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The Art of War - Commissioning of a Military Oil Painting

The field of military art has grown exponentially in recent years.  Long ignored or even disparaged  by art connoisseurs, works featuring military subjects now proliferated and receive critical acclaim.  The rapidly growing acceptance of military art tracks well the growth of popular interest in military literature and the greater general acceptance of military history as a legitimate academic endeavour.  Efforts of leading publishers and distributors of military art such as Cranston Fine Arts of Helensburgh, Scotland, provide afficionados a resource for acquiring images of favourite battles, commanders, or pieces of equipment, and the acquisition of such art enables the enthusiast to participate in history beyond the literary dimension and in much the same manner as does the collector of militaria. The desire to hold in one's hand a 'piece' of a favourite campaign or unit or commander (a principal urge behind the collecting of militaria) can also find fulfilment in owning a good picture of the subject.

British military history has numerous devotees on both sides of the Atlantic and has engendered much visual art, fertile ground for artistic expression being found in British campaigns covering every land and era. Interest is especially keen in the exotic qualities of 'Empire'. Nineteenth century military campaigns in India, epitomising the colour, pageantry and drama of Empire, have received extensive literary and artistic treatment and nostalgia for, or interest of a less sentimental nature in, the history of the Raj is likely to continue. British military endeavour in India is, at a minimum, the basic subject of this article. We shall review here the process of creating an original oil painting based upon an action from the 1857-1858 campaign in British India known as the "Mutiny".

Collecting military art enables the history buff to 'peer' as if through a window onto the field of battle or the parade ground. It can also provide aesthetic enhancement to the living quarters (though this latter assessment may be vigorously disputed by significant others). High quality reproductions of classic images from the genre can lend a certain cache to one's decor and are available in abundance and at reasonable price from such publishers as Cranston Fine Arts, but is is also possible to commission living artists to create new images to the order of the collector. Here we describe the process of one such commission undertaken by the pre-eminent contemporary artist specializing in British military subjects - Mark Churms. For this commission, Mr Churms created the large canvas entitled "Charge and Pursue!" depicting an action of the Second Dragoon Guards ("Queen's Bays") at Lucknow in 1858.

The objectives of this particular commission included the creation of an entirely original work on the subject of the Indian Mutiny. The 'patron' of this commission wished to avoid creating an "illustration", seeking instead an image of high artistic quality and perhaps not a little romanticism. There is particular satisfaction in commissioning a painting as opposed to merely buying one, inasmuch as the 'patron' is able through the commission, and given a cooperative artist, to take an active role in the project, sharing in and contributing to the creative act.

Based upon readings in the history of the Indian Mutiny, inspired by the panoramic canvas by Harry Payne which depicts a charge of the 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen's Bays) during the Mutiny (but wishing to avoid duplication of this well-known work), and seeking a rousing portrayal of scarlet-coated British Heavy cavalry in action, it became a rather simple matter to select as an appropriately exotic subject the charge of the Queen's Bays during the capture of Lucknow in 1858. Investigation into suitable artists led quickly to the choice of Mark Churms, which proved fortuitous as Mr. Churms and his agent David Higgins of Cranston Fine Arts took an immediate interest in the project and found the subject to be ideal for a limited edition fine art print. Mr. Churms works very easily with his clients in both the research of historical detail requisite to a legitimate work of military art as well as in creating a satisfying image. He seems quite capable of reading minds as he elicits information from the client leading to the proper composition.

To create a worthy picture of a military event and to appreciate the final product, it is necessary to have an understanding of the event's historical background as well as thorough knowledge of uniform details, topography and climate. The most exciting element of this process is undoubtedly research into uniform details. A keen interest in the subject of military fashion is an attribute of the serious military artist. Mr. Churms obviously takes great pleasure in the research of these matters and is unable to readily draw upon the multitude of resources available to him in the United Kingdom, including quite a few personal friends who are renowned experts in various fields. The historian is likely to pay close attention to the manner in which a painting represents uniform and the actual event, though the less particular observer will respond more to a composition, palette and the ineffable 'feel' of a work. Whether scholar or casual observer, it is of benefit to know the factual background of a history picture. To add to the appreciation of "Charge and Pursue!", here follows a brief historical sketch of the charge or the Queen's Bays.

