David Wilkie and the Summer Exhibition’s first blockbuster

In many ways, the first blockbuster picture of the Summer Exhibition was this image, its called the ‘Chelsea Pensioners reading the Waterloo
Dispatch’. It was commissioned by the great victor of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington. He commissioned this painting, which shows people reading out the news of the victory of Waterloo in 1815. What’s fascinating about it is that it shows the news from a newspaper being read out by a veteran soldier. Someone who’d fought many, many years beforehand in the Seven Years’ War – a great military victory on the part of Britain. Dotting the whole painting are figures from different successive military campaigns. It’s a picture that within it has a huge military history. But also encapsulates a sense of the British nation as a whole, even the British Empire as a whole. What people loved about it, of course, was that it is absolutely packed with detail. Like this soldier here telling the news to an old soldier who is no doubt deaf and can’t really hear very well. We see babies reaching out. People peering out through the windows to hear the news. The guy who has just brought the newspaper, by the looks of it, is appearing on horseback. People are raising glasses – they’re not raising cell phones here, by the way. This is actually raising glasses to celebrate the news. Now, overall this is a hugely celebratory image. It’s almost a piece of, you could say, propaganda for Wellington and also for the news. But of course it was a picture that shone out from the walls, that really outshone the history paintings and the portraits that hung nearby. Actually the more you look at it, the more complex it gets because there are details, like this amazing image here, right at the centre of the picture, of a woman holding her crying child who you can see reading the newspaper – reading the lists of the recently killed at battle, just checking out whether her husband was amongst the dead. So although it might seem an overly celebratory, victorious image, and of course it is, there are moments of complexity and of poignancy and of doubt, right at its centre too.

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