Daniel Maclise's 'Waterloo'

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Daniel Maclise's 'Waterloo'

The Battle of Waterloo was one of the first subjects suggested for the decoration of the new Houses of Parliament, built following the destruction of the old building by fire in 1834.

The Prince Albert-led Fine Arts Commission (FAC), which was responsible for the new building's paintings and sculpture, included Waterloo in a planned series of 18 paintings for the Royal Gallery illustrating British military history.

The FAC decided that the Battle of Waterloo, along with the Battle of Trafalgar, should occupy the two largest panels measuring 14 x 3.5 metres. It chose the moment the Duke of Wellington met Prussia’s Field Marshal Blücher, signalling the end of the battle.

The successful Irish painter Daniel Maclise (1806–70), who had completed paintings in the Lords Chamber, won the Royal Gallery commission in 1858. Only Waterloo (1861) and Trafalgar (1865) were completed.

To ensure his image was as accurate as possible, Maclise undertook extensive research into uniforms, weapons and portraits. His sketches, and those that were sent to him by others including Prince Albert, survive in a large sketchbook.

Before starting to paint, Maclise produced a full-size preparatory drawing known as a cartoon, which was widely praised for its beautiful draughtsmanship and fine detail. But when he came to transfer the image to the walls of the Royal Gallery he ran into trouble.

At the FAC's insistence, Maclise began by painting in fresco (using 'fresh' or wet plaster), a rigorous technique that limited his ability to paint the level of detail needed for 'Waterloo'.

To solve this problem, Prince Albert sent Maclise to Germany to learn a newly invented technique, which involved applying pigments to dry plaster and fixing with ‘waterglass’ (potassium silicate). Armed with this knowledge, Maclise completed the vast painting in under two years.