Watercolours from Waterloo: Charles Bell paintings to go on loan

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Soldier suffering from head wound (and shock?) at the Battle of Waterloo. Watercolour by Charles Bell, 1815. Wellcome Images

Soldier suffering from head wound (and shock?) at the Battle of Waterloo. Watercolour by Charles Bell, 1815. Wellcome Images

Johnnie! How can we let this pass? Here is such an occasion of seeing gun-shot wounds come to our very door. Let us go!

These were the words of the Scottish surgeon, anatomist and neurologist Charles Bell to his brother-in-law on hearing news of the Battle of Waterloo.

Leaving for Belgium on 26 June 1815, Bell took with him his surgical instruments and a sketchbook, in which he could document the injuries he witnessed and tended to. In 1836, he turned his sketches into a series of stunning watercolours, which are on deposit at the Wellcome Library from the [Royal] Army Medical Services Museum. Four of these watercolours are to go on loan to the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany in Bonn for a major exhibition, ‘Napoleon und Europa: Traum und Trauma’ (‘Napoleon and Europe: Dream and Trauma’), which will run from 17 December 2010 to 25 April 2011.

The watercolours provide us with a graphic representation of the dreadful injuries suffered by soldiers fighting at Waterloo. The images of missing arms, protruding intestines and gaping wounds to the chest and neck – together with the pained expressions on the soldiers’ faces – all convey the horror of the scenes witnessed by Bell and other surgeons in the battlefield hospitals.

Bell wrote descriptions to accompany his paintings. For one, of a soldier suffering from a head wound, he noted:

“…On the fifth day after the battle was insensible. A portion of the frontal bone, an inch in diameter, was found driven into the brain, and it stood perpendicularly; not possible to extract it, from its being firmly wedged. Trepanning performed. Quite insensible during the operation and showed no sensibility until on the next day, being bled, he shrank….On the removal of the bone a quantity of blood and brain came out, and coagulum was scooped out from betwixt the skull and dura mater. Three days after the operation he became more sensible, and has been improving.”

Although the eventual fate of the soldier described above is not known, it seems that he may have fared better than most of Bell’s other patients. At Waterloo, the mortality rate of amputations carried out by Bell ran at approximately 90 per cent – a high figure even for the 1800s. Bell went on to have a successful career, however; he was given a knighthood in 1831 and even lent his name to the medical condition of Bell’s Palsy, which he described in 1821. These watercolours are yet another string to this prolific and influential man’s bow.

Napoleon und Europa: Traum und Trauma‘ (‘Napoleon and Europe: Dream and Trauma’), Kunst- und Ausstellungshalleder Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn, 17 December – 25 April 2011.

Authors: Rowan de Saulles and Helen Wakely

Ross Macfarlane

Ross Macfarlane is the Research Engagement Officer at the Wellcome Library.

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