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Painted thirty years after the Battle of Waterloo, Sarah Biffin produced a commemorative watercolour on paper, illustrating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.[1] Showing Napoleon galloping up a small hill on his horse Marengo, to his right, lower down the slope, we see columns of infantry waiting in line. One soldier stands apart waiting for a sign. Clouds and the fog of war are blended in a dramatic blotchy blue-grey sky as if announcing the imminent defeat of one of the greatest leaders in history. Biffin has caught a specific moment of Napoleon’s retreat in the evening of 18th June 1815, a turning point of European history.

In a close study of this work, researcher Valeria Vallucci noted several fascinating features that Biffin had included in her watercolour. For example, in the far background, is the 35 feet tall observation tower Napoleon had built before the battle. Checking the position of the tower against contemporary maps of Waterloo...

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Painted thirty years after the Battle of Waterloo, Sarah Biffin produced a commemorative watercolour on paper, illustrating Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo.[1] Showing Napoleon galloping up a small hill on his horse Marengo, to his right, lower down the slope, we see columns of infantry waiting in line. One soldier stands apart waiting for a sign. Clouds and the fog of war are blended in a dramatic blotchy blue-grey sky as if announcing the imminent defeat of one of the greatest leaders in history. Biffin has caught a specific moment of Napoleon’s retreat in the evening of 18th June 1815, a turning point of European history.

In a close study of this work, researcher Valeria Vallucci noted several fascinating features that Biffin had included in her watercolour. For example, in the far background, is the 35 feet tall observation tower Napoleon had built before the battle. Checking the position of the tower against contemporary maps of Waterloo means we can identify the location with some precision: Napoleon is riding north to re-join Marshal Reille’s II Corps de la Grande Armée. The smoke on the far right is likely to be related to the French recapture of the village of Plancenoit from the Prussians. This means Biffin had a fairly accurate topographical knowledge of the battlefield, either from studying contemporary prints or by exploring Waterloo in person (or both).

Evidence has been found of Biffin spending at least a month in Brussels in 1821. She was advertising an exhibition at the Répositoire des Arts in rue Montagne de la Cour towards the end of October 1821. Though Brussels was an attractive destination for any tourist, Biffin was there exactly at the time when newly crowned George IV was passing through the Netherlands. The king and his dignitaries were coming back from an official visit to Hanover, where a meeting of the allied powers, part of the peaceful negotiations of the aftermath of the Congress of Vienna, took place. The fact that Biffin was working in Brussels at the end of October 1821 when George IV and a high number of Englishmen were in town was no coincidence. Biffin was therefore in Brussels the year Napoleon died, when ‘war tourism’ exploded on a massive scale. The fields of Waterloo, only ten miles from Biffin’s exhibition, were an unmissable stop on the Continental tour.

We do not know if Biffin visited the battlefield. As with much of the rest of her trip to what was then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, it remains a mystery that needs to be fully investigated. However, considering that Biffin was a confident traveller, it is probable that she did go to Waterloo for a day, and this watercolour could be evidence of this.

The present work is original in the way it seems to recount an eye-witness account of the enemy’s escape. Biffin may well have heard the story from the many local tourist guides or from veterans. In the foreground, in Napoleon’s wake, is a particularly poignant detail. What looks like a British hussar’s helmet lies beside a severed leg on the country lane. This small detail symbolises the vast number of deaths and injuries suffered by the allied army during the battle. According to the Forces War Records, “of the 68000 Anglo-Allied armed forces, there were 17000 military casualties, 3500 killed outright, 3300 missing and over 10000 wounded”. Amid the carnage, members of the hard-pressed medical service performed a total of 2,000 amputations and “500 Allied limb removals” were carried out on the last day of the battle. Subtly and gracefully, Biffin captures the horror of Waterloo but softens it with a spiralling cloud of dust raised by the hooves of the galloping Marengo.

The abandoned leg in Biffin’s watercolour recalls that of cavalry commander Lord Uxbridge. His leg, buried near the battlefield and marked by a tombstone, became a tourist attraction and was celebrated in Epitaph for the Tombstone Erected over the Marquis of Anglesey’s Leg, Lost at Waterloo (1821) by British politician George Canning. Unsurprisingly, nineteenth- century satirical writers drew comparisons between Biffin and Lord Uxbridge (created Marquess of Anglesey after Waterloo). A fictional sarcastic letter from Mrs Ramsbottom to John Bull (1829) empathises with Lord Uxbridge’s state and implies he did not just lose his leg, but his heart and mind too:

Only think, Mr B[ull] of Lord Angleseye coming home [...] I am quite sorry to think what a state he must be in. Miss Biffin, or Billy Bowldish, the corpulent gentleman who used to bump himself along the streets in a band box, an’t nothing to compare with him. His Lordship told the people of Ireland that he had left his heart with them. Fulmer says, before he said that he must have lost his head and I seen one of his legs buried at Waterloo – of course, after that, the only thing left for him was to pack up his trunk, and come home [...].

Mrs Ramsbottom’s joke is rather cruel. Despite being a successful miniature painter, Biffin is mentioned purely as a ‘curiosity’ in the sensationalising style of handbills and newspaper advertisements. However, it does show that connections between the wounded heroes of Waterloo and the famous disabled artist were made.

The British Newspaper Archive reveals that, long after the Napoleonic Wars, Biffin’s story was especially retold at key moments of history. It seems to become particularly popular in the aftermath of war. Despite the archaic disability language, such articles were invariably trying to be inspirational and stressed the benefits of “drawing on hidden resources”. For example, a philosophical article published in 1865, entitled Life-Purpose and Want of Purpose, portrays Miss Biffin as an historical figure of the calibre of Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great – someone well worth emulating. She is held up as an inspiring example of a person of “wondrous will” and “invincible determination”.

Although at first glance this small watercolour would appear to be a commercial enterprise for Biffin – a work that she might have successfully sold on sight to any number of buyers – deeper research has revealed that this choice of subject may have had huge personal significance for Biffin. In addition, she also had first-hand knowledge of the landscape and people involved in the original battle.

Vallucci’s summary of her research into this work concludes that; ‘Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo may not be one of Biffin’s most iconic works, but it points the way to her later emergence as an icon for wounded veterans of future battles. It shows the sad contrasts of war: the physical agonies endured by the victors and the intense humiliations suffered even by a great, defeated leader. Nobody is a true winner. By choosing to depict Napoleon from behind, in an unedifying position, bent over his horse, Biffin plays with this aspect of conflict. By adding an ‘Allied limb’ in the foreground she encourages her audience to reflect on the ambiguities of war, and on the importance of living fully and fulfilling our purpose despite whatever destiny throws at us.’

[1] This catalogue note is a reworking of the blog by Valeria Vallucci, which appeared on the Philip Mould website December 2022.

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500 Years of British Art