Louis William Desanges and the Victoria Cross Gallery
AUTHOR: WILLIAM ELLIS-REES
PUBLISHED: 17 OCTOBER 2023
A while ago I wrote an article on Victorians skating on the frozen waters of the Serpentine. The interested reader can access the article by following this link, but for present purposes I want to return to an incident that was only touched on in the final paragraphs.
In brief, what happened was this. On a winter’s evening in 1861 crowds of merrymakers took to the ice, lining up to skate in the form of a train, fighting a mock battle, and letting off fireworks. The battle was oddly appropriate, for the Crimean War had concluded only five years previously and would be fresh in every memory.
How ironic, then, that one of several bystanders accidentally hit by a firework was a veteran of the Crimea, a park keeper by the name of Corporal Robert Shields. And he was a remarkable man. Not only had he participated in that notable conflict, but in recognition of his gallant actions he had been awarded the Victoria Cross.
Shields at the Great Redan
Nor was the Victoria Cross the only honour bestowed on Shields, for he had his portrait painted, although to call it a portrait perhaps gives a misleading impression. Far from showing Shields in a quiet moment, sitting still and wearing a solemn and contemplative expression on his face, it presents him as a man of action performing the very deed for which he and sixty-one other courageous soldiers would receive medals from the Queen herself, on 26 June 1857, at a ceremony in Hyde Park.
The painting, which now belongs to the corporal’s regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, is dramatic. He stands over the recumbent body of an officer, Lieutenant Dyneley, who has been mortally wounded in the Battle of the Great Redan, an assault on a fortified position held by the Russians on 8 September 1855. He had volunteered to rescue or bring in the stricken man, and the rifle in his right hand is a reminder of the perilous nature of his mission. Meanwhile, in the background of the painting, billowing gun smoke engulfs the field of battle, and the animated forms of soldiers engaged in desperate fighting remind us that the lone corporal is possessed of remarkable courage.
This stirring painting was the work of an English artist of French descent by the name of Louis William Desanges. He was born in 1822 and died in 1905, and he left behind him a remarkable collection of images of the British Army. We may recoil now from the glorification of war, whatever form it takes. However, our Victorian forebears saw things differently, and there can be little doubt that Desanges, in his choice of subject, was reflecting popular sentiment.
Louis William Desanges
Desanges was born in Kent in 1822. He was descended from French nobility, the great-grandson of a Marquis Desanges who had sought refuge in England from the persecution of Huguenots in the middle of the eighteenth century. At Hall Place School in Bexley he studied under a talented drawing master, James Stone, and as a young man he continued his artistic education in France and Italy.
Returning to England in 1845, he made unsuccessful attempts to establish himself as a history painter. Eventually he turned to portraiture, which in academic circles was regarded as a lesser genre, but proved so amenable to his abilities that he was given many commissions to paint members of the aristocracy. His female portraits were praised in the Art Journal for their dignity and gracefulness, and it was suggested by a distinguished art critic, James Dafforne, that it was only a short step from capturing the loveliness of a woman’s face to celebrating the beauty of heroism on the field of battle.
Dafforne was in no doubt that the subject that lent itself most naturally to the temperament of Desanges was the winning of the Victoria Cross. This, the most prestigious of decorations, had been introduced by the Queen on 29 January 1856 to honour acts of valour carried out in the course of the Crimean War. What made it remarkable was its recognition not only that extreme gallantry was deserving of a special award — previously it had been held that soldiers were paid to be brave — but also that such an award should be entirely democratic. Whereas traditionally military honours were the preserve of senior officers, the Victoria Cross was open to all ranks.
Not so democratic
By the time Dafforne published his article, in 1864, Desanges had painted not only the picture of Corporal Robert Shields but an entire series of images of veterans of recent conflicts who had won the Victoria Cross. The series numbered between fifty and sixty oil paintings.
Even though the early distribution of the ‘democratic’ Victoria Cross was not especially egalitarian — of the Crimea War awards roughly two thirds went to officers and NCOs — one would expect Desanges to choose a reasonably even division between officers and other ranks. In fact of the Crimean portraits, of which there were more than twenty, only four were of private soldiers. In the total Victoria Cross series, which numbered fifty or more paintings, the common soldier was celebrated in only six.
This bias towards the higher army echelons must have been at least in part a reflection of the artist’s family background. But it is also likely that he was anxious to secure the patronage either of the government or of the royal family to finance the project. If that was the case — and the circumstances in which the project was conceived certainly suggest that it was — then it would have been in his interests to favour officer subjects.