The Queen's Bays in the Indian Mutiny

Since the triumph of Clive at Plassey in 1747, the British had ruled India. Though Britain made efforts to accommodate the cultural traditions of her subjects and manifested an element of enlightened despotism, the Raj nevertheless involved conquerors and the conquered. The 1857 rebellion of native Indian troops against their British suzerains had undoubtedly been smouldering for some time - an inevitable consequence of growing disenchantment with subordination - but the particular spark which ignited and provided popular justification for outright revolt was the introduction by the British of rifle cartridges widely reported to be greased with the fat of pigs and cows. Because the cartridges often had to be bitten to be opened and loaded, lubricating with the fat of sacred pig and cow was offensive to the religious sensibilities of, respectively, Muslim and Hindu. Regardless of the actual role played by the tainted cartridges in fomenting armed revolt (and historians differ as to the significance of the cartridges), their appearance was a catalyst and the peoples of the subcontinent seized an opportunity to take decisive action. Within a short time of the outbreak of insurrection, many of the important cities of India were under the control of the mutineers, and their British masters found themselves besieged in desperate redoubts.

The Queen's Bays were in Ireland at the Mutiny's inception, having served there since 1852 and during which time the facings of the Regiment's tunics changed from black to buff (which fact is duly noted in "Charge and Pursue!"). The Regiment received orders in July of 1857 to make way for Liverpool, from where they would embark for India to provide reinforce in c nt. Regimental strength upon departure as 28 officers, 47 sergeants and 635 other ranks. An uncomfortable voyage of four months concluded on 25th November with arrival in Calcutta. Fortunately for the Bays, their Colonel, who was well-connected with British Governor-General of India, had previously arranged to secure mounts appropriate to his heavy cavalry regiment. This was a valuable piece of foresight, given the paucity of suitable horses in India and the difficulty this imposed upon other less prescient cavalry units.

The Bays, being thus 'capitally mounted,' were on the march by the latter part of December 1857, anxious to engage the rebels. In January 1858 the regiment participated in its first action when Major J. Percy Smith led two squadrons against a substantial force of mutineers at Nusrutpore - the first of several actions involving the Bays which were comparable in scope to the charge which is the subject of the painting by Mr. Churms.

In February, the Bays were ordered to join the force assembled by Sir Colin Campbell for the capture of Lucknow, in which city a beleaguered British son had been withstanding siege since the start of the Mutiny. A relief force was able to rescue the garrison but could not take the city itself, which was left in the hands of the mutineers. Now Campbell returned with greater numbers to complete the task. (The full story of the relief and capture of Lucknow is one of the truly great epics of Victorian military history and can only be cursorily treated here). The mutineers encamped in and around Lucknow at this time numbered approximately 120,000. Sir Colin had at his disposal a force of 20,000 which included, along with the Bays and various loyal native units, such notable British regulars as the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, the Rifle Brigade, the 7111 and the 9th Lancers. Notwithstanding the disparity in numbers, there was confidence on the part of the British that the quality and discipline of their forces, including their loyal native troops, would more than compensate.

By 5th March 1858 the Bays had arrived outside the walls of Lucknow to join other units already in position and their appearance attracted some notice. Observers recalled that the Bays, notwithstanding the rigors of the campaign, presented 'in their bright scarlet uniforms and brass helmets.' The regiment had evidently made a few concessions in matters of uniform to the normal demands of active service, and this quality of attire is accurately represented in Charge and Pursue! Soon after their arrival, the Bays commenced reconnaissance and observed the dispositions and rather formidable strength of the mutineers. The rebels were well entrenched around the walls of the city and commanded the heights, yet the Bays' zeal for closing with the enemy remained undeterred.

