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February 22, 2016
Louis William Desanges (1822-87) was an English artist of French aristocratic background, best known as the creator of the Victoria Cross Gallery, a series of fifty oil paintings executed between 1859 and 1862. The Victoria Cross had been introduced in 1856 to honour acts of valour by men and junior officers during the Crimean War, and Desanges’ paintings were based on the action that had led to the award. The series was exhibited at the Crystal Palace in the 1860s and 1870s. As a result, the paintings must have been the most familiar representations of contemporary war for many, especially as there were circulated as photographs and appeared as illustrations in Samuel Beeton’s book Our Heroes of the Victorian Cross.
Beyond this series, Desanges also produced other works of figures who were awarded the Victoria Cross, one of which is ‘The Capture of Tubabecelong, Gambia, 1866’, which is held at the Penlee House Gallery and Museum in Penzance. It depicts Private Samuel Hodge (c.1840–1868) of the 4th West India regiment who was born on the island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.
In June 1866, Hodge was a private in the 4th West India Regiment, serving in the Gambia. Following a rebellion by a Marabout leader, Amar Faal, the British governor, Colonel George D’Arcy, marched on the centre of the rebellion, a stockaded town on the northern bank of the River Gambia with some 270 officers and men of the 4th West India Regiment. On arriving, D’Arcy called for volunteers to help him breach the town’s defences. Two officers and 15 men, including Hodge, came forward. Most were killed almost immediately by the defenders’ fire until only D’Arcy and Hodge were left alive. Yet, after hacking his way through the stockade with an axe, Hodge was able open the gates before being shot down. British troops poured in and the Marabouts were defeated. Though seriously wounded, Hodge survived. He was promoted to the rank of Lance-corporal, and was presented with the Victoria Cross. However, he never fully recovered, and died of fever less in January 1868 while serving in back in Belize. Hodge was the first non-white soldier to be awarded the VC.
I have much more work to do on this painting and how it relates to Desanges’ other Victoria Cross works, but I want to offer some initial observations. What strikes me, particularly in contrast with some of Desanges other works – for example, this of ‘Private John Sims, 34th Regiment, winning the V.C. at Sebastopol, 18 June 1854’ – is the portrayal of Hodge, who while appearing in the foreground is somewhat marginalised.
Note, for example, that although Hodge’s role in breaching the stockade is denoted by the axe he holds, we do not actually see this action. Instead, Desanges focuses on D’Arcy’s role in maintaining the breach while other troops come up – a task that Hodge only assists with. The most dramatic action actually depicted in the painting is the death of the marabout chief that D’Arcy has just killed. Indeed these two figures, framing the breach, mirror one another – each the leader of their forces, as well as light versus dark; pain versus self-control. Thus, the two elements central to the awarding of the VC – Hodge and the breach – are marignalised despite being in the foreground and centre respectively. This is reinforced by the painting’s inscription:
‘Samuel Hodge, serving with the 4th West India regiment obtained the Victoria Cross for his gallantry in effecting a breach in the stockade. He was badly wounded, but continued to assist the Governor, Colonel D’Arcy, by handing to him the rifles of his poor companions, with which the colonel kept the enemy at bay while the supports were coming up. In the breach are seen the prostrate body of Lieutenant Jenkins and Ensign Kelly, mortally wounded. The marabout chief who is seen with arms extended is mortally wounded by the rifle which Colonel D’Arcy is about to drop. The chief has just descended from the vantage tower represented a short distance behind him and had discharged his musket within a few feet of the Governor, fortunately missing his aim. Poor Hodge who has since died received his cross at the recommendation of Colonel D’Arcy. It is regrettable that, by the rules of service, a similar honour could not be bestowed on the latter brave soldier through whose courage and skill on that eventful day the main success of the enterprise depended.’
The painting’s inscription rapidly passes over Hodge, returning only to mention his death. Instead, he is subordinated to the recommender and this marginalisation reinforced by centring D’Arcy and regretting that he could not get a VC. (It is perhaps worth noting that the painting was in the possession of George D’Arcy – and may have been originally commissioned for him. Hence, we have a focus on D’Arcy in painting and text. In that sense, one is left with the impression that Hodge is rather incidental to the whole thing.)
Hodge’s marginalisation in a painting that supposedly celebrates his valour is compounded by his posture, of course, face in profile and in a kneeling stance as he looks up to D’Arcy. Indeed, I do not think it goes too far to note that Hodge’s posture is remarkably reminiscent of the famous abolitionist icon, which first appeared in Josiah Wedgwood’s anti-slavery medallion of 1787, with its image ‘of an African in Chains in a Supplicating Posture’.
While the abolitionist campaign was long finished, this remained a staple of the mid-Victorian imagination of emancipation. This figure implores the viewers for mercy, begging for the chains to be broken, haltingly suggesting a sense of equality with the presumed white audience that is partial at best. Whether Desanges was consciously evoking the Wedgwood icon or not, it was usual for the black soldiers of the West India Regiments to be visually depicted as passive figures, often shown ready for inspection and almost never in action. As such, Desanges’ painting captures the somewhat ambivalent status of the West India Regiment soldier in the British military-imperial imagination, a martial figure for sure, but one rarely depicted fighting and having to be constantly scrutinised and inspected.
Professor David Lambert