In 1815 the Duke of Wellington was the man everybody wanted to know about, though even before Waterloo his face had already been glazed onto plates and China tea services, now he had defeated Napoleon and his place in history was secure and so was his celebrity.
To begin with his victories during the Peninsular War had raised his fame like no other since Nelson, and essentially if you could put an image on it, his face or his likeness leading armies to victory would be put on it. A market already flooded with engravings and prints of the allied Generals who defeated Napoleon in 1814, was inundated further with a wealth of Waterloo images, the Duke of Wellington and Marshal Blücher. Action scenes composited the written accounts reported by the newspaper and were eaten up by the public. Businessmen were keen to get in on the action, and manufacturers of decorative artefacts and the like we’re not backward in joining in the glad-handing that went around after the battle, as parliament gifted the victor honours and rewards.
In her bestselling novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrel, Susannah Clarke mentions Wellington’s celebrity in these terms. A tradition now maintained only in the tourist industry that endlessly churns out usually tasteless commemorative items with images of the Royal Family plastered on them.
Jane Austen was sensible of the nascent effect of the battle, soon after it occurred, having one of her characters explain that he was sadly out of fashion to call his cottage Trafalgar when Waterloo was now the thing. Nowadays we don’t do this anymore, the last national hero to grace our souvenirs in the same way was Winston Churchill.
The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo is being commemorated in many ways. The Belgian tourist board has created Napoleon hats, and lion cuddly toys, which play their part, though don’t quite sum up what the cost and poignancy of the battle.
However for those of a more critical taste there are other ways to remember Waterloo, and here are some of my favourites.
I have personally had a set of Wellington and Nelson playing cards from Waddington’s for a long time, (now scarce) and when the opportunity came to snap up a Waterloo medal provided as a bronze coin by the Royal Mint, you bet I jumped at it. Special edition books have been created, each with their own individual homage to the fateful day, whether it be Waterloo 200’s official book “The Decisive Victory” published by the Military History great’s at Osprey Publishing, or Unseen Waterloo’s photographical tribute covered in historic Hainsworth cloth.
The effort and craftsmanship going into the anniversary has surely not been seen since the 19th century.
I was very pleased to see a high quality jigsaw puzzle of Lady Butler’s iconic painting “Scotland Forever” in a bookstore. Items like these are another reason why the events of 1815 will live on, and the sacrifice and bravery of the participants never fully fade.
There can be no greater evidence of the appeal and popularity of an event or person, as when businesses and craftsmen can invest money in producing items that pertain to its or their legacy.
Two of the best I think is bespoke Bone China maker William Edward’s Waterloo 200 collection of bowls, mugs and plates, so reminiscent of celebratory table produced to honour the victory, and Rampley and Co‘s Pocket Square.
Both feature a prominent visual of the Duke of Wellington, without whom it is my considered opinion the Battle would have been lost, and are both tasteful and decorative. William Edward’s crockery conjures up the celebratory dinner services that were presented to participants, though not exactly the Waterloo plate in Apsley House, (Wellington would never eat off his own face), this could be considered a modern version. I have already mentioned Rampley’s pocket square, which is a thing of beauty and a fitting celebration that all admirers of Wellington would surely treasure.
If you have seen a piece of quality Wellington or Waterloo memorabilia, let me know.