90th. whats your take on this.
We're looking at an interpretation of one of the most famous battles fought by British soldiers in the 19th century. It occurred in 1879, early in what we call the Zulu war, as British troops were invading the Zulu kingdom in southern Africa. The invasion was badly bungled. On the 22nd of January at Isandlwana, Zulu soldiers attacked and killed a thousand or more British troops. It was a bad day for the British army.
There was one bright spot, though. That afternoon, a few miles away, eighty British soldiers at a store and hospital at Rorke's Drift by the Buffalo River were attacked by three or four thousand Zulu troops. The defenders were outnumbered forty or fifty to one. But they had modern rifles, plenty of heavy boxes of biscuits and bags of grain to build barriers with, and a military tradition based on strict obedience, mechanical discipline, and fighting to the death if necessary. That afternoon, and into the night, they beat off attack after attack, even managing to evacuate wounded men from the hospital after the Zulus set it alight. Eventually the Zulus gave up. The defence of Rorke's Drift was too small an affair to have much military significance. It can scarcely be called a battle, though for convenience I've called it one. But it had great moral significance for the British army and for the white societies of the British empire. Eleven Victoria crosses were handed out among the survivors.
How did a French artist come to paint a British battle? The answer lies largely in who that artist was, and what his preferred subject was.
Alphonse de Neuville was one of the most popular painters of his day. He painted war, though a certain kind of war. Not for him the big, conventional battle scene. Not for him the heroic charge from some former age that his contemporary and colleague Eduoard Detaille evoked in the huge canvas Vive l'empereur!, just around the corner. Instead, de Neuville preferred the desperate struggle of a few isolated soldiers caught up in some recent clash of arms, in which they'd resigned themselves to defeat and likely death yet fought on, wining a moral victory if not a military one. De Neuville's preferred subject matter wasn't all romance. Indeed it seemed hard-headed at the time. And it was filtered through what he'd seen of combat close-up during the Franco-Prussian war, and through careful research for each painting, including walking the ground of battlefields and reading accounts by participants. Alphonse de Neuville seemed to capture the 'grim, uncompromising force' of modern war, so a London reviewer wrote, and to have helped consign conventional battle painting to the dustbin.
De Neuville was working and exhibiting in London when the Zulu war was fought. Later wars have demanded interpretation from film and documentary makers. In an age before film and television, the Zulu war demanded interpretation from painters. De Neuville did three paintings of it. As you'd expect, the British victories which ended the war held no interest for him. He went instead for the heroic last stands against impossible odds. He painted Isandlwana twice. But his first Zulu war work was this one, of the defence of Rorke's Drift, painted for London's Fine Art Society.
Unusually, de Neuville didn't do any research in the Zulu kingdom; too far from London, I guess. Instead, he worked from as many descriptions, sketches and photos as he could get. The episode from the battle which he chose to focus on was the evacuation of the wounded from the hospital. But he added details from other episodes - the fighting along the grain bag barricade (on the right of the painting), the building of a second barricade from biscuit boxes (on the very left), Surgeon Reynolds bandaging Commissary Dalton's wound (in the centre left), and more. He also painted in most or maybe all the men who later received the Victoria Cross. Notable among these are the two lieutenants in command, Chard and Bromhead, with Chard fighting at the grain bag barricade no differently from the men in the ranks.
The painting was finished by March 1880, just over a year after the battle itself. It was shown in London first to the queen, then to the public for three months. Then it went on tour to regional galleries for another three months. Perhaps fifty thousand people paid the Fine Art Society to see it.It portrayed beleaguered British soldiers in just the way the public wanted - an especially difficult achievement for a French artist. The London Times praised de Neuville's 'power of painting British soldiers, who are Britons and nothing else'.
How were the queen and the rest of the public meant to look at a painting like this?
