1755 - 1833
An Army Wagon Train from the Peninsula War

Oil on canvas
Image size: 23 1/2 x 30 1/4 inches (60 x 77 cm)
Original Gilt frame
£7,500

 

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Between 1808 and 1814, the British Army fought a war in the Iberian Peninsula against the invading forces of Napoleon’s France. Aided by their Spanish and Portuguese allies, the British held off superior French numbers before winning a series of victories and driving them out. They then carried the war into France, playing an important part in Napoleon’s first overthrow.

This dynamic scene from that battle depicts part of a wagon supply train (also often called a baggage train) that would be following behind the main red coat army. The red coat was the standard battledress of the British soldier for the better part of the 18th and 19th centuries. During these long years of near-constant warfare, the garment and the man became synonymous and an icon of British history was born; the red coat.

A red coat’s life was a hard one, characterised by meagre pay, poor food, rudimentary medical care and brutal discipline, and poverty was a tremendous motivator to enlist in the ranks. Soldiers were generally poorly thought of by the society they served, who for the most part viewed them as a debauched, criminal class. Consequently, common soldiers received precious little recognition for their service. Destitution was a common fate for ex-soldiers, and those who died on campaign (far more likely of disease than in battle) could expect little more than an unmarked grave.

In the modern era, the image of the red coat carries connotations of both heroism and villainy the world over. The reality though, is a far more nuanced tale; one of ordinary people who fought and died at the sharp end of history.

 

 

The battles of the red coat age are almost innumerable. Among their number are some of the most famous victories in British military history; Marlborough’s overwhelming defeat of the French at Blenheim (1704), the annihilation of the Jacobite cause at Culloden (1746), Wolfe’s audacious victory at Quebec that sealed the British conquest of North America (1759), and the final destruction of Napoleon and the First French Empire at Waterloo (1815). Alongside these triumphs are some of Britain’s greatest military disasters; Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown and the final loss of Britain’s American colonies (1781), the chaotic retreat from Kabul that saw an army destroyed all but to a man in the mountains of Afghanistan (1842), the doomed charge of the Light Brigade at Balaklava (1854), and massacre of the 24th Regiment by the Zulu army at Isandlwana (1879).

 

John Augustus Atkinson

John Augustus Atkinson was an English artist, engraver and watercolourist.

He was born in London. In 1784, he went to St Petersburg with his uncle James Walker, who was an engraver to the empress Catherine the Great. There he studied in the picture galleries, encouraged by Catherine and her son  Paul I,  and was commissioned by Paul to paint large pictures of Russian history.

In 1801, Atkinson returned to England, and in 1803 published A Picturesque Representation of the Manners, Customs, and Amusements of the Russians, in 100 plates, drawn and etched by himself. He also painted in watercolours and in 1808 was elected to the  Society of Painters in Watercolours. Many of his works, during the Napoleonic wars, were of naval subjects. He painted many battle scenes including a Battle of Waterloo, which was engraved by  John Burnet.

His last contribution to the  Royal Academy exhibition was in 1829. He died on 25 March 1830 in London.