Friday, January 27, 2012

JohnTenniel: Crimean Caricaturist

Self Portrait by John Tenniel

Sir John Tenniel was a London born principle political cartoonist and illustrator of Punch Magazine in the second half of the nineteenth century. Born on 28th February 1820, he was 35 when the Crimean War unfolded: another artistic talent who had hit his prime at the time of Balaclava.

Highly critical and often pushing the boundaries of his time, Tenniel’s cartoons lambasted what Punch at times labelled the ‘idiocracy’ of Victorian governments and the social morays of the time. By the outbreak of war, Tenniel had been with Punch for five years as joint cartoonist with John Leech (see media posting on this blog).

More famous and remembered for his illustrations of Lewis Carol’s Alice’s Adventures  in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There (1871) it remains to his lampooning of characters surrounding the Crimea campaign and Balaclava to which I owe a debt. Sir John Tenniel died at the age of 93 on 25th February 1914.

Included amongst the works of his peers are several cartoons of Tenniel's with explanatory notes at the following website which preserves the cartoons of the Crimean War:

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

John Leech: Crimean Caricaturist

John 'Blicky' Leech was born 29 August 1817 in London and demonstrated at an early age his abilities in sketching. By the time of the Crimean War he had a long standing and what was to prove life-long association with Punch Magazine from which partnership we have his satirical and artistic observations to enjoy to this day.

Since 1841, Leech had been producing sketches for wood-cut engravers for print and had been from all accounts prolific. Renown as a humorist, Leech was by the time of the war also producing for London Illustrated and had by this time achieved what was his zenith as an illustrator.

Leech was subtle in his handling of subject matter and not as brutally critical as some of his contemporaries. As you can see they are well observed and generally fall within the artistic sketching or illustrative end of the cartoonist's spectrum. Leech was famed for more than his work for Punch and it may not be truly accurate to even discribe him as a cartoonist at all.
Aged 36 at the time war broke out, John Leech was only to live a further 11 years, dieing on 29 October 1864 aged 47. Whilst this posting contains what I believe to be the most pertinent Crimean observations by Leech, a more complete archive can be found at

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Charge of the Light Brigade: Tony Richardson's 1968 Motion Picture

I make no secret of the fact that I remain a sincere fan of this movie and have remained so since I first saw it in the early 1970s. Director Tony Richardson captured the essence of Britain's Victorian military and civil society of the mid-nineteenth century in an often satirical portrayal of the events leading up to the famous, ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade.

A champion of the emerging Free Cinema movement of 1960's Britain, this move was Richardson's flagship project for his Woodfall Films production company. Thousands of original uniform costumes were created to make the film which was shot on location in London and Turkey. The DVD wide-screen format shows to full effect the sweeping cinematography of David Watkin, conveying a genuine sense of tactical geography as the battle of Balaclava unfolded to the final scene and subject of the film, the Charge itself.

Each Act of the final screen-play by Charles Wood is bridged with animated sequences by Richard Williams and his team, drawn from contemporary caricatures of the period (Punch magazine). Injecting the movie with satirical, often humorous political commentary, these sequences provide another level of historical background and a feel to events and is something which remains unique in cinema to this day.
Screen shot: Howard as Cardigan leading the 11th in the final charge
The battles of Alma and Balaclava are addressed, largely within their relationship to the Light Brigade and they look and sound superb. Technically well observed, replete with smoke obscured battlefields, accurate pyrotechnics and recoiling artillery, the visuals are dramatically spectacular. The battle sequences as with the scenes throughout are shot with each telling a story, drawing in peripheral aspects of the Crimean War as a whole. From the Russian habit of laying low on the lost field of battle to loot and shoot foraging 'allies' to the transposition of Captain Nolan for Reynolds in the Black Bottle Affair, Richardson manages to incorporate the most intriguing observations from his principle source; Cecil Woodham Smith's The Reason Why.

The film is supported through seminal performances from a stellar cast. Key characters and portrayals include Trevor Howard's ownership of the Lord Cardigan role in the same way that Keith Michelle owned the memory of Henry VIII and George C Scott the memory of General Patton. No less successful was the domineering delivery of Lord Lucan by Harry Andrews and the tragic, charismatic interpretation of Captain Nolan by David Hemmings. Lord Raglan is satirically yet sympathetically played by Sir John Gielgud and sound support is provided through Mark Burns (Captain Morris) and Vanessa Redgrave (Clarissa) both of whom have key but largely enabling roles within the context of this script. Seldom referenced with smaller, sometimes amusing and colourful supporting roles are Peter Bowles and Jill Bennet as Captain and Fanny Duberly and Roy Pattison as the fallen Regimental Sergeant Major of the 11th Hussars being the regiment through which Richardson looks at his subject.

If anyone has a real interest in the Charge of the Light Brigade and battle of Balaclava and has not done so, I cannot recommend more strongly that they read Cecil Woodham Smith's book The Reason Why just prior to viewing this movie for the first time. As a stand alone historical drama in it's own right, it is fine enough but with the benefit of perspective from familiarity of the subject matter upon which this movie is based, I trust you will find as I do that this movie is in fact a seminal work and the last cinematographic word on the matter.

