Lucinda Lambton on the magnificent horse admired by Napoleon, and its brave rider
Walk into St Luke’s Church, at Gaddesby in Leicestershire, and the illusion is disquietingly immediate.
Here is a man in early 19th century military uniform, still sitting astride his dying horse as it sinks to the ground, with its mouth wide open and teeth bared in the agonising throes of death.
I write ‘illusion’ but there it is, in all its grim glory; life-size and lifelike; made of grey-veined, white marble – so suitable on the flanks of a horse from the legendary Royal Scots Greys – amidst the shadows of the 13th-century chancel of St Luke’s.
This is the stirring likeness of Colonel Edward Hawkins Cheney of the Royal Scots Greys, a hero of Waterloo, who had four horses shot dead from under him in the field of battle.
Here he rides off on the fifth – which is
soon to be shot and wounded – when Cheney was given the command of the regiment, as well as the reputation for astonishing bravery that is still kept so movingly alive at Gaddesby.
Every inch of the statue should be studied, if only for the ‘straight from the horse’s mouth’ documentary evidence of what a Colonel of the Royal Scots Greys at Waterloo would have looked like.
His uniform has been sculpted in its every detail. His bearskin lies with its chinstrap broken by the horse’s hoof. The scabbard hangs from the Colonel’s waist, as does the elaborately embroidered sabretache – the flat shoulder bag for documents, with a writing surface on which mounted officers and the cavalry wrote orders and messages.
Colonel Cheney’s trousers would have been grey and his jacket scarlet, with ‘garter blue’ facings, trimmed with gold lace. He gathers the reins in one hand while, with the other, he still manages to hold his sword aloft and pointing forwards to urge on his men. The wretched mount – this was his favourite horse, Tanner – flounders on a flattening field of wheat; with the fatal bullet wound spurting forth marble blood on the marble charger’s breast. ‘Ces terribles chevaux gris! Comme ils travaillent!’ –‘ Those terrible, grey horses! How they strive!’ was Napoleon’s famed remark, as 416 were killed that day.
On the elaborate base, a passionately portrayed carving – crowded with horses and humans, and bristling with bayonets – shows a Sergeant Ewart defending a Napoleonic eagle that he had just captured.
Sergeant Ewart afterwards wrote ‘One made a thrust at my groin, I parried him off and cut him down through the head. A lancer came at me – I threw the lance off by my right side and cut him through the chin and upwards through the teeth.’
Such was the reality behind this exquisite white marble scene.
The sculptor of the memorial was Joseph Gott, son of a wool manufacturer from Leeds, who was swept into artistic circles when only thirteen, with an early apprenticeship to the sculptor John Flaxman. He enrolled at the Royal Academy when he was twenty, winning medals galore, and was sent to Rome with a pension from Sir Thomas Lawrence, who, in his letter of introduction to Canova, described Gott as having ‘Talent, if not genius.’ No mean credentials!
He specialised in what I fear must be described as sickly sentimental sculpture. The memorial to Colonel Cheney, who died at Gaddesby in 1848, was Gott’s triumph; most particularly, the startling dexterity with which he managed to sculpt the hinterland of Tanner’s testicles.
A displeasing detail is that the backs of the horse’s teeth are black, an apple having been put in his mouth at harvest festivals.
Colonel Cheney and Tanner, St Luke’s, Gaddesby – equine testicles (facing page) and all. The plaques are in memory of the colonel and his wife