In the same way, I suspect, as we watch a film like Black hawk down! This is a history painting; history painting was the ancestor of historical movies; and there's not a lot of difference between the two genres. De Neuville's Rorke's Drift and Ridley Scott's Black hawk down both portray, with apparently graphic realism, a small but famous battle fought by a few well-equipped soldiers against far greater numbers of far less well-equipped enemies. Both film and painting show the main characters and their deeds. Both telescope events and, almost despite themselves, romanticise those events. In both cases people queued up and paid to see war transformed into art.
Nor is there as much difference in the way people experience the two art forms as we might expect. Presenting episodes from a battle across yards of canvas rather than another along metres of film turns out to be not that significant a difference. Most viewers of this painting were expected to engage in serial looking, scanning the canvas, pausing at each face or episode, spurred by what the newspapers had told of them of what actually happened at Rorke's Drift. Years later, even those who knew nothing of the battle could be drawn to watch it over time simply by the detail. Lloyd Rees remembered in old age how 'in my early childhood a print of this picture absolutely moved me. I used to live with it and go through the horrors of the Zulus coming and the poor sick man and the injured.''I used to live with it' - that's as good a statement as any about how looking at this painting was meant to involve, how it did involve, serial looking.
The year the painting was finished and first displayed was also the year the Art Gallery of New South Wales opened, though not in this building, and in private hands. Five years later, when the gallery re-opened here, it was publicly owned. During those five years, from 1880 to 1885, the gallery trustees were collecting what they knew would be the basis of a national collection, though we now call it a state one. In that period they doubled the gallery's number of oil paintings, from forty-four to eighty-eight. Their costliest purchase was de Neuville's Rorke's Drift. I'd like to find out how many offers from other buyers the trustees had to trump. At any rate, they paid the Fine Art Society two thousand pounds for it, having knocked five hundred pounds off the price in return for allowing the Society to keep the copyright to the painting, and so make money from prints of it.
The painting's last showing in England was at Portsmouth in October 1881. It was then shipped to Sydney, arrived early in February 1882, and was hung the following day. A leading trustee described it as 'truly a magnificent picture'. Indeed the trustees were so pleased with it they asked the New South Wales government for a large sum to buy another equally impressive work in England. They reproduced it opposite the title page of the gallery's first published catalogue in 1883. It was by far the most expensive oil painting on show when it and the rest of the gallery collection opened in this building two years later; it cost more than the next two most expensive oil paintings put together. It seemed worth it, though. A British art magazine regretted the loss of the painting to England. There was a little envy south of the Murray that 'our friends across the river got hold of' a work by 'so eminent a master'.
So, having talked about what the painting depicts, how it came to be made, how it was meant to be looked at, and how it came to this gallery, I now want to justify the claim I made when I began speaking - that this painting by a French artist, this painting of British soldiers fighting in southern Africa, is an important piece of Australian war art.
Australia's wars predate Gallipoli, the Boer war, even the little Sudan war of 1885 to which we sent our first expeditionary force. We know of the frontier fighting between colonists and Aborigines. But in the nineteenth century Australia's wars also included wars fought in other parts of the British empire.
When Rorke's Drift was defended, when de Neuville painted this picture, when the gallery first hung it, the creation of a federation called Australia was still two decades away. New South Wales was still essentially a society of British colonists. Most of those colonists felt Australian. But most of them, especially those who came to this gallery, also felt British.
Their world extended economically, culturally, politically, beyond the coastline to encompass most of the British empire, to wherever English was spoken and Union jacks flapped from flagpoles. The wars fought by British troops in far-off parts of the empire felt close, sometimes even dangerous, to them. When the British army went to war it was, in a sense, their army going to war, and not only because some Australians were related to the soldiers in red coats. Prosperity and confidence in Australia were shaped partly by the course of those wars - by how expensive they were, by how long they took, by how successful the result was, by the stories of bravery and disaster they yielded.
