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March 08, 2006

Christie Davies finds the Crimean war a disaster and the Crimea exhibition in Windsor a disappointment but invites you to laugh anyway - Queen Victoria and the Crimea at the Drawings Gallery, Windsor Castle

Posted by Christie Davies

Queen Victoria and the Crimea
Drawings Gallery, Windsor Castle
30th April 2005 - 26th March 2006
Daily 9.45am - 5.15pm (last admission 4pm)

The Crimean War was a great British disaster, a tribute to the incompetence of an army that had not done any serious fighting since Waterloo. Britain was then the richest and most powerful country in the world with the only advanced industrial economy. The British thought it would be a push-over, particularly since they had the French and the Turks fighting on their side, although admittedly there were also a few Italians. The rich man of Europe, the brutal man of Europe, the sick man of Europe and the wielders of Corelli's mandolin all fighting together seemed invincible against the Bear.

We don't want to fight,
But by Jingo if we do!
We've got the men, we've got the ships,
We've got the money too!
The Russians shall not have Wallachiavia!
It did not turn out to be so easy. It was a British disaster that everyone at home knew about, for the telegraph and the camera could for the first time reveal failure in a foreign field to a horrified public at home. In particular it was a medical disaster with 16,000 out of 20,000 British deaths caused by disease.

Queen Victoria too was well informed and took a keen interest both in the progress of the war and in the welfare of the soldiers. The exhibition is the story of her involvement, from inviting Florence Nightingale to Balmoral to her decision to institute the Victoria Cross, Britain's highest award for bravery, and one democratically open to all ranks. The story is told through the drawings, lithographs, paintings and photographs of the time.

Here are depictions of the Scots Fusilier Guards waving their hats, to "Huzzah" the Queen on her balcony at Buckingham Place in 1854, as they are about to leave for the Black Sea. Here too is the fleet leaving Spithead for the Baltic to keep the Russians out of the North Sea, lest they shell our trawlers, as they were to do in 1904. Here are our troops joining the Turks in Varna, then an attractive lonely shore, now a vulgar seaside resort in Bulgaria for the German lower middle classes. It must be truly dreadful the British are buying property there.

I went to Varna in the 1980s to a conference on pollution in Eastern Europe under Communism. During the conference, the water supply to our hotel was cut off because of er, pollution. It came back on later and we were told that it was safe, as it had been passed by the management. Only the Dutch laughed with us, all the other Europeans were baffled. Damn foreigners! The pollution was even worse in 1854. Due to the lack of sanitation and the infected water supply 10,000 British soldiers died of cholera.

More was to come. The drawings of the siege at Sebastapol show how it lasted twelve months. Every time our gunners knocked holes in the fortifications, the Russians cheated by repairing them overnight. Not cricket. Here an artist has portrayed a valley filled with Russian cannon-balls up which the Light Brigade charged with the Russian artillery firing on them from three sides and then hurtled back again to give the Russian gunners a second chance. What an inspiration for General Haig fifty years later. A copy of Tennyson's The Charge of the Light Brigade is on display. For six years the line "Someone had blunder'd" was omitted from the printed version (Nice one, Tony). Drawings of under-fed, inadequately-clad (Tony Blair please note) soldiers camping out in the cold, wet winter of 1854-5 are coupled with drawings of the cramped, over-crowded harbour at Balaclava which the larger supply ships could not enter. Many of them were lost in Hurricane Tsarina. No wonder the British wounded had to be evacuated by the French to recuperate in Turkey.

There follow in the exhibition some of the most insanitary and emetic examples of Victorian sentimentality that I have ever seen. A Laby's The Wounded Soldier's Dream, 1855 shows an exhausted man on couch and pillow, dreaming that Queen Victoria, a well-lit angel in the sky, top right, is giving him a medal. It is followed by Vincent Brooks' (he was after the Marchioness of Waterford) coloured lithograph Reading the Queen's Letter at Scutari Hospital, 1855. Our gallant fellows cluster round to listen to the only literate one among them, reading it out aloud by the light of the sole bright candle in a gloomy hospital. They forget their wounds and dysentery, as the words of their dear Queen move and shake them.

Finally, there is Victoria Princess Royal's (Queen Victoria's eldest daughter) very own picture The Field of Battle, 1855 set in a half-moon frame. A heroic soldier dies on the battle-field, ying across the lap of a handsome grieving woman, against a post-Krakatoa-style sunset. How the woman got to the battle-field and managed to keep her clothes so clean is not explained.

The men return and meet their Queen. More cheers. Medals handed out by Her Majesty. Drawings by Alice in Wonderland - Tenniel. Finally George Houseman Thomas has depicted for us Queen Victoria Distributes the First Victoria Crosses in Hyde Park, 26 June 1857. Splendid uniforms all round. Well lit aristocratic generals in red on expensive horses. Behind them the plebs, rendered as vague, undifferentiated blobs, look on, or at least one assumes that this is what they are doing. They had class in those days.

In a display case are shown the actual first Victoria Crosses, made, like all subsequent VCs, in bronze , from the Russian guns captured in the Crimea. Here too is a drawing of the great bell stolen by the British army from the Church of the Twelve Apostles in Sebastapol, which is now in the round tower in Windsor Castle, where it is only used to toll the death of the sovereign. Let us hope we do not hear it for many decades yet.

In the display cabinets are the letters exchanged by the Queen and Florence Nightingale. Miss Nightingale wrote of medical care in the army:

The system to which such evils are attributable has preserved its vitality for nearly two centuries.
It must be replaced:
by one more in conformity with the progress in science and morality which has been made under Her Majesty's beneficent reign.
Would that we could say the same about our own moral progress under Her Majesty's beneficent reign since 1952. The Crimea was a disaster but at a time of hope and improvement. Iraq is simply a disaster

The exhibition is linked with a display of selected drawings from the royal collection by Leonardo, Michaelangelo, Holbein, Raphael, Poussain, Lorrain, Canaletto and others. Caneletto's Westminster Bridge London with a Procession of Civic Barges, 1747 done during his long stay in England and shortly after the bridge was built, is particularly interesting. It makes London look as inviting as Venice.

An interesting exhibition. Yes, but probably not worth the schlep to Windsor and the hefty entrance fee (13.50) to the entire Castle, unless of course you wish and have the time to explore the rest of those noble piles.

Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain, New Brunswick New Jersey, Transaction 2004, the story of how since 1955 we managed to throw away the patriotic identity and moral progress achieved in Queen Victoria's beneficent reign.


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Even patriotism has not escaped the mockery of Benthamite Davies. Why even mention that the Crimean War was a disaster at a time when things are going badly in Iraq? His insinuation that Mr Blair failed to equip our troops in Basra properly is disgaceful.
The Crimean War was about bravery, particulary that of the Light Brigade . Heroism is heroism. There's not to reason why.
Victorian art understood virtue for its own sake regardless of consequence unlike the senseless , degenerate daubs of the twentieth century and indeed the twenty-first

Posted by: David Williams at March 11, 2006 10:24 AM
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