‘Saved for the nation’: General Wolfe will stay in London

In the palest possible reflection of the fact that it must have taken weeks, at the very least, for news of General Wolfe’s great victory to make its way from the Plains of Abraham all the way back to the grimy magnificence of mid-Georgian London — the stuff of hand-written despatches and soldierly rumour only tardily transformed into those shared-about dog-eared broadsheets, speeches in Parliament, toasts, songs, tableaux, ‘history’ and whatever else Benjamin West might make of it all thereafter — so have I only now discovered, having once again been dragged along by an intelligent three-year old to the National Army Museum, that Schaak’s portrait of General Wolfe, about which I wrote here, has now officially been Saved For the Nation.

Or perhaps I should simply have been more curious about those faintly bibulous cheers that I assumed had something to do with the outflow of Bar Italia’s regulars celebrating Euro 2008, or someone becoming too excited about the outcome of the Irish referendum, or maybe even the London mob giving cry to its most visceral responses to David Davis’ born-again libertarianism? Well, I admit it — I’m out of touch. Get your news somewhere else, kids.

Either way, for all my reservations about ‘saving’ anything, notably ‘art’, for the ‘nation’ (no, really, I’ve written about all this at far too great a length already — if you’re interested in the lineage of all these scare-quotes, do see that link above), encountering this attractive, understated little painting in a case full of Wolfe-related material, a recording of Whitehall playing cheerily if mildly jarringly somewhere in the middle distance, was nothing if not a happy surprise.

Meanwhile, the National Army Museum continues to live up to its reputation as one of London’s most consistently perfect museums. Today, for instance, absolutely out of the blue, my three-year old pal and I were called upon to admire a dragoon’s bearskin cap, complete with white plume, that had been worn at the Battle of Waterloo. This wasn’t part of any exhibit, by the way — the owner and his wife had simply bought the cap in for advice on how to clean the burnished, meticulously engraved steel surfaces, and thought that we might be interested. And, of course, we were. What better way to be reminded that apparently far-distant military events, those victories and impasses and oddly famous defeats, are invariably central to someone’s deeply cherished personal, family or regimental history? The fur of that bear, incidentally, who must have snuffled and played and pawed through icy brooks for his fish in the days when George III reigned, was still remarkably glossy and fresh.

We also called in, once again, my three-year old companion and I, at the Helmand: The Soldier’s Story exhibition. Last Saturday, we very much enjoyed both the pageantry and unfailingly clear-eyed precision of the Queen’s Birthday celebrations. Today, among other things — because little boys are invariably great fans of quad bikes, mortar emplacements, and automatic weapons there to be handled without anyone saying ‘be careful’ — we remembered the dual role of the Household Division, many of whom move remarkably freely between buffing the flanks of drum-horses and risking their lives in armoured reconnaissance activities. But we also remembered the five men of the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, who were killed in Helmand last week.

As for the four British troops — three men, one woman — killed in Helmand today, we knew nothing about them until we were in the King’s Road waiting for our bus, cursing the defects of London Transport, wishing the weather were better, passing those minutes in reading the Evening Standard, and hence learning about these deaths.

In other words, it was a strange, if perhaps predictable, denoument to a peaceful, reflective Wedneday morning. But to the extent that the National Army Museum can help to collapse the time that has passed between these newest British military losses and the deaths of General Wolfe and so many of his men — so many deaths, in so many countries, over such a long time, so much raw and wretched sadness crowned with such a legacy of honour and professionalism — one hesistates to begrudge whatever minor fiddles were necessary to save General Wolfe’s portrait for a nation that, perhaps, now needs such talismanic power more than ever.

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