Back from Marston Moor
Engraving by W. Ridgway of the oil painting
Source of image: The Art-Journal (1875)
Following his success at the 1858 RA with The Stonebreaker Wallis submitted just one picture at the 1859 RABack From Marston Moor. This is now lost, but a steel engraving after it was made by W. Ridgeway and published by the Art Journal in 1875. [continued below]
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Commentary by Michael Hickox
The painting shows a wounded trooper returning home from the battle of Marston Moor to give the good news of the victory to his anxious father and wife (sister?). In the background a villager hails his return. Although undeniably lacking the dramatic intensity of either Chatterton or The Stonebreaker it displays a true Pre-Raphaelite attention to detail.
The fact that he exhibited only one picture may reflect pressures in his private life, although the details regarding this are unclear. In April 1858 Mary Ellen Meredith gave birth to his son and later that year he accompanied her to Capri. By this time she was suffering from the illness from which she was to die in 1861 (Johnson).
The picture carries an oblique reference to Oliver Cromwell since his mounted troopers, The Ironsides, played a crucial role in the Parliamentary victory over Charles I. At the same RA Augustus Egg exhibited The Night before Naseby; Cromwell’s other great victory over the Royalists. The similarity in the subjects suggests a possible collusion between the two artists, especially since Egg, who had purchased Chatterton, had been one of the main organizers of the 1857 Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition in which it had been included.
However there are significant differences between the two pictures which may reflect Wallis’s own political and religious radicalism. Egg portrays Cromwell as a hero showing him at prayer in his tent on the night before his great battle. The restoration of Cromwell’s reputation in the Victorian period had owed much to Carlyle’s Heroes and Hero Worship in which he had portrayed Cromwell as one of the great men who had molded history. So it is significant that Wallis chooses to replace Cromwell by an ordinary trooper. This decision should be seen in the light of his two (lost) RA pictures of 1856 and 1858 portraying the regicide Henry Marten as an oppressed hero. Marten had not only been an extreme Republican but had also supported the Levellers, recruited from the ranks of the New Model Army, who had opposed Cromwell’s rise to power.
Thus the focus of the picture is on the reaction of the trooper’s anxious family rather than on the trooper himself. Wallis is not portraying war in a heroic light as can be seen from the fact the trooper is wounded. Consequently the picture sends out mixed messages, both celebrating the Parliamentary victory and implicitly criticizing war. Wallis’s attitude to the military can be seen from Holman Hunt’s reply to a letter from him of March 1892: “To propose that an Empire like England should by way of bringing about the reign of Peace dismantle the army and put down the navy is only to retard the accomplishment. And to call soldiers murderers is what I should be the last to join in” (Hickox).The trooper’s family itself is from the class of small landowners from which the Levellers were typically drawn. They are depicted as simply dressed God fearing Puritans; thus the father seems to have been reading from a prayer book when surprised by his son’s appearance.
Ruskin made no reference to Wallis’s work in his Academy Notes. But his brief reference to Egg’s picture seems to make clear his current antipathy to History painting per se:
This scene is, however, hardly strange enough to have the look of reality: it is what we should, or could, all imagine about Cromwell; while most likely, if we had really been able to look into his tent the night before Naseby, the look of him would have been something different from what we should have imagined. [p. 216]
This attitude may help to explain his failure both to review Back from Marston Moor and A Sculptor’s Workshop in 1857. By this period Ruskin’s interests had increasingly turned to social issues.
It is perhaps more significant, given he shared Wallis’s radical beliefs and after his enthusiastic reception of The Stonebreaker, that William Michael Rossetti chose not to review the picture. Perhaps it was hardly the kind of work which would have offered the challenge to Courbet and French Realism for which he might have hoped?
Ruskin, John. The Works. Eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. London, George Allen, 1903-1912.
Johnson, Diane. The True History of the First Mrs Meredith and other Lesser Lives. London, Heinemann, 1973.
Hickox, Michael, ‘The Political Background to the Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis. Victorian Web [text].
Last modified 22 January 2014