Although his is not a name we typically associate with images of warfare, Thomas Rowlandson lived at a time when war was a prominent feature of daily life for many people. In the decades between Rowlandson’s birth in 1757 and his death in 1827, Britain was to spend no less than 35 years engaged in wars with other European powers. The most significant of these being the conflict against Revolutionary France which was fought on almost continual basis from 1793 until the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815. The demands that the escalating modes of contemporary warfare placed upon the British state and society meant that, by the start of the nineteenth-century, Britain had effectively become a nation under arms, with over 1 in 5 of all men enlisted in the military and the economy dominated by wartime production. There would probably not have been a household in the land that was far removed from someone who was either serving in the armed forces, or whose livelihood depended in someway upon the supply of Britain’s fleets and armies. So while warfare may not have been a subject that naturally appealed to Rowlandson’s convivial temperament, it’s almost inevitable that it would creep into the works of an artist who delighted in caricaturing the day-to-day aspects of the world around him.
The painting is undated but I strongly suspect that it was done sometime during 1798 or 1799. These were years in which Rowlandson was commissioned to produce a number of watercolours and engravings on behalf of the London & Westminster Light Horse Volunteers, a socially exclusive militia regiment whose ranks consisted of nobles, bankers, lawyers and wealthy merchants. The commissions came through Rowlandson’s close friend Henry Angelo, who had acted as fencing master to the Light Horse Volunteer’s commanding officer and was hired to produce a manual on the art of swordplay for the Volunteers to study. Although Rowlandson didn’t serve in the regiment, we know that he was present during at least one of their training exercises and it is likely that his connection to Angelo allowed him to mix freely amongst its ranks. This would no doubt have afforded him the opportunity of securing private commissions to produce paintings such as this for Light Horse Volunteers who were keen to commemorate their time with the regiment.
The painting shows a light company of cavalry, probably the Light Horse Volunteers, charging headlong into a massed formation of enemy infantry. The figures of the two cavalrymen who are picked out in the foreground strike a suitably dashing note as they sweep by us in their immaculately tailored uniforms, but look beyond this and Rowlandson’s message becomes more ambiguous. The horses of the two principle figures ride over the body of a fallen comrade, whose own mount writhes in agony on the floor, while another wounded cavalryman lays dying in the foreground-right. To the rear we see that the enemy infantry has just unleashed a crashing volley of musketry at point blank range, blowing several men clean out of their saddles. The scene is frozen at the very height of the battle, making it unclear whether we are about to witness a glorious victory or a bloody rout. It’s almost as if Rowlandson is seeking to prick the pomposity of wealthy weekend warriors like the Light Horse Volunteers, by reminding them of the realities of the battlefields that many of them would never see.