On the very next day, two squadrons of the Bays were ordered to form up for action and they proceeded to execute a dashing charge which is more renowned than other comparable actions during the campaign in which the Bays had a pail primarily due to the percipient account handed down to us by the Regiment's Captain W.H. Seymor. Seymor's description of this particular action proved invaluable to the creation of Chaige and Pursue!, and the availability of this source influenced the selection by artist and patron of this charge, as historical accuracy could by achieved to a very high degree by reference to the account. This was indeed a significant cavalry action and included also the loyal 2nd Punjab Cavalry, which charged with and along the right flank of the Bays. The action resulted in the slaughter of up to eighty mutineers and the capture of a war elephant. Captain Seymor relates:

About 10:00 a.m. we came on bodies of cavalry and infantry ofthe enemy. "Bays " were ordered to the front to 'Charge and Pursue'! Away we went as hard as possible, Major Percy Smith and 1 leading. We did not stop for three miles, cutting down, pursuing and cutting tip the Pandies right tip to Lucknow, and across the river. We are told the most gallant, smartest, though somewhat rash thing that has been done before Lucknow,...Alas! however we lost our officer, shot dead alongside and within five yards of myself.. Poor Percy Smith, our Junior-Major! The 'recall' had just been sounding all over the place foir us, and we had just been polishing off some 50 infantry that we had got in a body. He fell without a groan, and I and four of my Troop tried to bring his body off, but their cavalry bore down on us in such numbers that it was impossible.

In addition to Major Percy Smith. the Bays lost two other ranks killed and six wounded. The 2nd Puniabs, commanded by Captain D.M. Probyri, suffered three wounded.

Some Details of Charge & Pursue

The title of Mr. Churms' work was obviously selected from Captain Seymor's narrative and is very appropriate for an action painting. The central figure depicts Major Percy Smith immediately prior to his death. Extensive research yielded neither photographic nor artistic image of the Major, so his appearance is speculative though consistent with what might be expected of a cavalry officer of the day. In harmony with Seymor's account. a trumpeter is positioned behind Percy Smith, about to sound the recall.

For background, Mr. Churms researched photographs of the Lucknow skyline in mid-Victorian times and selected, in addition to the characteristic minarets, the distinctive and imposing form of La Martiniere (one of the more prominent buildings in Lucknow) to highlight the right side of the canvas and to provide a firing platform for mutineers drawing aim on the advancing British.

Also on the right side of the painting, behind the melee between a Bays trooper and a mutinous native cavalryman in French Grey, is the war elephant which was captured during the action.

Research into the appearance of the mutineers involved an examination of various historical resources to determine which native regiments were or could possibly have been present at Lucknow in 1858. It is well known that the mutineers presented by this stage of the rebellion as a mixed tot, some retaining their full regimental regalia (often the cavalry units, given the cavalryman's notorious great pride in sartorial matters - and thus the "intactness" of the mounted mutineer in the melee on the right of "Charge and Pursue!") while most infantry bore only ragged vestiges of their former uniform, having reverted in large degree to native dress.

On the left of the canvas can be seen an officer and native trooper of the loyal 2nd Punjab Cavalry, correctly positioned to the right of the Bays. It was decided that the inclusion of the 2nd Punjabs in the picture would enhance the exotic character of the work and would demonstrate for purposes of history that not all native units joined the insurrection.

Mr. Churms designed the overall composition of the work to draw the eye to the classically posed figure of Percy Smith, while simultaneously including peripheral detail based upon Seymor's account and other research. Several detailed sketches (both pencil and full colour) preceded the final composition and review and discussion of these preliminary sketches proved to be not only immense fun for artist and patron but also essential to a satisfactory final product. The sketching process is tantamount to "fine tuning" and is really the only way the patron can understand the concepts taking form in the artist's mind before major effort is expended in committing the work to canvas. Thanks to this detailed preparation, the picture turned out so well that the decision was made to produce from it a high quality limited edition print so that other aficionados of the Mutiny and Victorian military history in general might have an opportunity to enjoy it.

The process of commissioning an original work of military art is indeed very enjoyable when the result is as fine as 'Charge and Pursue!' To be sure, it is an expensive and time consuming process (a wait of up to two years may be required), but it is nevertheless a unique opportunity to participate in the opening of a window into the past for a clear view of a great event.

Text by Matthew P. Ruby.

(Originally featured in "Command Magazine " 1996.)


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