Historical Portraits Picture Archive

The Waterloo Banquet 1836 1836

William Salter 

The Waterloo Banquet 1836, William Salter
Oil on unlined canvas
19th Century
32 1/8 x 54 1/8 inches, 81 x 137.4 cm
By descent in the artist’s family, until gifted to a family friend c. 1920s; Thereafter by descent.
The Battle of Waterloo confirmed Britain’s position as the most powerful nation in the world, and marked an astonishing turnaround in British fortunes. Just a few decades earlier she had not only lost an empire, in America, but was marginalized in Europe. But by 1815 she had defeated Napoleon and established a new empire, in India. Much of this success was due to one man – Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the ill-educated younger son of an Irish peer who came to prove that the actions of an individual really can determine the fate of nations.

The celebration of both Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo dominated British life and history throughout the nineteenth century. This painting depicts the event that became the focus of those celebrations, the Waterloo Banquet at Apsley House, and is the preparatory study to William Salter’s famous painting still at Apsley House today. Held annually at Wellington’s London residence on the anniversary of the battle, the Banquet was a reunion between Wellington and the principal officers who fought under him. The year depicted here is 1836, to mark the attendance of King William IV (seated to Wellington’s right).

For an artist the Banquet presented a considerable challenge – how to paint recognizable likenesses of over 80 people, half of whom would have their backs to the viewer? In overcoming the compositional difficulties, William Salter not only raised his own status as an artist, but placed the finished picture alongside the defining tableaus of British history.

This fine study shows how Salter, who was invited to the Banquet, overcame such difficulties. He chose to paint the moment when Wellington rose for a toast, as desert was put on the table. At that point the rules of etiquette meant that diners could arrange themselves in small clusters and move away from the initial place settings, thus allowing Salter to paint all the sitters from recognizable angles. Aside from Wellington and William IV, the sitters include; Earl Bathurst (posthumously included), the King of Holland (on Wellington’s right), the 4th Duke of Richmond (host of the famous ball before Quatre Bras), Lord Vivian (commander of Light Dragoons cavalry brigades), Major-General Sir Peregrine Maitland (commander of the 1st Brigade of Guards), and Lord Hill (a survivor of the fierce fighting, despite having his horse shot from under him).

This study also reveals how Salter avoided the monotony that defeats so many group portraits. He has hinted at the sartorial chaos of such an event; swords are left casually on the floor along with hats, gloves and coats. On the table a condiment trolley appears, empty, amongst the silver-gilt centerpiece given to Wellington in 1816 by the Portuguese. Salter has also included Wellington’s important art collection, most of which was the gift of those whose countries he had liberated, such as the King of Spain. Here the most noticeable example is the portrait of Charles I of horseback after Van Dyck, but also distinguishable is Velazquez’s Water Seller. Finally, this study shows how, despite all the details painted with miniaturist skill, Salter has ensured that Wellington remains the focus of our attention. By placing the Duke at the centre of two contrasting axes of light, first from the table running horizontally from left to right, and secondly the line of shadow from light entering the room, he is the most noticeable and immediate figure.

When completed, the Waterloo Banquet was exhibited to wide acclaim, and became the subject of a popular engraving. The demand to see the picture was so great that tickets were issued. One reviewer noted “… it is a great national picture, and its interest is enhanced when we consider how soon the illustrious characters before us will exist only as historical celebrities, and their place among men be found alone in the breathing canvas of Mr Salter.” The finished Waterloo Banquet now hangs at Apsley House. The individual portrait studies for the Waterloo Banquet are held by the National Portrait Gallery. A biographical key, various contemporary reviews, entry tickets, and other archive material accompany this picture.

William Salter studied under James Northcote from 1822 to 1827 before undertaking the obligatory trip to Italy. He enjoyed particular success in Florence, being appointed professor of history painting at the Florentine Academy of Fine Arts. On his return to England in 1833 his reputation for portraiture was further boosted by the success of the Waterloo Banquet. The Queen’s uncle, the Duke of Sussex, declared that he could immediately recognize over sixty likenesses from the finished picture.
Philip Mould Ltd, 18-19 Pall Mall, London, SW1Y 5LU.Copyright Philip Mould Ltd.