Only one niggling and inexplicable technical flaw remains in the consistent cherry coloured breeches worn across all regiments in the Light Brigade - not just the 11th. In spite of this minor curiosity, this is a rare and intelligent movie which treats it's audience accordingly. It has for several decades remained in my personal top ten favourite movies of all time. The good news is that it is also readily available and has been in constant release on DVD for some years.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Transfers of My Youth

Now this posting is all about my youth and many readers may have similarly experienced the wonder of historical or military Letraset Action Transfers. You don't see their like anymore but from the age of six, in early seventies England, I and my brother just couldn't get enough of these booklets. The images throughout this posting are from the Patterson Blick Instant Picture Book #9 "Charge of the Light Brigade: An Instant Picture Book" first published in 1966.

Before continuing I'd like to acknowledge the efforts of Tom Vinelott and his colleagues from SPLAT (Society for the Preservation of Letraset Action Transfers) whose efforts in recording this printing phenomena of the recent past can be seen on the website to which I have attached a link from this blog. Anyone caring to visit the site will see all of the Patterson Bink series and many more competing action transfer publications. It is quite the anthology and I am deeply grateful for his efforts in reacquainting me with images and memories lost.

Letraset Action Transfers, for those of you who missed out, were an extension by inventor Dai Davies of rub-down letter transfers. Pre-printed images fixed to the underside of a clear sheet could be placed over the desired point in a printed battle scene and then transferred to it by applying pressure through rubbing or scribbling over it - preferably with a slightly blunt pencil. In doing so, you could design your own images of famous battles within the limitations of the designs provided. I had many such transfer books and I believe over three years I had accumulated as many copies of Charge of the Light Brigade.
More than a simple design exercise, what made the Patterson Bink booklets so sought after by my brother and I was the written histories which came with them. Much abridged and simplified within the bounds of the booklet format, they nevertheless provided an intriguing summary of events and a level of detail which at times is surprising. Like the Ladybird histories which I collected in tandem, these booklets were an introduction to many historical military events and sparked a life long pursuit for more detailed information. Certainly, this issue #9 was typical in its effect on my imagination.
Both the author and artists for Charge of the Light Brigade: An Instant Picture Book is Dennis Knight. Curiously, my own home town library, the National Library of Australia has a copy of this booklet (published 1968).

Friday, January 20, 2012

Raison D’ĂȘtre: Why Balaclava?

The battle of Balaclava captured the imagination of the western world almost as soon as it took place in 1854. In the time it took the first reports to appear in the British Newspapers, the mid-Victorians and every generation since have been captivated by the exploits both actual and romanticised of actions involving the Thin Red Line, the Charge of the Heavy Brigade and the more famous or infamous Charge of the Light Brigade. Reported in the press; the subject of scandal, criticism and a public enquiry, Balaclava has been remembered and immortalised through the heroic poetry of poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson and repeated representations on canvass. The first military campaign to be photographed; the enduring fascination with the Crimean war and this battle in particular has endured to this day and has been the subject of historical review, popular fiction and inspired two motion pictures.  Little wonder that as a life-long military historical enthusiast I find myself drawn to this monumental event in the history of my forefathers.
In the early 1970s as a boy of seven I was allowed to stay up and watch Tony Richardson’s 1968 motion picture The Charge of the Light Brigade. I still recall how enthralled I was with the pageantry, the colour and spectacle of the entire event as it unfolded on the family’s early model colour television. Being a feature of my generation’s early childhood, I owned a copy of The Charge of the Light Brigade action transfer book (Patterson Blink Instant Picture Book) which I gleefully scratched away at designing my own versions of the charge. I cannot recall how many times I read and re-read that booklet from cover to cover. Cecil Woodham-Smith’s book The Reason Why was always amongst my parents’ library but it wasn’t until the 1990’s and well into adulthood that I obtained my own copy and read it for the first time. Having obtained the video and later the DVD of Richardson’s movie, I rekindled my love affair with this tragic war but had not sought to replicate it in any way - until now.
With the recent entry onto the market of new figure manufacturers with a growing range of competitively priced, attractive and dynamic sculpts, the time has come for me to exercise this long dormant daemon and embark on yet another major wargaming project: The Balaclava Build. Run concurrently with other similar projects, I will begin assembling a 28mm scale representation of this famous battle in as much detail as I am able in an attempt to recreate in some small way what it could have looked like from a birds-eye view. As a miniature wargamer, this will be no static display but will allow me and my friends to re-enact the decision making, actions and battlefield consequences of the commanders in the field on that day and experiment with the ‘what ifs’ so beloved of the amateur military historian.

As wargaming is a visual hobby, my Balaclava Build very much appeals to my connection with the aesthetic.  For the protagonist nations which fought in the Crimea, their armies represented the last word and high tidal mark if you will for elaborate uniform design. From the spiked helmeted ranks of the great coated Russian infantry, to the braided tightly fitting uniforms of the British Hussars these men were the last generation to fight in parade standard dress before the influence of true industrialisation and the introduction of modernism into the military styles which followed. Beyond the ceremonial dress handed down from this Victorian period, we will never again see the same flair and fashion on the field of battle.

It is also my intent to build an on-line repository for all pertinent information relevant to this battle on this blog for the enjoyment and use of anyone wishing to research the battle of Balaclava and the Crimean War more generally. In attempting to uncover Balaclava on-line myself, I have discovered much repetitive and general information on disparate sites and a lack of specific detail on units which fought. I intend amassing libraries of art, cartoons, unit histories, maps, internet links, figure reviews and plenty of examples of my representations as my build unfolds over the next few years. I also undertake to include anyone’s contributions which assists in broadening a collective knowledge base on the subjects covered.

So, please make yourself at home within the growing posts of this blog and feel free to read, contribute, criticise and download as I delve a little deeper on-line into the history of the battle of Balaclava.