Wordsworth, War & Waterloo

Officer Drilling Recruits, Woodward, George Moutard (1760-1809) Wordsworth, War & Waterloo exhibition, at Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere Macabre artefacts in the Wordsworth, War and Waterloo exhibition Gillray, Napoleon Bonaparte 'Fighting for the dunghill - or - Jack Tar settling Buonaparte'

On 18th June 1815, the Battle of Waterloo brought to a close 23 years of bloody war, which devastated Europe from Spain to Russia, when a British and allied army commanded by Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington defeated the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte.

To mark 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo, the Wordsworth Trust is staging the first-ever exhibition to present William Wordsworth and other writers of the Romantic period as ‘war poets’. Wordsworth Trust curator, Jeff Cowton MBE elaborates:

For me the exhibition captures the essence of Wordsworth as a young man, standing up for the poor, as well as the older Wordsworth becoming anti Napoleon. His poetry speaks for the dispossessed and for the rights of freedom against an evil Emperor. This is a far cry from ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’.

Wordsworth, War & Waterloo displays hand-written manuscripts of William Wordsworth’s war poetry alongside stunning pictures, satirical cartoons and fascinating physical objects from the conflict which pitted Britain and her allies against France. These include a cannon from Nelson’s flagship, cannonballs from the battle of Salamanca and a gruesome collection of teeth, taken from the dead on the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars.

Visitors can discover how the dramatic events of the war changed the lives of people across Britain, including women and children. With a particular focus on artistic and literary responses to the conflict, Wordsworth, War & Waterloo will demonstrate how war shaped Wordsworth’s ideas about his own role as a poet and how he felt towards the major military and naval figures of the period – Admiral Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and, in particular, Napoleon Bonaparte.

It tells the story of the poet’s changing responses to the war that began in 1793 and culminated with Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at Waterloo in June 1815. From being a supporter of the French model, Wordsworth became a vehement critic of Napoleon, writing:

My soul was with those who were resolved to fight it out with Bonaparte.”

Years after the battle, Wordsworth visited Waterloo and was moved by the “. . . horror breathing from the silent ground.”

The exhibition is richly illustrated with a number of important paintings, drawings and cartoons from the period, bringing together Benjamin Robert Haydon’s portraits of Wordsworth, Wellington and Napoleon for the first time outside London. It also features a range of cartoons by the brilliant caricaturist James Gillray, and displays J. M. W. Turner’s sketchbook from his visit to the site of the battle.

This exhibition has interest and appeal for all ages, with features to attract a broad audience and family activities integral to the experience. The family engagement team have created a character called ‘Billy Bull’, son of John. He helps families to find the most appropriate items on display and prompts them to participate in activities.

This unique exhibition draws on the expertise of its two curators, Jeff Cowton of the Wordsworth Trust, and Professor Simon Bainbridge of Lancaster University, a leading authority on the subject of literature and war in the Romantic period and the author of the books Napoleon and English Romanticism and British Poetry and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

The Wordsworth, War & Waterloo exhibition is at The Wordsworth Museum, Grasmere, Cumbria until 1 November 2015

Dove Cottage, the Wordsworth Museum and Art Gallery are open daily from 9.30 am to 5.30 pm (last admission 5 pm) – find out more here

To enjoy this cultural event and much more, book your break in the Lake District here