Posted by: Patrick Allen Foster | March 18, 2014

Tuesday Art Blogging, Crimean War Edition

William Simpson, A Quiet Night in the Batteries

William Simpson, A Quiet Night in the Batteries, 1855.

There are several candidates for the title of “First Modern War.” Depending on the criteria used and the definition of “modern” with which we are working, the Thirty Years War (1618-48), the Seven Years War (1756-63), the American Revolutionary War, the Wars of the French Revolution, the American Civil War, and World War I all can provide plausible cases.

In this contest, the Crimean War (1853-56) has this going for it: the Crimean War was the first conflict in which something approaching real-time international war coverage existed. War correspondents, especially with the British and French armies in Crimea, used the still relatively new telegraph to send reports to their home countries (and from there to the world). When the British and allied forces defeated the French at Waterloo on June 18, 1815, the news of victory took three days to reach England, and most of London read about the battle in newspapers on June 22. By contrast, as the war in Crimea developed, eventually reports from the battlefield reached London within hours.

Winter dress british troops

British soldiers in winter dress. Photo by Roger Fenton, 1855.

The Crimean War was also the first war to be photographed. However, photography at the time was not equipped to capture action shots, and so to portray the action of battle, newspapers and publishers relied upon sketches by artists like William Simpson.

William Simpson in the Crimea

Photo of William Simpson in Crimea, taken by Roger Fenton, 1855.

Simpson was a Scot and was about 31 when, as a war correspondent, he accompanied the British expeditionary force at the Siege of Sevastopol. He painted water-color sketches, which he then sent back to Britain (they took weeks to arrive — so a bit less real-time than the telegraph reports), where lithographers transferred them to stone (using a separate stone for each tone).

The Simpson sketch shown at the top of this post, A Quiet Night in the Batteries, is one of several that Simpson made during the Siege of Sevastopol. A counterpart sketch to the one above is A Hot Night in the Batteries, shown below.

William Simpson, A Hot Night in the Batteries

William Simpson, A Hot Night in the Batteries, 1855.

After a little over 11 months of trench warfare (another modernistic aspect of this war), the Siege of Sevastopol ended shortly after the French forces captured the Malakoff (Malakhov) redoubt, from which cannon could control access to Sevastopol’s port. In The Crimean War, Orlando Figes observes that in France, to this day, “nearly every town has its rue Malakoff. The French have given the name of Malakoff to public squares and parks, hotels, restaurants, cheeses, champagnes, roses and chansons.” (481) (In Canada, there is also a Malakoff Road just south of Ottawa.)

William Simpson - Attack on the Malakoff

William Simpson, Attack on the Malakoff, 1855. The assault by French troops depicted here took place on September 7, 1855. The print was published in London on October 22. Notice that the defending Russian soldiers hardly appear. (In fairness, a few of Simpson’s other sketches do show the Russians. Those seem to be the exception, though.)

For a look at how the war appeared on the other side, see, for example, a sketch by Grigoryi Shukaev:

Siege of Sevastopol 1855

Grigoryi Shukaev, Siege of Sevastopol 1855, 1856. Note the Orthodox priest at left, presumably blessing the Russian soldiers, or maybe blessing the cannon balls, so that they will kill many French and British soldiers (who, of course, are not shown).

~ ~ ~

Simpson left Crimea in November 1855. He later covered the Franco-Prussian War (embedded with the Prussian army) and the Afghan war (1878-80). He traveled extensively in Asia in the 1870s and 1880s.


William Simpson, The Petroleum Wells at Baku, on the Caspian, 1886. (Baku is now the capital of Azerbaijan.)

All images from Wikimedia Commons.


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