefoot indicating a touch of impatience and even demand. His eye is merely suggested with a speck of white paint, but it is enough, for it cleverly hints at the horse’s supreme confidence and bold character. This, it says, is a horse who knows his own worth; a horse with attitude. He has that indefinable quality which draws the eye. It could be simply the artistry of Lawrence, emphasizing those elegant limbs and clean lines of what is a compact frame, but I prefer to think it is the persona of the horse shining through.
History tells us that Copenhagen inherited his grandsire Eclipse’s difficult temperament and my story Copenhagen’s Last Charge is built around an incident that reflected this. It was that very attitude, that lack of respect for the human race – with the exception of Wellington himself – which helped to create that aura of supremacy Lawrence has captured so well. It is that strength of personality and inherent arrogance which made him not only universally popular, but has chiselled his name into the annals of history as one of the greatest war horses ever foaled.
Doubtless his grooms called him by some stable name, but I suspect it would not have been too complimentary! Did the Duke do so too? As a man whose public image was austere and stern, it is hard to imagine, but perhaps, out of the public eye, in the Ice House Paddock at Stratfield Saye, the Duke’s Hampshire estate, Copenhagen and his master enjoyed a few moments when they both laid aside their egos and admitted how much each owed the other.
Copenhagen enjoyed a long and happy retirement at Stratfield Saye and there are two very different portraits of him painted during those peaceful years. James Ward portrayed him in a landscape somewhat larger, I suspect, than his Ice House Paddock, with mane and tail shaggy indications of an unfettered existence after his years of service. The stallion’s ears are pricked and he is gazing at something the viewer cannot see, his eye bright and his demeanour one of calm alertness, as though he is remembering all those proud moments on the battlefield. Perhaps a little artistic licence has been employed, to sweeten the image of a grumpy old war horse, but no doubt Copenhagen’s adoring public were glad to see him in such a pleasing pose.
The second portrait of Copenhagen in retirement could not be more different. Painted by Samuel Spode, some time during the 1820s or 30s (up until 1836 when Copenhagen died), the picture shows the stallion harnessed in full military regalia, standing before a stone wall and a column, with just a glimpse of a door. He is a rich, dark chestnut with a ‘star and stripe’ on his face and a white sock on his near (left) hind leg. This is interesting, as he has no visible white on his legs in the James Ward portrait or the Thomas Lawrence painting. His coat gleams as would that of a fit, stabled horse, not one spending most of his time at grass in retirement. There is no evidence here of reported ‘poor shoulders and hollow back’. His Arab heritage is clear to see in the slightly dished face, compact muscular body and fine legs.
In the final painting I am considering in this article, Copenhagen and the Duke are in action at the Battle of Waterloo. By Robert Hillingford, the Commander-in-Chief and his war horse are shown in the midst of battle, Wellington controlling the stallion effortlessly one-handed while all around them mayhem ensues. The picture portrays the unflappable nature of both man and horse, while at the same time giving the viewer a clear image of the battle’s confusion and atrocity. In this painting, too, you can almost hear the noise and smell the smoke of the guns and the stench of death. Copenhagen is depicted with the same ‘star and stripe’, but would appear to have four white socks.
We will never know, now, his precise colouring or markings, but if we take all four paintings at face value, he was a handsome animal with both quality and presence, and clearly a horse worthy of being the Duke of Wellington’s celebrated battle charger.
Pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons