… unless you are talking about historical research. Last week’s blog post on the Battle of the Nile was illustrated with a painting by Nicholas Pocock. It looks to me to provide a reasonable representation of the situation as the battle started. In the distance you can see smoke from the cannon at the fort of Abū Qīr which opened fire on Nelson’s fleet as it approached the French from the west. (None of the British ships was damaged). The onshore wind is preventing the French from escaping. The British are about to divide their force into two lines, one of which will move into the clear water between the French fleet and the shore before the lines roll up the French from the west, leading to their dramatic victory.
It’s a nice picture, but not particularly dramatic one. Much more exciting is this one:
This was painted by Thomas Whitcombe in 1816, for a book on Naval Achievements of Great Britain from the Year 1793 to 1817. This wasn’t just some standard oil painting to glorify Britain’s Naval achievements: it was specifically illustrating an account of the battle. Compare it with the other picture. The flags clearly show the onshore wind that trapped the French. We see the British fleet approaching from seaward with the land invisible somewhere behind the French. The French line has started firing from its western end, as it did in real life because that’s the way the fleet approached. Except, of course, the fleet here appears to be approaching from the east. It’s possible, because I’m not a specialist naval historian, that I’ve misunderstood it and that the fleet somehow managed to hook round, although this seems very unlikely. It’s also not at all what is shown in the previous painting.
This illustrates the danger that paintings pose for all historians. We have to remember that it is rare that the painters were actually present during the actions that they commemorate. Probably one of the most famous images of the battle of Waterloo is the charge of the Scots Greys, Scotland Forever! It was painted by Lady Butler, the wife of Sir William Francis Butler. She painted Scotland Forever! in 1881, 66 years after the battle. She had the advantage of watching her husband’s troops charge during training manoeuvres and she catches the sense of speed and movement very well. Except, of course, that she had never seen an actual battle, let alone watch a regiment moving forward across the churned up mud of the field of Waterloo. The heroic charges were very slow. It’s likely that the horses never reached a full gallop. They certainly didn’t look the way they are shown in the painting.
People have been making historical errors based on pictures of battles ever since we started believing that Harold died at Hastings with an arrow in his eye. (He might have, of course, but it’s more likely that he was supposed to be the guy on the right being hacked down. In any case, the artist wasn’t there and didn’t know.)
My personal favourite for misleading historical pictures is this one from a museum in Buenos Aires.
It shows an Argentinian soldier being welcomed by one of the Falkland Islanders who are being liberated from British rule. The historical record suggests this didn’t happen.
I could go on (and on … and on …) but I hope this has made the point. Paintings – even paintings done in the lifetime of some of the combatants – are a spectacularly unreliable source of historical data, yet their hold on our imagination is so great that, even when we have every reason to be suspicious, we are still sure that Harold died with an arrow in his eye.