The Field of Waterloo. A painting's influence on the writing of a play.

The Field of Waterloo, a painting by J.M.W. Turner, was first exhibited in 1818, just three years after the Battle of Waterloo brought the Napoleanic Wars to an end. The painting depicts an imaginary scene during the terrible night that followed the conclusion of the battle. When the fighting ended, around eight o'clock in the evening, the surviving combatants were too exhausted to do much to help the many wounded. They lay where they had fallen, among the dead, out in the darkness of the battlefield, and their cries could be heard throughout the night. In Turner's painting, a group of women, one holding a lantern, another a baby, search among the dead and the dying, perhaps looking for a missing loved-one.

The Field of Waterloo by J.M.W. Turner (detail)

I remembered the painting when I began writing Night on the Field of Waterloo, and again later when I was thinking about where the inspiration for the play had come from. I can't recall exactly when I first saw this Turner, but I have probably visited the Tate Gallery at least once every couple of years since I was a boy, so I expect it was some time ago. It was certainly part of the influences at work when I first began writing the play. The painting is currently on display in the Turner collection in the Clore Gallery, which is part of Tate Britain, on Millbank in London.

I didn't think I remembered many details from the painting, I just had an impression of the darkness, the bodies of the soldiers and some other figures. But when I eventually looked it up, having already written several drafts of the play, I was quite surprised to see the women, the baby and the lantern, all of which also feature in my script. I did think I'd taken the title of the play directly from the painting, but that turned out to be not quite the case. Also, looking at the detail from the painting now, there seems to be two babies, which is one more than I put in my play.

Reading the label on Turner's painting in the Tate Britain's Clore Gallery
The author reads the info on Turner's painting in the Tate Britain's Clore Gallery, January 2017.

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