No wonder, then, that news of those wars, including the Zulu war, was received eagerly. The Sydney Morning Herald reported the defence of Rorke's Drift as 'most brilliant.'The battle seems to have stirred Australian hearts as much as British ones. Here, just as in Britain, it passed into our culture, notably as a byword for courage in the face of greater numbers. The horse that won the 1881 Melbourne cup was called Zulu (the winner two years after that was called Martini Henri, the type of rifle used at Rorke's Drift). Australian soldiers who went to the Boer war twenty years later liked to visit the battlefieldA football match between England and Australia played in Sydney a month before the first world war began was dubbed the Rorke's Drift test because England played on and won despite being reduced by injuries to three fewer players. All this, of course, amounts only to vicarious participation in the Zulu war. But wasn't that the case for nearly everyone in Britain at the time too?
De Neuville's painting was purchased by this gallery partly in an attempt to make Australia's vicarious participation in the Zulu war more real. The trustees bought it, as they bought other history paintings, as a history lesson as well as art. It was to remind gallery visitors, you and me, of when the British army, when our army, had fought and won at odds of forty or fifty to one. Photographs taken around the time of the first world war show first one large label, then three large ones were set below the painting, pointing out episodes and personalities to visitors. Later a photograph of a letter about the battle by Chard, one of the lieutenants at Rorke's Drift, was hung beside the painting.
Like the battle, the painting of it quickly worked its way into local culture. One journalist noted how a man who seemed to be a veteran of the British army was moved to tears by it. Most Australians, though, hadn't seen war, and I think it helped them to understand it. Together with other military paintings purchased around the same time - notably Elizabeth Butler's 28th Regiment at Quatre Bras, bought by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1884, and Edouard Detaille's Vive l'Empereur! bought by this gallery in 1893 - it reinforced the British military heritage which Australians then shared, and also a view of what desperate war such as few of them had seen was really like. That view may have lasted into the first year of a really desperate war, the first world war. Take a look inside the souvenir album of reproductions of some of this gallery's artworks which was sold three months after the landing at Gallipoli in 1915 to raise funds for wounded soldiers; the first reproduction is, you guessed it, de Neuville's Rorke's Drift.By then, Australians had indigenised this painting, if you like, making it their own window into their British past and into the kind of war they were now fighting.
Even if you've been persuaded by my argument - that the Zulu war was vicariously an Australian war, that the defence of Rorke's Drift became a cultural reference for Australians too, and that for these and other reasons de Neuville's painting became a piece of Australian war art - you might nevertheless object that my argument hits its use-by date during the First World War. The sneaker man might jump in here and point out that Gallipoli and what followed it soon ended the vicarious British phase of Australia's military history. And he'd be right to say so.
But that doesn't mean the vicarious British phase never happened. We are, of course, standing in front of a spectacular relic of it. Because that phase was bloodless for Australians, because it was geographically remote from them, the images of those wars which Australians gleaned from newspapers, from participants, from painters, were all the more important. They were our war experience.
In any case, Rorke's Drift has remained a cultural reference for Australians, helped of course by the popularity of the film Zulu, made in 1964. I suspect it prevented the response from people like sneaker man, inclined to dismiss Pom poncing around as nothing to do with Australia, from becoming the universal reaction.
The painting also has another life for some viewers as a visual lesson in courage. A boy from Wollongong who visited this gallery in 1950 felt swept up in it.' I'm in there, inside that painting. That's me!', were his reactions. 'I can honestly say', he later reflected, 'that painting... changed my life. It gave me the determination to fight on, like them, whatever the odds.' Fifty years later, as he was dying, he visited the painting again, this time escorted by the gallery's director. His wife said, 'I can't tell you what this means to Jack'.
Rorke's Drift lives on, then; and so does this painting of it. I think it's as important a piece of Australian war art as anything by Arthur Streeton, Peter Churcher or Ivor Hele hanging at the Australian War Memorial. As an important pieces of Australian war art, Alphonse de Neuville's Defence of Rorke's Drift is worth conserving carefully.