The Waterloo Panorama

Source: Felix M’Donogh, ‘The Waterloo Panorama’, in The Hermit in London; or, Sketches of English Manners vol. 1 (London: H. Coulburn, 1819), pp. 159-167

Text: “I have just returned with my uncle, the General, from the Panorama of Waterloo,” said Lady Mary. “He described the action so well, that I really could see the Cuirassiers charge three distinct times, could in return hear the Scottish Royals and immortal Greys shout ‘Scotland for ever.” I could see them hew in pieces the steel-clad warriors of France, could see Napoleon’s countenance change at the operations of ‘ces terribles chevaux gris,’ and could behold its expression of consternation, as when leaning over the horse of his peasant guide, and discerning the columns of Prussians advancing like a cloud in the horizon, he exclaimed, ‘tout est perdu!’ […] I advise you to go and see it: it is well worth your while; and I trust that the scene will have interest for a Briton a century hence, when we and when our’s are no more. Our heroes have gathered their laurels in vain, unless the dews of immortality falling from on high preserve them; the brave but sleep, the coward perishes and is forgotten.” Here a glow of heroism lit up her countenance, and she appeared to me something more than woman.

I now prepared to follow her advice; and went directly to the Panorama. The room was crowded with company, and the representation was just what she had described. Luckily for me, I fell in with an officer of the intrepid Scotch Greys, who gave me much information on the subject: that corps covered itself with glory; and of course, no one was better able to describe the battle, than one who had so much contributed to its renown.

When the officer had concluded his observations, I retired to a corner in order to observe the company. In all assemblages of people, a spectator may learn much. The following is a roughly sketched outline of what struck me most.

There were groups of all classes, and feelings of as many descriptions: — The man and woman of quality, proud to distinguish on the canvass some hero who added lustre to their name,— the female of sensibility, who heaved the deep sigh for some relative or bosom friend left on the bed of glory,— the military spectator, who had been an actor in the scene, and who, pride beaming in his countenance, yet wrapt in silence, looked on the representation of that awful and eventful reality,— or the garrulous but worthy veteran, who saw his own deeds of arms live again in the pictured story, and who, bereft of an arm or of a leg, and leaning on a friend, indulged in the gratifying account of what his country owed him, whilst,

“Thrice he routed all his foes,
“And thrice he slew the slain.”

There also was the exquisite militaire, youthful and blooming, affected and vain, lounging with an air of sans souci, a toothpick or a violet in his mouth, a quizzing-glass either suspended round his neck or fixed in the socket of his eye, seeming to disdain taking an interest in the thing, yet lisping out, “Upon my thoul, it’s d–d like, d–d like indeed,— yeth, that’s just the place where we lotht tho many men, — it’s quite ridicttlouth, how like it ith.” What a contrast! so much valour, yet so much feminine conceit, starch and perfume, whalebone and pasteboard! It is however not less true, that these fops, who take so much care of their pretty persons out of the field, take no care of them in it.

Here were idlers looking at the action merely as a picture; and there were vacant countenances staring at nothing but the company:— in one place a fat citizen came in merely to rest himself; and in another, a pretty brunette of the second class, whose only business was to meet my Lord. In a third corner I could see a happy couple enjoying the short space previous to a permanent union, and who came here for fashion’s sake, or to be alone in the world, and thus to escape the attention of a smaller circle; for there exists a certain retirement or solitude in crowds, known only to the few. This couple took as much interest in the battle of Waterloo as in the fire of London.

At the entrance were some jealous painters looking out for defects in the piece; and in the doorway was a covey of beauties surrounded by fashionables, who seemed scarcely to know why they came there, and enjoying nothing but their own conversation. “What a squeeze at the Dowager’s last night?” drawls out a male coquette. “Monstrous pleasant party at Lord Foppinglon’s!” lisps another epicene-looking thing; “if,” continued it, “the fat Countess had less rage for waltzing, and the old Dandy would give up sailing through the quadrille;” “or,” (observed a British lady clad in everything from France, and covered with folds of drapery, circles of ribbons and tucks, tier over tier of flounce, and quillings of lace and puffings of all sorts, in the directly opposite extreme to the flimsy garments in which the ladies appeared a few years since, as if they were sewed up in a tight bag; not to forget her waist, which ended where it once begun, and the hump betwixt: her shoulders, so thick with wadding that it must be nearly bombproof)— “Or if,” exclaimed she, “the Duchess’s proud daughter, who seemed to doze through the figure of the dance, and to look upon all possible partners as beneath her, had been absent.”

“Not so with Lady Evremont,” exclaimed a disdainful woman of quality, (whose short upturned nose, step à la Française, rapid delivery in discourse, and fiery eye, bespoke heat of temper and swelling of pride),— “not so with her ladyship! she thought herself the very loadstone of attraction, and considered dancing as a loss of time. I am sure if I were her husband —” “You would,” interrupted an elderly Exquisite of sickly composure but of satirical dissatisfied aspect,— “you would do just what her husband does, namely, not care sixpence about her, but leave her to herself.” This produced a general laugh, but in the moderate key of fashionable mirth; for the whole circle was composed of her enemies.— Why? Because she is beautiful.

“What brought you here, Sir George?” sighed out a languid looking widow of fashion. “The attraction of your beauty.” “Stuff!” exclaimed the widow, in a more animated tone, biting her lips (not spitefully but playfully) and twinkling her eyes. “And you, Major?” ” A shower of rain,” replied the Hibernian. “Oh! then I have nothing to do with your coming.” “Nothing, except (recovered Pat) that whilst it rains without, you reign within, in every heart and in every mind.” “None of your nonsense!” cried the Widow, putting her hand on his lips. “I hate flattery — blarney I believe you call it.” “Just what you please; truth is truth still, in English, Irish, or even Dutch,” concluded he. The lady appeared delighted; but turning round to a boarding-school cousin, endeavoured to hide her satisfaction by saying, “I do hate so many compliments.” I extricated myself from this buz of high life, giving and receiving acknowledgments from those of my acquaintance who formed a part of the circle; and on my exit, I perceived some wry faces and some discontented looks at the door. These were French people come over here, all with, a view of gain, in some shape or other, but who sickened at any thing which lowered France, avec ses armées victorieuses, which so long gave laws to the greater part of Europe, but could never dictate them to us. As much was said by the French, about their Légion d’Honneur and Napoleon’s Invincibles, as ever ancient history has trumpeted concerning the sacred battalion commanded by Pelopidas, but I did not stay long to listen to them.

Comments: Felix Bryan M’Donogh (1768?-1836) was an Irish soldier then essayist, who wrote a series of travel books under the name of ‘The Hermit’. The Panorama was an invention of the artist Robert Barker, who patented a means of exhibiting a large, highly realistic landscape painting on the inside of a cylindrical building. It was first exhibited in Edinburgh in 1788, and moved to London’s Leicester Square in 1793, where it remained a popular (and much imitated) attraction for seventy years. The Waterloo panorama was painted by Barker’s son Henry Aston Barker and was first exhibited in Leicester Square in 1816, a year after the Battle of Waterloo itself.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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