|Battle of Isandhlwana by Charles Edwin Fripp|
Having a copy of possibly the most famous painting of the Anglo Zulu War, by Charles Edwin Fripp (1854-1906), a picture that has adorned my wall for a good number of years, I thought it time to look at it in a different way and hope to invite you to draw your own conclusions much as I did when I re-examined this picture. Fripp arrived in Zululand in March 1879 as an artist for the Graphic so was not a witness to this event but I suspect painted it with a Victorian eye to the dramatic.
The painting made little or no impact when it was shown in 1885 at the National Academy but as the years rolled by and interest grew in this campaign, the painting took on more significance. It could be said that the film Zulu catapulted the Fripp picture into the spotlight. So let us look into the various aspects and see what there is on offer.
The first thing that comes to mind is the imposing mountain of Isandlwana which is both central to and the background of the painting. Somewhat shortened in its composition it still is a striking feature of the overall picture. Flanked at each end by either clouds or smoke it is hard to distinguish, and from various accounts the action took place much nearer the base of the mountain. To convey the eclipse on that date must have been a difficult task for Fripp as he portrays blue skies with cloud.
The action scenes fall into three groups with the main section left of centre. Perhaps it was Fripp's intention to highlight the mountain because we see a necklace of cloud right across the front of Isandlwana. Some tents can be seen at the left of the painting and at the left edge we see a redcoat on his knees about to meet his sad end at the hands of the Zulu army. On the right hand side we see a similar scene but this time a redcoat is in fierce battle with his opponent totally unaware that a fatal blow is about to end the life of this unknown soldier. Two Zulus can be seen stripping another soldier of ammunition and his tunic, whilst a third, adrenalin pumping, exults at the scene before him.
We move closer to the centre of the picture where another soldier has extended his rifle at arms length, bayonet firmly stuck in the shield of a Zulu warrior, perhaps mercifully he does not see the raised arm of another warrior about to dispatch him with a blow of his battle axe. One thing is very noticeable: there are no officers shown. Is this a deliberate policy on the part of the artist to indicate that once again the private soldier was left to his fate due to the action of so-called superiors? It is known that pockets of soldiers fought like tigers in various sized groups to the very end. In the foreground the field is quite clear of fallen Zulu and soldier alike. Yes, there are casualties and two badly wounded soldiers with one in possibly his final action offering a last round to dispatch another enemy, of which there were many.
This group are defending the Colours so was this before Melville and Coghill left the battle? Does the drummer boy point to a possible exit or another wave of determined warriors at hand? The man behind him wild-eyed at the knowledge that their lives are near the end, perhaps contemplating whether it would be kinder for him to dispatch the boy before the terrible fate awaiting the youngster? Although a very moving painting was there a hidden agenda by Fripp in his portrayal of events that day? We see the wounded Sergeant standing square onto the foe, in the full knowledge that he did his duty and very soon all his lads that he drilled at Brecon would be no more and he would meet his fate bravely to show an example as to how a man should met his end. There is an awkwardness in the fallen as they lie on the ground, life expended as though death is mocking them in their posture. I would like to think the Sergeant was the last to fall in this group trying to save the life of the drummer boy.
by Graham Mason, AZW Researcher.
Note: Charles Edwin Fripp was the fourth son of artist, George Arthur Fripp, and his wife, Mary Percival. He was also the grandson of Captain Nicholas Pocock, the marine artist. Charles was born at Camden Town, London on 4th September 1854. Like his father and grandfather, he made his mark in the world through his paintings and illustrations. He studied at the Royal Academy of Munich and Nuremberg and was employed by The Graphic (London) in 1875. After years covering the wars in South Africa, he was made special artist for The Graphic from 1885 - 1900, also covering other conflicts in Sudan, Japan and the Philippines.
He is most well known for his painting of the Battle of Isandhlwana, which depicts the last stand of the 24th Regiment of Foot (South Wales Borderers) during the Zulu War on 22nd January 1879. It was completed six years after his initial sketches and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1885. It is now displayed at the National Army Museum. The image is regularly used by battle enthusiasts to reenact the scene of this courageous event. He was with Lord Chelmsford's column later in 1879, when he witnessed an attack on the British camp on 2nd April and Chelmsford's successful relief of Pearson's force at Eshowe. He was also in the column when the body of the Prince Imperial was discovered, and at the battle at Ulundi, which he sketched as he lay on the leather roof of an ammunition cart.