William Siborne: Model Maker and Historian

William Siborne has played a major role in our understanding of the battle of Waterloo , and has left a lasting legacy of his work in the form of two large models, a collection of letters containing the eyewitness accounts of Waterloo veterans, and a History of the War in France and Belgium in 1815 that has remained in print for almost 170 years. But Siborne’s skills as a model maker are largely unappreciated, and his work as a historian is clouded by controversy.

1. William Siborne

William Siborne © Peter Hofschroer

Siborne the Model Maker

How Siborne developed his interest in model making is not known. It may relate to his time as a Gentleman Cadet at the Royal Military College, or his service with the Army of Occupation in Paris after the war. But when the idea was put forward in 1830 of constructing a model of the battle of Waterloo to form the centrepiece of the new United Services Museum, he was in an ideal position to undertake the project. He had recently constructed a model of the battlefield of Borodino, and had published A Practical Treatise on Topographical Surveying and Drawing, to which he had appended some Instructions on Topographical Modelling. As a result he was invited by Sir Rowland Hill, General Commanding in Chief of the British Army, to make the model. Siborne immediately took leave from his job as Assistant Military Secretary to the Commander in Chief in Ireland, and spent the next eight months at the farm of La Haye Sainte surveying the battlefield with the aid of a plane table and alidade (such as used below).

 .©.RCAHMS

The site had already been damaged by the construction of the Lion Mound, commemorating the location where William Prince of Orange (the future William II) was wounded, and so Siborne had to recreate part of the battlefield using an earlier plan by the Dutch surveyor Craan and the knowledge of the local farmers. The detailed plans that Siborne produced unfortunately do not survive, and the only hint that remains is a small-scale black and white engraving that was published by his son in 1891.

When the survey was completed Siborne returned to Dublin and set about making his model. After working out an appropriate scale of nine feet to the mile, he calculated the size of the base, and divided it into a number of sections to make it easier to construct and to transport. He then transferred the details of his plan to each section, and used this information to sculpt a clay pattern. When the pattern was finished he created a mould, from which he made a plaster cast. He then added the fine detail – the roads, hedges, trees, crops and buildings – before the 10mm high lead figures were fixed in place. When completed the model measured 21 feet 4 inches by 19 feet 9 inches, and was populated by 80,000 figures, representing the 160,000 Allied, French and Prussian troops.

Siborne had entered into the construction of the model in good faith without any form of written agreement, and when his official funding was suddenly withdrawn, either as a result of the Treasury’s realisation that the cost (£3000) was much more than they had anticipated, or because the new Whig adminstration was not inclined to support a project celebrating the senior figure in the Tory party, he was forced to continue the project at his own expense.

The Model illustrating the Crisis of the Battle, when Napoleon launched the Imperial Guard in a last desperate gamble to gain victory, finally went on display at the Egyptian Hall off Piccadilly in 1838 to popular acclaim, with over over 100,000 people visiting the exhibition. Only one major criticism was raised, that it over represented the contribution of the Prussians in the final victory, and in the end Siborne rectified the ‘error’ by removing almost 20,000 figures.

The Large Model © National Army Museum

The Large Model © National Army Museum

Despite the success of the exhibition Siborne’s financial position remained precarious. His hopes that the Government would purchase the model remained frustrated, and his attempts to sell it were unsuccessful. He was finally able to raise sufficient funds to pay off his creditors, when to everyone’s surprise he announced an even more ambitious project to construct a series of smaller models showing critical moments in the battle.

The first of the smaller dioramas showing the charge of the British heavy cavalry under the Earl of Uxbridge at about 1.30 pm was the culmination of all Siborne’s skill, knowledge and experience as a model maker. He had long realised that because models were viewed from above, the choice of scale was critical to give the correct visual impression of the ground. He therefore chose to adopt for the New Model a horizontal scale of 15 feet to 1 inch (giving an overall base size of 18 feet 7 inches long by 7 feet 9 inches wide), and a vertical scale of 6 feet to 1 inch in order to best illustrate the undulating nature of the terrain. The result is a splendid impression of the battlefield that illustrates not only the ridge of Mont St. Jean, but the major features such as the the sunken road, the sand pit, the farm of La Haie Sainte, and the re-entrant.

No. 3, Panoramic Shot of the Royal Armouries museum Siborne model. © Royal Armouries

No. 3, Panoramic Shot of the Royal Armouries museum Siborne model. © Royal Armouries

Siborne made an equally careful choice of figure scale. He wanted to show the tactical formations used by the opposing forces at the exact moment of the charge, the two ranks of the British infantry standing in line, the nine ranks of the French infantry advancing in column, and the broken formations of the cavalry and infantry in melee, flight or pursuit.

To do this he adopted the generous ratio of 1 figure to every 4 actual soldiers, and 1 model to every field gun or limber. All of the figures were to be hand painted in the correct uniform colours and facings. But Siborne also wanted to illustrate the action, and so he had each of the 20mm figures cast with separate heads, arms and weapons to allow individual infantryman and cavalryman to be given unique poses. The capture of the eagles of the 45th and 105th Regiments by Sergeant Ewart (Scots Greys) and Captain Clark (Royals), and other scenes were clearly indentifiable. Finally he had a number of special figures made to represent the Duke of Wellington, the Earl of Uxbridge, Sir Thomas Picton, and Count d’Erlon. The result is a dramatic interpretation of the charge of the Household and Union Cavalry Brigades, and the rout of the 1st Corps d’Armee.

