Tuesday 20 December 2022

Tuesday 20th December - In Memoriam

I start getting a bit excited at this time of the year (steady now) because we are literally a day away from the turning point, when we move from longer nights to longer days and the promise of Spring.  I think Spring is probably my favourite season, with Autumn a close second (for my Dark Academia styling, obviously), so tomorrow will be an absolutely delight to get past.  In the meantime, on with the harrowing slaughter!

In Memoriam (1858) Joseph Noel Paton

I think the first time I saw this picture, I did not get what all the fuss was about. For starters, I had read accounts such as the one in Homeward Mail for India, China and the East, from 4th May 1858, when the painting was first exhibited...

'It represents a group of miserable, stricken, beautiful, half-dressed women and children crouching or clasping one another with upturned eyes, with clenched teeth, with baked, parched, livid lips, in a mean room that has something of an Oriental character about it. An olive-faced Ayah, with a child in her arms establishes the locality. These wretched girls are waiting for death, for, see, through the open doorway, the bloody sepoys are bursting in to ravish and kill. Looking at the ghastly canvas, "Cawnpore! Cawnpore!" keeps ringing in the ears and turns the soul away, at last, sick weary and half-terrified. It is a powerfully expressive production but the expression is too shocking to be long contemplated. Years must elapse ere the horrors which it depicts can be looked upon with the calm eye of critical admiration.'

Okay, well I see the miserable, stricken etc etc women in the foreground, all looking decidedly peaky, but hurrah!  Some nice soldiers seem to have turned up! What on earth is going on?  Reading the explanation, I was reminded of this picture...

The Awakening Conscience (1857) William Holman Hunt

The first time I was ever shown The Awakening Conscience, I also got confused because the contemporary reviews of it describe the horrified and stricken expression of the woman's face, how terrible and tortured she looks because she has realised she is wallowing in sin (who doesn't enjoy a good wallow?) Well, looking at the painting I was very confused as the young lady looks a bit perturbed, but nothing more than trying to remember if she turned her oven off or not. The answer, of course, is that we are not looking at the same painting that the contemporary critics were.  In both cases, initial reactions were so extreme that it rendered the painting unsaleable. That's all very well for artistic verisimilitude, but some of us need to eat, so in both cases, a bit of editing later and we have a similar, but rather more palatable scene...

Therefore, this part of the painting remained untouched - we have the stricken, beautiful women, all looking terrified in a triangular composition.  Your eyes travel up the very saintly lady in black, her eyes turned to heaven, stoically. In her hand, she seems to be holding a Bible, so you know she's a lovely Christian lady. The Ayah (an Indian nanny, which I only know because they discuss it in Agatha Christie's A Murder is Announced) is the lady against the wall on the right - interestingly, she is the only one of the adult women who fully looks at the opening door.  The child next to her might have turned too but equally she might be looking at the tragic pyramid of women in the middle. It is exactly as the papers reviewed it, however this part changed...

Hurrah!  The British have arrived to save the day! Only they didn't, that's the problem. After the Athenaeum commented that it should not be displayed as it was cruel and in bad taste and the Illustrated London News called it a horrible picture with revolting subject matter, Paton changed it from murderous Sepoys to rescuing Red Coats, and even Queen Victoria breathed a sigh of relief. For many looking at the picture from that moment onwards it was not "Cawnpore!" they heard but "Lucknow!"  So what was the difference?

Both sieges happened simultaneously, and because of that, it could be argued Lucknow had survivors. As there were two pulls on resources and relief, the decision was made not to go in for an attack at Lucknow, just to evacuate all that could be rescued and send relief to Cawnpore. Shelling commenced as a distraction at Lucknow, while screens were erected, behind which women, children and the injured could be sneaked to safety.  In that sense, this is very much of the spirit of Lucknow, with the besieged women being found and escorted to safety just as they must have thought all hope was lost.  However, that makes the title nonsensical and that is not what Paton intended when he painted this work...

Memorial Well at Kanpur (Cawnpore)

It does seem a bit ghoulish that Paton painted this picture so hard on the heels of the events, so I'm not sure what he was expecting. Possibly he didn't care, he just wanted to be angry about an event. Rightly so, because what happened at Cawnpore, which is modern-day Kanpur, was horrific and very reminiscent of other events we have covered this month.  The evacuation of Lucknow seems to have been achieved in a far more organised manner, but not for Cawnpore.  Major General Sir Hugh Wheeler had faith in the local people of Cawnpore, despite the growing mutiny; he had learned the language, followed the customs and married an Indian woman so obviously felt he had integrated, missing the obvious point that he was still The Colonial Oppressor. When he retreated to an armed position, followed by al the other European families who had heard of the growing rebellions, the optics were that The British did not trust The Native Types and were preparing to attack. Add to this, Nana Sahib, who was the adopted son of the former peshwa of the Maratha Confederacy had been basically disinherited by the East Indian Company who didn't consider him the heir as he was adopted.  He had petitioned Queen Victoria to honour his claim but was refused.  He arrived at Cawnpore apparently on the side of the British, but obviously with an axe to grind.  It was a recipe for disaster.

Illustration from Victor Surridge's 1909 The Romance of India

It went very badly - an attempt at evacuation down to the river was a disaster. Accounts found written in the clothing of prisoners tell of a trap, the boats burning and the escaping Europeans shot.  Of all the Europeans stationed there, only 5 men and 2 women survived, mostly by jumping into the river and swimming for their lives.  Women and children who survived the initial attack by the river were captured and taken back to Cawnpore.  On the approach of the relief force, the Sepoy forces killed their prisoners and deposited the bodies into the well.  This is now a memorial to the whole tragedy, which hit England with horror and disbelief, especially when confronted with first-hand accounts, such as the one published in the Illustrated London News in the September of 1857.  The author had been sent out on reconnaissance just before the tragedy, dressed in civilian clothing and so had not been killed.  He had learned from others the fate of his wife and children, from notes written in Hindi.  The prisoners were kept in the Assembly Rooms until the male prisoners were taken out and killed.  The women then were moved and some died of cholera and other diseases.  The remaining women and children were taken out to the well and either killed or jumped on their own, only to die later.

'Miserere, domine!' (Christians in Prison) (1903) St George Hare

Looking again at the painting and imagining the original, with the Sepoy soldiers coming to take the women to the well, the anger and disgust of the events is obvious. However, it was painted less than a year later and it had taken until the release of prisoners from surrounding areas in September for detailed accounts to emerge. Paton's painting was in the May 1858 Royal Academy exhibition, so very quickly after the event that people were not prepared.  This is not the same situation as Major Wilson or Chinese Gordon, this is a slaughter of the innocent - possibly the reason for such levels of both anger and disgust.  I also wonder if Cawnpore was also something that the British did not want to dwell on - a sign that not only were we capable of massive defeat, but that we couldn't protect the most vulnerable.  In war, and in war art, it is men who are involved.  Men fight, men die, men face their fate with a stiff upper lip and a safe knowledge that they are absolutely doing the good Christian thing and will be remembered as a jolly good chap.  These women in the room in Cawnpore are doing their best but most of them look absolutely terrified, clinging to each other. I am reminded of Christian martyr paintings, where the good are imprisoned, awaiting death but with the knowledge (as signified by the clutched Bible) that a better place awaits them. That must have been a difficult thought to cling to in that room.

See you tomorrow...

1 comment:

  1. So many horrific things have been done (and are still being done) in the name of 'war'. It is always the innocent who suffer most. We never seem to learn the lessons of the past.
    I have always been intrigued by The Awakening Conscience and would have loved to have seen the original face.
    Best wishes


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx