My favourite painting: Peter Snow

'It shows how vital was the constant presence—often dangerously near the front line—of the man whom I regard as Britain’s greatest commander'

The Duke of Wellington at Waterloo, 1892, by Robert Alexander Hillingford (1828–1904), 18in by 24in, Private Collection. Bridgeman Images.

Peter Snow says:
This picture shows Wellington at the height of his triumph. He is shouting encouragement to one of the British infantry squares, which are being repeatedly charged by some 80,000 French heavy cavalry. It’s a critical phase of the battle that resulted in the utter defeat of Napoleon. And it shows how vital was the constant presence—often dangerously near the front line—of the man whom I regard as Britain’s greatest commander. I particularly like the way the artist has highlighted his famous telescope; it was while Wellington was encouraging his redcoats to stand firm that he spotted Marshal Blücher’s Prussians on the east side of the battlefield racing to his help. Between them, Wellington and Blücher helped establish the peace that gave Europe a century of relative stability.

Peter Snow is a television and radio presenter. His new book, The Battle of Waterloo Experience, co-authored with his son Dan, is published on May 7th, 2015.

John McEwen says:
Robert Alexander Hillingford was among the foremost Victorian historical genre or ‘costume realist’ painters. Along with two of the kind, gow and Meissonier, he was noted for Napoleonic scenes. For all his attention to antiquarian authenticity, he insisted that ‘the cut of a coat should never be allowed to intrude or assert itself on canvas to the detriment of the rendering of a scene as a whole’. His subjects, usually military, ranged from the Middle Ages to contemporary scenes from the last Boer War.

Hillingford was born in London, the son of a professional soldier. Part of his childhood was spent in Boulogne, where, from the age of six, he was taught drawing by a professional artist. As a teenager, he studied for five years at the Kunstacademie, Dusseldorf, and then went via Munich to Italy, where he married an Italian and lived and worked in Rome, becoming a member of the German Artists’ Club. In 1864, he returned to London and thereafter exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy, although he was not elected an academician until 1901. He was a founder member and vice-president of the Kernoozer’s Club (which owed him its name) for specialists in arms and armour.

A letter from an English officer at Waterloo, which was sold recently at Bonhams’ commemorative Waterloo sale, gave further accounts of the Iron Duke’s fabled courage, one of which described him writing an order while being showered with earth from a french cannonball. This picture fetched £4,200 in 1987 and a larger version made £13,750 in 1990. The Hillingford revival has since stalled, with the £32,000 record price unchanged since 2000.

This article was originally published in Country Life May 6, 2015.