Men of the Crimea
The project was born of a meeting of three minds. In 1858 the young Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, had been sent to live at White Lodge in Richmond Park to prepare for military exams. One of his companions there was Major Robert Lindsay — later Loyd-Lindsay — who had won the Victoria Cross in 1854 for his actions in two Crimean battles, Alma and Inkerman. During the course of his stay Lindsay met Desanges, who had been commissioned to paint his portrait, and at some point they came up with the idea of a series of Victoria Cross paintings, an enterprise that sparked the interest of the prince.
Whether this interest materialised as financial backing for the project is not entirely clear. Probably Desanges approached the portraits as he would any other commission by charging the sitter for his services, which may explain why the six pictures of private soldiers, which were really sketches, were never given the same lavish treatment as those of officers with money at their disposal. But in all cases he was anxious to give a faithful representation of battlefield gallantry based on detailed accounts elicited not only from the sitter but also from any of his comrades who had witnessed his heroic actions at first hand.
The series began with just two portraits, one of an infantryman, the other of a cavalryman. The subjects chosen were Shields and a private, Samuel Parkes, who had served with the 4th (Queen’s Own) Light Dragoons at Balaclava. But before long the series had developed into a ‘gallery’ large enough to be exhibited to the public.
From Piccadilly to Sydenham
The first exhibition, in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, opened in 1859. The 1s. admission fee was waived for holders of the Victoria Cross, and a select group of London-based NCOs and privates were sent letters via their regiments inviting them to evening viewings. The initial collection comprised thirty-two pictures, of which eight stood out on account of their impressive size. The Illustrated London News was adamant that the enterprise was valuable, even if it was rather more restrained in praising the technical achievement of the pictures:
We may state that simply as works of art they are of a very superior merit, displaying an amount of knowledge of composition and colour not generally found in the pictures of occasional subjects.
In 1862 the exhibition moved from the Egyptian Hall to the Crystal Palace in Sydenham. The collection had by then grown to fifty-three images of Crimean War and Indian Mutiny episodes and was given its own room in the picture gallery. Desanges was clearly sensitive to the sort of reservations expressed in the Illustrated London News, and in a brief introduction to his work in the exhibition catalogue he defended himself against high-minded critics by pointing out that
the pictures, whatever may be their demerits as pictures, have the positive value attached to national records of events that must live for ever in the history of our country’s glories.
In 1864 the Victoria Cross collection was bought by Harry Wood, a gentleman of independent means who lived in Leeds. Wood saw fit to sell off individual pictures, but what he did not sell he made available on loan. For example, fifty-five were exhibited at the Melbourne International Exhibition in 1880, and then again in 1885 at the Albert Palace, an exhibition hall that stood for a few years in Battersea. But when it was not on its travels it was back in the Crystal Palace, and it remained there until 1897, when finally, and appropriately, what was left of the original collection was bought for £1,000 by Lord Wantage, the man Desanges had once known as Major Robert Lindsay.
Loyd-Lindsay’s elevation to the peerage was in recognition of his many services to queen and country, among which was a leading role in the founding in 1870 of a national society ‘for aiding sick and wounded soldiers in time of war’ that is now known as the British Red Cross. But his philanthropy expressed itself in many ways, and in 1900 he arranged to have the Victoria Cross Gallery exhibited in the Corn Exchange of Wantage, the Oxfordshire town with which he had titular ties.
There the paintings remained until, on the outbreak of the Second World War, they were placed in storage. The Corn Exchange had been requisitioned by the Ministry of Food, and in a new era of warfare portraits of Victorian military men were dismissed as an uninteresting relic of a distant past. However, in the early 1950s they came to light again and were dispersed, many coming to rest in museums of the regiments to which their nineteenth-century subjects had belonged.
Whatever the critics of the day thought of the artistic merits of William Louis Desanges, and whatever we now think about images of the Victorian army, there can be no denying the emotional power of images of extreme gallantry. Not surprisingly, the portraits were frequently reproduced, and they crop up in books about the exploits and heroic actions of soldiers.
An interesting example is Our Soldiers, and the Victoria Cross, which was published in 1867 by Samuel Orchart Beeton — Isabella’s husband — with engraved versions of the portraits of Lindsay and Shields among its many illustrations. The book, Beeton states in his introduction, was written for boys, and in fact most of the chapters had appeared as articles in the Boy’s Own Magazine, the publishing phenomenon he had founded in 1855.
As one would expect, the writing is stirring, and it is fitting to end this account of the life and work of Desanges with a particularly fine passage describing his depiction of the moment Shields finds the wounded Dyneley:
The poor Lieutenant is lying on his back, still alive, but with the tide of life ebbing fast away; the corporal, with sorrow and sympathy depicted in every feature of his manly, bearded face, is bending over him, with one hand outstretched and the other grasping his rifle. He would willingly have raised the boyish figure in his arms and borne him back to his comrades, but it was too late; all that he could do was to hurry back in search of medical assistance.
A generous selection of paintings by Desanges can be accessed on the Art UK website by following this link.
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