The Death of General Gordon
George William Joy
The archtypal Victorian hero
Charles Gordon was the archtypal Victorian hero and the painting by George William Joy of his death is in the c19th tradition of imperial painters who painted what they regarded as crucial points in history and elevated their subjects to mythical heroes. Such paintings were often done many years later as was the case with Joy’s painting of Gordon’s death which was painted in 1893 – eight years after the event.
The painting has to be set against the context of a nation that believed that of all the reasons for empire, the most important one was to help develop the less developed territories of the empire. Britain had a Christian Mission to establish Christianity around the world and in this painting Gordon is portrayed as a saint who is disciplined and standing firm against a murderous mob. He has the moral high ground and looking down scornfully at the dervishes coming towards him. He is by himself, separate in dress and attitude from those wishing to kill him.
The public at the time believed that Gordan had been let down by Gladstone’s government that had delayed sending Wolseley who arrived just a few days after Gordons’s death. In the painting Joy is trying to stir up the conscience of the public at a time when the British army was still in north Africa and indeed revenge would be had when General Kitchener defeated the army of the dervishes at the Battle of Omdurman in 1896.
Joy claims that his painting is a factual reconstruction., being based on the account of General Wingate (an intelligence officer) from 1891 and after consulting General Watson. Wingate though was not present but wanted to create a fitting end for a Christian hero.
The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1894 and the following at the Paris Salon. The death scene was accepted as what happened and subsequent portrayals of he event such as the films Khartoum and The Four Feathers are based on Joy’s painting.
For more on General Gordon see here