This image, painted by the Victorian artist Robert Gibb, shows a vital moment during the Battle of Waterloo. This a French attack that threatened to capture the Allied strongpoint of Hougoumont. A group of British soldiers raced to shut the gate of the building and fight of the French. The chateau and outbuildings of Hougoumont were situated 500 yards from Wellington’s line and if held by the Allies would disrupt any French advance. Likewise, their loss to the French would have created an immense threat to Wellington’s right flank.
Hougoumont was defended by 2600 allied crack troops including Coldstream, Grenadier and Scots Guards plus Nassauers and Brunswickers. The north gate of Hougoumont had been deliberately left open to allow friendly troops to pass through, but had to be closed rapidly when the French started to attack at about 11.30 am. This attack was the first action of the Battle of Waterloo. The gates were however not closed properly and French soldiers started to push through. Desperate hand-to-hand fighting ensued but somehow the defenders managed to close the gates. The 30 Frenchmen who had entered were swiftly dealt with, all being mercilessly killed except for a young and unarmed drummer-boy.
This brave action meant that the French were never able to take Hougoumont at any time during the remainder of the day, although 12,700 of Napoleon’s troops were tied up in the attempt.
Some years later a Reverend John Norcross left a sum of money in his will to be given “to the bravest man at Waterloo”. Wellington, who was asked to nominate the winner, said that the success of the battle turned upon the closing of the gates at Hougoumont, and the recipient was a Corporal James Graham of the Coldstream Guards. This soldier, one of the men depicted closing the gate, had shown immense bravery and probably saved the life of the commanding officer at Hougoumont, Lieutenant-Colonel James MacDonell.
Robert Gibbs RSA was a Scottish Painter who was keeper of The National Gallery of Scotland from 1895- 1907. Gibb was a builder’s son who began exhibiting at the RSA in 1867 showing his “Arran Landscape”. This would be the first of 143 paintings he exhibited at the Academy. He established himself as a painter of battle scenes and several such as “Comrades”, “The Thin Red Line” and “Invasion of Crimea” are well regarded.
“Closing of The Gates of Hougoumont” was painted in 1903. It shows the intense defensive struggle at a defining moment of the battle and features Lieutenant-Colonel James MacDonell forcing back the gate to the left.
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This object is in the collection of National Museum of Scotland