Thursday, August 9, 2012

Kate Dickens and the Black Brunswicker

by Phillip Brown

The Black Brunswicker by John Everett Millais

John Millais had been a good friend of Charlie Colllins who was engaged to Kate Dickens in 1859. Through his friend Millais became friends with Kate and Charles Dickens (despite his review of 1850 slating Millais’ Christ in the House of his Parents). Millais asked permission to paint Kate (who was very keen on painting) for a picture he had in mind which would repeat the success of The Huguenot".

Millais spent three months painting ‘The Black Brunswicker’. Studies for the work exist both in the Lady Lever Art Gallery’s archives as well as in Tate Britain.

An early study before the composition was settled (Liverpool)

Its style was a return to his earlier pre-raphaelite style whereas in later pictures he eschewed the minute detail for a more impressionist / symbolic style. Probably because he needed the money to support his growing family he had to produce paintings more quickly.

Detailed examination of the painting has revealed a grid of drawing lines only 1cm apart with pinholes at each end as if strings had been stretched across as a guide to help him using the mixture of life models and life-sized wooden models.

The male model was an anonymous soldier in the Life Guards who died shortly afterwards of Consumption. The two models never actually met. Millais' son says that they both posed with wooden props. He "clasped a lay-figure to his breast, while the fair lady leant on the bosom of a man of wood."

As a sensible middle-class lady, Kate was chaperoned to the long sessions. The two models never actually met.

Sketched in 1860 as a study for
The Black Brunswicker

‘The Black Brunswicker’ was greatly admired when exhibited at the Royal Academy Exhibition in 1860 and was bought for the highest price, 100 guineas, Millais had yet received by the famous dealer and publisher Ernest Gambart. He sold it on to the well-known Pre-Raphaelite collector Thomas Plint. Later, in 1898, William Hesketh Lever purchased the work for his private collection. Millais also painted two watercolour copies of the composition.

Ruskin praised Millais’s work comparing him with the other important British painter Turner. However Ruskin and Millais’s friendship broke up when the painter devoted himself to painting portraits of famous people (around 1880), an art form that Ruskin considered a sell-out of Millais’s talents. Millais was elected a Royal Academician in 1863 and a President of the Royal Academy in 1896 when already ill with cancer. When he died he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral next to Frederic Leighton.

The Black Brunswickers (Schwarze Schar) were a volunteer corps raised by German-born Frederick William, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel (1771–1815) to fight in the Napoleonic Wars. He entered into an agreement with the Austrians to raise a new corps of infantry and cavalry.

[Osprey Publishing publish the really detailed The Black Brunswickers 1973]

Distinctively attired in black broadcloth with a silvered death's head badge on their hats, the volunteers were nicknamed the Black Horde or the Black Legion; their more commonly-known title was the result of the Duke's temporary capture of the German city of Braunschweig (Brunswick) from the French in 1809.
Upon Napoleon's escape from Elba in 1815 he once more placed himself under the Duke of Wellington's command and joined the allied forces of the Seventh Coalition in Belgium. The "Brunswick Corps", as it is called in the order of battle for the Waterloo Campaign, formed up as a discrete division in the allied reserve. Its strength is given as 5376 men, composed of eight infantry battalions; one Advance Guard or Avantgarde, one Life Guard or Leib-Bataillon, three Light and three Line Battalions. They were supported by both a horse and foot artillery battery of eight guns each. Also included were a regiment of Brunswicker Hussars and a single squadron of Uhlans were often attached to the allied cavalry corps.
The Brunswick Corps formed part of Wellington's Reserve Corps, under his personal command. At the battle of Waterloo the Brunswickers had many new inexperienced troops and their line broke under a fierce attack from the French Grenadiers but later recovered. British sources give the number of Brunswickers killed in action that day as 154 with 456 wounded and 50 missing. In the following days, they escorted 2,000 French prisoners back to Brussels and then marched on to Paris. They finally returned to Brunswick on 6 December 1815.

The painting depicts a Brunswicker about to depart for battle. His sweetheart, wearing a ballgown, restrains him, trying to push the door closed, while he pulls it open. This suggests that the scene is inspired by the Duchess of Richmond's ball on 15 June 1815, from which the officers departed to join troops at the Battle of Quatre Bras (the next day) where the Brunswicker’s lost a lot of troops. The Brunswickers were well regarded by the British public (if not so much by the British Army who regarded them as ‘shaky’) and Millais would have known that many were still alive who would have known about their roles in the battles against Napoleon and the funeral of the Duke of Wellington (1852). In a letter to his wife, Effie Gray, Millais described his inspiration for the work, referring to a conversation with William Howard Russell, the war correspondent of The Times:

My subject appears to me, too, most fortunate, and Russell thinks it first-rate. It is connected with the Brunswick Cavalry at Waterloo...They were nearly annihilated but performed prodigies of valour... I have it all in my mind's eye and feel confident that it will be a prodigious success. The costume and incident are so powerful that I am astonished it has never been touched upon before. Russell was quite struck with it, and he is the best man for knowing the public taste. Nothing could be kinder than his interest, and he is to set about getting all the information that is required.

The original title was Brunswickers but the ‘s’ was dropped. Wellington had died in 1852 and many would still remember his huge funeral. The composition of the beautiful satin against the black uniform was deliberate. Notice the picture of Napoleon behind the two figures (after Jacques-Louis David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps).

The dog at the soldier’s feet draws attention to the humanity of the subject whilst the black uniform against the white dress perhaps signifies war and peace. The dress is perhaps too brilliant, with its beautiful creases and tie but it was considered a technical triumph.


  1. I grew up with this picture, which I used to see regularly on family visits to the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight, where my grandfather used to work. Thank you for the insights into its background.

  2. This is one of my all-time favorite paintings. I'm seriously considering it for the cover of my book. Thanks for the article. It's fun to know this is Kate Dickens.

  3. I love Millais' paintings too, and this is one of my favourites, along with 'The Huguenot' and spent many hours at the [Old] Tate Gallery at Vauxhall mooning over the Pre-Raphaelites.


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