Thursday, May 16, 2013

civil war imaginations

So among the books I dip into at night has been this, By the Sword Divided: Eyewitness Accounts of the English Civil War (1983, this edition Wrens Park Publishing 2001), a richly illustrated thing I picked up at a sale table at the Vanderbilt University campus bookstore a bit less than a decade ago. The author – or editor, since probably 60% of the book consists precisely of edited firsthand accounts – is John Adair of the University of Exeter, formerly of the Royal Military Academy. It's a nifty book for one interested in the human side of the Civil War, and more especially one interested in the war's visual representations.

A coffee-table book, to some extent – pictures on practically every two-page spread. There are a few maps, and a few of the detailed battlefield diagrams I used to moon over when I was 16, but most of the pictures are contemporaneous: crude woodcuts from the various newsheets of the day, formal portrait paintings of central figures of the conflict. There are relatively few battle scenes on canvas, either from the period of the War (the 1640s), the remainder of the 17th century, or the 18th century. This in contrast to the continental Thirty Years War (1618-1648), of which one can find any number of relatively contemporaneous large-scale canvases depicting various battles.

The Civil War doesn't really open up as a subject for narrative painting until the 19th century, and when it does, it does so with a vengeance. The Victorians loved historical genre painting; depictions of Balaklava were on the easels even before the veterans got home from the Crimea, it seems, and one of the charming anomalies of Adair's book is its wealth of Victorian narrative paintings of the Civil War. I'm particularly interested in the painting whose detail is on Adair's cover: William Shakespeare Burton's Wounded Cavalier (1856).

It's to my eye a rather affecting picture. The pale red-haired cavalier – so young! he has the beard of a 19-year-old – lies dying, blood soaking through his lace collar from a wound in his throat. He staunches the flow (unconscious already?) with the help of a young Puritan woman. Her face is not as close to his as it initially seems – but close enough – but her gaze is unfocused, thoughtful. The detail is an emblem of the human cost of war; perhaps, in a better world, these two attractive young people would be lovers, would be married, would be depicted with their children.

It's worth looking at the entire painting:
There has been a fight here; the cavalier's sword, caught in the tree, has broken off at the hilt; his documents have been sifted thru (there are some playing cards scattered about in the right foreground) Рhe was a courier, one assumes, ambushed or otherwise confronted by Parliamentary forces. As he now lies dying in the arms of the young Puritan woman, her companion Рher boyfriend? fiancé? brother? Рstands, an enormous Bible in his hand. His expression is to my eyes unreadable (tho a number of commentators read it as disapproving, "sour").

Burton (1824-1916) was at the fringes of the Pre-Raphaelite movement; this painting is his only full-blown excursion into PRB-style detail. (Compare Millais's The Order of Release for a similar example of detail put to historical usage, his Ophelia for similarly painstaking natural detail.) As Tim Hilton comments on Burton, "One cannot but feel a certain kind of admiration for an artist who, for the closer observation of flowers and grasses, dug a deep hole for himself and his easel, so that the daisies, as he painted them, would be only inches away from his penetrating gaze."

The Wounded Cavalier was hung on the line at the Royal Academy Exhibition of 1856. (Originally, it had been overlooked by the hanging committee, but the academician CW Cope – who also painted a number of Civil War scenes – insisted it be hung in place of one of his own canvases.) Burton's painting was next to Holman Hunt's Scapegoat, a signal Pre-Raphaelite work. Ruskin devoted several pages of his "Academy Notes" – a kind of omnibus review of the annual exhibition – to Hunt's painting; of Burton's, he comments the its subject is "not very intelligible," tho its painter's work is "masterly, at all events, and he seems capable of great things."

The contrast between the Royalist cavalier and the plainly dressed Puritan is echoed in any number of Victorian Civil War canvases. Perhaps the most famous is William Frederick Yeames's 1878 And When Did You Last See Your Father?
The child in blue is being questioned by Parliamentary functionaries of some sort. The soldier with his hand – not unkindly – comforting the little girl in pink is dressed in the New Model Army's proverbial red coat (ancestor of the British military uniform for the next 150 years – Captain Hook wears a NMA red coat, which popular legend has as the standard dress of Caribbean pirates, since so many of them were Cromwellian veterans fleeing the Restoration). The children wear bright colored silks; their elder sisters? (governesses?) to the left wear fine lace and velvet; their questioners, in contrast, wear the drab, plain civilian clothes associated with Puritanism. They could be characters in Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter. Their hair is – for the 17th century – very short indeed, befitting "Roundheads."

The iconographical distinction between Royalist and Parliamentarian, then, is firmly in place by the Victorian era. It has of course little basis in historical fact. Most Parliamentarians wore their hair long, and if they could afford them, wore clothes every bit as colorful as the Royalist opposite numbers. Common soldiers of either army were indistinguishable (at least before the New Model Army instituted the rather striking innovation of an army-wide uniform). But the iconographical differentiation between the two groups was crucial to the Victorians's own self-mythology.

For the Victorians, England was a land in which the two impulses represented by Puritanism – piety, restraint, thriftiness, self-control – and by Royalism – elegance, self-display, loyalty to the monarch – had been most signally reconciled in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Before that event – the central moment of the Whig Interpretation of history – had been the bad old times, when Puritan godliness had been pitted against Cavalier excess. Burton's Wounded Cavalier, then, is an allegory of a Victorian England in which the Puritan impulse – most signally represented in Burton's own day by the Evangelicals – can look with regret and pity upon a misguided, excessive aestheticism (there is a butterfly on the blade of Cavalier's broken sword). There is too great a divide in 1644 (say) for the young woman and the dying horseman to ever share that kiss to which they are so close; but in Burton's painting, as in so much of Pre-Raphaelite art, the aesthetic and the godly can finally find common ground.

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