The Battle of Waterloo confirmed Britain’s position as the most powerful nation in the world, and marked an astonishing turnaround in British fortunes. Just a few decades earlier she had not only lost an empire, in America, but was marginalized in Europe. But by 1815 she had defeated Napoleon and established a new empire, in India. Much of this success was due to one man – Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the ill-educated younger son of an Irish peer who came to prove that the actions of an individual really can determine the fate of nations.
The celebration of both Wellington and the Battle of Waterloo dominated British life and history throughout the nineteenth century. This painting depicts the event that became the focus of those celebrations, the Waterloo Banquet at Apsley House, and is the preparatory study to William Salter’s famous painting still at Apsley House today. Held annually at Wellington’s London residence on the anniversary of the battle, the Banquet was a reunion between Wellington and the principal officers who fought under him. The year depicted here is 1836, to mark the attendance of King William IV (seated to Wellington’s right).
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For an artist the Banquet presented a considerable challenge – how to paint recognizable likenesses of over 80 people, half of whom would have their backs to the viewer? In overcoming the compositional difficulties, William Salter not only raised his own status as an artist, but placed the finished picture alongside the defining tableaus of British history.
The Battle of Waterloo was fought on Sunday, 18 June 1815, near Waterloo in present-day Belgium, then part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. A French army under the command of Napoleon was defeated by the armies of the Seventh Coalition, comprising an Anglo-allied army under the command of the Duke of Wellington combined with a Prussian army under the command of Gebhard von Blücher.
Upon Napoleon's return to power in March 1815, many states that had opposed him formed the Seventh Coalition and began to mobilise armies. Two large forces under Wellington and Blücher assembled close to the north-eastern border of France. Napoleon chose to attack in the hope of destroying them before they could join in a coordinated invasion of France with other members of the coalition. Waterloo was the decisive engagement of the Waterloo Campaign and Napoleon's last. According to Wellington, the battle was "the nearest-run thing you ever saw in your life". The defeat at Waterloo ended Napoleon's rule as Emperor of the French, and marked the end of his Hundred Days return from exile.
Napoleon delayed giving battle until noon on 18 June to allow the ground to dry. Wellington's army, positioned across the Brussels road on the Mont-Saint-Jean escarpment, withstood repeated attacks by the French, until, in the evening, the Prussians arrived in force and broke through Napoleon's right flank. At that moment, Wellington's Anglo-allied army counter-attacked and drove the French army in disorder from the field. Pursuing coalition forces entered France and restored King Louis XVIII to the French throne. Napoleon abdicated, and travelled to Rochefort intending to flee France for the United States, but was persuaded to surrender to Captain Maitland of HMS Bellerophon, part of the British blockade, and was exiled to Saint Helena where he died in 1821.
The battlefield is located in Belgium, about 8 miles (13 km) south by south-east of Brussels, and about 1 mile (1.6 km) from the town of Waterloo. The site of the battlefield today is dominated by a large monument, the Lion's Mound. As this mound was constructed from earth taken from the battlefield itself, the contemporary topography of the part of the battlefield around the mound has not been preserved.