Restored painting of the battle of Waterloo goes on display for first time in a generation

A painting depicting a key moment before the Battle of Waterloo has gone on public display for the first time in a generation.

Dawn of Waterloo, painted by Victorian artist Lady Butler, was acquired by the National Army Museum (NAM) at an auction two years ago.

A subsequent restoration to remove the layers of varnish that had been applied to the painting over nearly 130 years revealed hidden features, including dramatic rainclouds.

Lady Butler (1846-1933), born Elizabeth Thompson, was renowned for the accuracy of her work. She closely researched everything from the uniforms and weaponry of the soldiers to the ground conditions of the battlefield.

Painted in 1895, Dawn of Waterloo depicts a key moment shortly before the battle, as trumpeters sounded the reveille (a wake-up call) to the soldiers.

Conservators at the University of Lincoln spent four months fixing cracks to the paint and realigning the canvas, as well as removing varnish.

This was the ‘most satisfying element’ of the process, Rhiannon Clarricoates, the lead conservator on the project, said.

‘It revealed numerous minute details that were previously obscured by the heavily discoloured and oxidised varnish,’ she added.

The restored Dawn of Waterloo by Lady Butler being installed at the National Army Museum. Butler was renowned for her historically accurate works. Image: NAM/Georgina Clarkson

These details included a storm cloud in the top left corner of the painting, a nod to the well-documented rain that fell on the night before the battle on 18 June 1815, at which the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated for the final time.

Susan Ward, Head of Art at the NAM, said that Butler’s painting is a ‘key work’ as it ‘changed the public’s perception of war’ in Victorian Britain. ‘People began to think differently about soldiers and what it was actually like for them,’ she added.

Now a highlight of the NAM’s ‘Conflict in Europe’ gallery, the painting is to feature in a major exhibition on Victorian art opening at the museum in London in 2025, along with other works from its collection.

Elsewhere in London, Lady Butler’s 1880 work The Defence of Rorke’s Drift is in the Royal Collection, while a 1927 painting The Retreat from Mons is on display at the Royal Hospital Chelsea, next door to the NAM.