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

Bulletin 7 (IV:1), 1966

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Click figure 6 here for an enlarged image

Benjamin West and 'The Death of Wolfe'

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

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  

The surgeon at Wolfe's left is apparently identified in the Grosvenor House catalogue as 'Surgeon Adair'. There were two surgeons of that name in the British Army of this period. Let us hope that the one shown is not Robert - the 'Robin Adair' of the song - who was never in North America, but John, who though not at Quebec was at least on this continent during the Seven Years' War. In 1759 he was apparently at Crown Point in General Amherst's army. (12)

The question arises, what principle did West follow in selecting this rather ill-assorted group of people to put into his picture?
Clearly, he was not guided by historic truth. An indication of another possible principle appears in a recorded letter written long afterwards by a daughter of General John Hale, who commanded the 47th Regiment at Quebec:

General Hale's portrait is not included in that fine print of Wolfe's death, and why? Because he would not give the printer the sum of £ 100, which he demanded as the price of placing on a piece of paper what his own country knew so very well, viz.: that he (General Hale) fought in the hot test of the battle of Quebec, whether the printer thought fit !o record it or not. (13)

The lady was clearly thinking in terms not of the canvas but of the famous engraving based upon it. But it was obviously the painter, not the engraver, who selected the individuals who appear in the picture; and we have to face the possibility that West chose them on the basis of a not altogether nominal admission tee. We know that he did approach some people who declined: Brigadier Murray is reported to have written to West, quite truly, 'No, no! I was not by; I was leading the left: (14) Murray, who hated Wolfe to his dying day; (15) certainly would not have paid £100 for the privilege of being represented in paint as mourning him. Lord Sligo reports that there is a family tradition that Henry Browne's face 'is represented as foreshortened and in deep shadow because he refused to pay West a tee'.

One matter about which West seems to have taken some care is the representation of uniforms. Wolfe's own costume is precisely that shown in J. S. C. Schaak's picture of 1766, said to be based on a drawing by Hervey Smyth: (16) the red coat, waistcoat and breeches, the black mourning band (for his father) on the left arm, and at his feet the 'fusil' and bayonet which Schaak represents him as carrying. It may be noted however that, except for the Ranger, all the officers in the group are improperly dressed: they have gone into action without their hats.

Much has been written about the sources used by West. Charles Mitchell makes various suggestions concerning pictures or sculpture which he may have used as models. Some of these seem to me unconvincing, but one is almost beyond doubt. The head of the sorrowing grenadier at the extreme right of the picture is so similar to Le Brun's Compassion as engraved by John Tinney that one is left with an impression of plagiarism. And what of the Indian? The McCord National Museum at McGill University possesses an undated water colour by Henry Fusseli (Heinrich Fuessli) (1741-1825) depicting an Indian gazing at Niagara Falls. He is an identical twin to West's Indian; but whether Fusseli copied West or vice versa seems impossible to say. Mitchell suggests that West's 'chief model for the whole figure' of Wolfe was the Deposition by Van Dyck at Munich. This is possible; but another art historian feels that the central group derives from Raphael's Holy Family (Madonna Canigiani), also at Munich, and - less convincingly - that the left group comes from Raphael's The School of Athens.' (17)

How is one to account for the extra-ordinary celebrity of this picture, so grotesquely unhistorical, so palpably unoriginal?' (18) The impact of the canvas on the spectator is due in part no doubt simply to its - great size. Effective composition may have something to do with it. Still more is due, I suspect, to West's effective use of brilliant colour. But we have to face the fact that the picture acquired its chief reputation not by way of the original canvas but through the famous engraving made by William Woollett for Alderman Boydell. Perhaps its power is mainly the result simply of its fame and its familiarity; here, people say, is an object we have all known from childhood.

It seems to me that the picture's fame is actually an integral part of that interesting phenomenon of British history, the Wolfe
Legend. Historical fact has little to do with the public reputation of General Wolfe and the campaign of Quebec. From the moment when the first reports of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham reached England in October 1759, with all their almost incredibly romantic accompaniments - the descent of the dark river, the midnight climb; the deaths of the two commanders (Fig. 6) in the dramatic conflict before the walls of Quebec - the episode was thought of in romantic rather than in historical terms, and in the popular mind it is so thought of still. West's imposing picture, with its glimpses of a strange new western world, appeared 12 years after the battle, at a time when American questions were prominent; and it was engraved in the year of the Declaration of Independence. It evidently fell in with a popular romantic mood in England and has been part of the Wolfe story ever since, almost as if it were a contemporary document. It is historically absurd, but really not much more so than a good deal of the 'historical' Literature about the 1759 campaign. In the years after 1759 a brave young fighting soldier, who had had extraordinary difficulty in making up his mind about a campaign plan and was really not better than a second-rate commander, (19) came to be popularly remembered as one of the great British generals. By a parallel and related process, a picture which was doubtful as art and entirely contemptible as history became 'probably the most famous of all historical paintings'.

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