Liverpool artwork of the day – Tuesday February 6 2007. ‘The Last Muster – Sunday at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea’, by Hubert von Herkomer at The Lady Lever Art Gallery.
This is also the Lady Lever’s Artwork of the Month for February.
Free gallery talks on Thursday 8 February and Tuesday 27 February 2007 at 13.00 by Julian Treuherz, Keeper of the Art Galleries
About the artwork
Hubert von Herkomer made his name illustrating books and periodicals in the late 1860s, exploring themes of social deprivation. Born in Bavaria, the artist came to settle in Southampton in 1856, after living in the USA. Alongside illustrating he enjoyed success painting peasant subjects and portraits; however his real motivation lay in pursuing social-realism in his works. It is suggested that his experiences as an immigrant fuelled his choice of working class and ethnic minorities as subject matter.
Inspired by a visit to the Chapel of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, a home for Veteran soldiers who were unable to support themselves after leaving the army, Herkomer was to produce the defining work of his career The Last Muster. The painting was taken from a wood engraving Herkomer had produced for the Graphic magazine in Feb 1871, and translated on to canvas in 1875.
Set among a full congregation of ‘Chelsea pensioners’ the central action of the painting is subtly focused on the two figures on the second row. The old soldier at the end of the row has passed peacefully away during the service and his neighbour noticing, has turned to feel his lifeless wrist. The analysis of the paintings offered in the Athenaeum comments ‘The features of the time-worn face have a still dignity and beauty about them which is very touching and fine; the white hair of the old soldier is neatly kept, and he has been trimly shaved; his hat, with the handkerchief in it, was placed at his feet in due order, – acts which marked, while they concluded, a long life of discipline.’
No preliminary sketches or drawings for the work were made; instead figures were sketched directly onto the canvas from models. Approximately seventy pensioners are depicted in the painting, and the impact of this painting stems from Herkomer’s sensitive portrayal of their individual characters. The artist wrote ‘The idea was to make every man tell some different story, to be told by his type of face and expression or by some selection of attitude.’