National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 7 (IV:1), 1966

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Benjamin West and 'The Death of Wolfe'

by Colonel C. P. Stacey, Director of History 
Department of National Defence

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  

Benjamin West's The Death of Wolfe (Fig. 1) has been called 'probably the most famous of all historical paintings' (1) - a large statement but one that would be difficult to controvert.
It would be equally difficult, I think, to deny that as a representation of an historical event it is among the worst ever produced.

The basic facts about the painting can be briefly stated. West exhibited it at the Royal Academy in 1771. The original picture was purchased by Lord Grosvenor, whose descendant, the Second Duke of Westminster, presented it to Canada, through Lord Beaverbrook, as a tribute to what the Dominion had done in the First World War. This is the canvas which hangs today in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Subsequently, West is known to have painted three copies of the picture: one for King George III, now in Kensington Palace, London (Fig. 2); one for the Monckton family, now in the Sigmund Samuel Collection, Toronto (Fig. 3); and one for the Prince of Waldeck, which is now in the William L. Clements Library at Ann Arbor, Michigan (2) (Fig. 4). Between the four versions there are important variations, as the reproductions published here with make clear.

It has often been said (notably in both the Dictionary of National Biography and the Dictionary of American Biography) that West was the first to abandon the Greek and Roman and introduce modern costume into historical painting; and it appears that West himself was responsible for circulating the story that Sir Joshua Reynolds advised the King against buying the original Death of Wolfe on the ground that this new-fangled idea would never 'take'. The King, we are assured, was displeased when he discovered that it had in fact taken, and Lord Grosvenor had the picture; it was then that he commissioned West to paint him a copy. (3) In fact, the story that West was the first to use modern dress in painting modern historical scenes has long been exploded; he was not even the first to paint the death of Wolfe in this manner - it appears that Romney did this seven years earlier (in a picture now lost) and Edward Penny had done it at least twice, in pictures that may have somewhat influenced West. (4)

West is reported to have justified the picture to King George with the remark, 'the same truth that guides the pen of the historian should govern the pencil of the artist'. (5) If he really said this, he did not practise what he preached; for The Death of Wolfe is a remarkably untruthful production. Almost everything about it is historically wrong. Notably, of course, as a representation of the actual individuals who were present when Wolfe died it is merely grotesque. In the final stages of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham the senior officers of Wolfe's army had other things to do besides grouping themselves picturesquely about the dying general. From 1759 onwards quite a number of people have investigated the question of who actually were with Wolfe in his last moments; and the consensus is that not more than four or possibly five persons were present. In West's group there are 13; and of those of them who can be identified with moderate certainty only one actually seems to have been there. This is Lieut Henry Browne, who is said to be the young officer standing directly above Wolfe and carrying the flag. (6)

The group includes one of Wolfe's three brigadiers, the Hon. Robert Monckton, who had been wounded and was being moved aboard a frigate, (7) and certainly was not standing fixing a sad eye on Wolfe. Monckton's presence in the picture however is perhaps the only piece of genuine historical information it imparts. If Monckton was willing to be painted in this pose, and if the Monckton family were willing to commission West to paint a copy of the picture for them, it argues that Monckton did not entertain seriously unfriendly feelings towards Wolfe. (The other brigadiers, Townshend and Murray, whose intense dislike of Wolfe is well documented,  are noticeably missing from the picture.) Also in the group is one battalion commander, for the Highland officer appears to be Colonel Simon Fraser of Fraser's Highlanders. (8) This regiment was heavily engaged in the final phase of the battle and had many casualties; and it is incredible that their colonel could have been occupied at this time in striking attitudes in a rear area.

Another battalion commander is traditionally identified on the left of the picture. The Marquess of Sligo wrote that this figure 'is accepted by all as Sir William Howe', and another writer (9) speaks of Howe wearing 'Indian dress'. However, the dress is not
Indian, and the person almost certainly is not Sir William Howe. The dress is that of an American Ranger, as represented in the portraits of Robert Rogers. And close inspection of the Ottawa picture reveals on the officer's powder-horn a crude map (Fig. 5) including the words 'sr. wm. Johnson' and 'Mohawk River'. (10) Johnson, one hastens to add, was not at the Battle of the Plains;
his published correspondence proves that at the time he was at Oswego. Nor, of course, was he a Ranger. Neither was Howe. This figure was probably put in by West simply by way of local colour, along with the Indian. Johnson was not in England when the picture was being painted, and the face under the Ranger cap does not seem to be a portrait of him.

The other people who are identified in the existing keys to the picture can be briefly dealt with. The middle-aged officer close behind Wolfe is said to be Isaac Barré, his adjutant general; comparison with portraits of Barré seems to confirm this. (11) Alas for historic truth, however: Barré was badly wounded in the face during the battle; he would certainly have been in no condition to mourn beside his chief as we see him doing here. Directly behind Barré is a figure said to be that of 'Adam' Williamson, Wolfe's artillery commander. This is probably an accurate identification, for the uniform is that of a gunner officer; but Colonel Williamson's Christian name was George. The young officer in the exact centre of the picture, on Wolfe's right, is said to be one of his aides-de-camp, Captain Hervey Smyth, who was himself something of an artist; the National Gallery of Canada has two of his paintings. I cannot say whether or not the portrait is that of Smyth; but I can say that there is no evidence that either Smyth or any other member of Wolfe's personal staff was with him when he died. The officer supporting Monckton from behind is reputed to be Captain-Lieutenant Hugh Debbieg, an infantry officer whom the Army List shows as employed at this time as an engineer; the officer on Monckton's left has been called 'Colonel Napier'. There does not appear to have been any Napier at Quebec. West was perhaps capable of including Major William Napier who appears in the contemporary Army List in the 68th Foot-even though the 68th were in the Channel Islands. But I suspect that this handsome, if somewhat horse-faced, officer has never been accurately identified.

Next PageThe surgeon at Wolfe's left

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