No. 4. The New Model can be seen at the Royal Armouries museum. © Royal Armouries

No. 4. The New Model can be seen at the Royal Armouries museum. © Royal Armouries

The model was not perfect. There were some errors arising from Siborne’s flawed research, such as the transposition of the location of the 1st and 2nd Divisions of d’Erlon’s Corps, the misidentification of the French cavalry regiments, and the absence of Bijlandt’s Dutch-Belgian Brigade, as well as some inaccuracies in the uniforms and weapons. But Siborne’s intention was to produce a model that would enable ‘a closer insight not only into the disposition and movements of the troops engaged, but also into those minutae of detail which characterize the actual battle-field’, and in that he succeeded.

 

Siborne’s Waterloo model: Reuniting soldiers with their swords

Conservation of Captain William Siborne’s large-scale Waterloo model is underway at the Royal Armouries in Leeds in advance of the bicentenary of the battle. The model is in fairly good overall condition considering its age (about 170 years), but it has understandably suffered damage over the years.

Some of the soldiers’ weapons have been bent, detached or, in some cases, lost completely. While conserving a section of the model I came across a row of cavalry who had lost their swords. This seemed a shame, as it detracted from the visual message that the soldiers were in the heat of a hard-fought battle. I wanted it to be obvious that they were in the midst of a battle, particularly as they were on the front line.

Fig_1

Sadly, their swords were nowhere to be found on the surface of the model, so I decided to make the soldiers new weapons. X-ray fluorescence (XRF) analysis revealed that cavalry swords on the model are made of silver, so I decided to use a different metal for my replica swords to avoid confusion regarding which swords are originals and which ones are replacements.

I started by polishing a thin sheet of copper with fine wire wool and cleaning it with acetone.

Fig_2

I then cut it into 1mm x 15mm strips to match the size of the real swords, and snipped the tips to form points.Fig_3

Fig_4

The swords were then coated with a clear adhesive to lend them strength and to protect the surface.

Fig_5

After the adhesive had dried the next step was to paint the replica swords with acrylic paints so that they would blend in better with the figures on the model – shiny copper would stand out too much.

Fig_6

Next I attached the replica swords to the cavalry figures with a tiny drop of cellulose nitrate adhesive and allowed it to dry. The end result is shown below.

Fig_7

Before

Fig_8

After

The goal of this treatment was to restore the weapons to the soldiers, thereby maintaining the drama and overall visual effect of the scene. I wanted the swords to look similar enough to the originals that at first glance they look original and the eye passes over them, but upon closer inspection it is obvious that they are replacement parts. I used different materials than the original swords on the model deliberately, so if they are examined in the future it should be clear that my swords are replacement parts.

The restoration of the swords was not necessary for the conservation of the model (as opposed to treating corroded figures, stabilising cracks, and so forth); it was a choice that was made for aesthetic and conceptual reasons. That is to say, I felt that restoring the swords not only looked better, but the presence of the swords in the hands of cavalry helped to tell the story of the battle depicted on the model.

Conservation of the model is ongoing. Through April 2015, weekday visitors to the Royal Armouries can meet the me, the Conservator, discuss the conservation programme and watch conservation of the model taking place. Capacity is limited, so for more information on how to take part please ring the Royal Armouries on 0113 220 1999 or email enquiries@armouries.org.uk.

Cymbeline Storey
Waterloo Model Conservator

Conservation Live! at the Royal Armouries: Siborne’s Waterloo Model

Conservation of Captain William Siborne’s remarkable model of the battlefield of Waterloo is now underway at the Royal Armouries in Leeds.

Conservation Live! of the miniature soldiers of Waterloo.

Conservation Live! of the miniature soldiers of Waterloo.

The model, which was completed in 1843, shows – in marvellous detail – the battlefield as it was at around 1:30pm on 18 June 1815. It is more than five metres long and two metres wide, and it comes apart into ten sections. The battlefield is populated by more than 3,000 finely modelled and painted lead figures including soldiers, horses and artillery.

sibornemodel

Section of the model before conservation.

The model has been on display at the Royal Armouries since 1996. Now, in advance of the bicentenary of the battle, it is being dismantled and conserved piece by piece as part of a Conservation Live! programme.

Cleaning the thousands of models on the battlefield is a slow and careful process.

Cleaning the thousands of models on the battlefield is a slow and careful process.

British soldiers in miniature - look closely and you can see their individual faces!

British soldiers in miniature – look closely and you can see their individual faces!

A Waterloo soldier supports his wounded companion.

A Waterloo soldier supports his wounded companion.

The detail on each figure has to be seen to be believed.

The detail on each figure has to be seen to be believed.

Conservator Cymbeline Storey working on the model.

Conservator Cymbeline Storey working on the model.

From March until May 1st 2015 museum visitors can meet the Conservator, discuss the conservation programme and watch conservation of the model taking place. At 11:00 and 2:00 visitors can attend talks with the Conservator, which is ticketed due to limited access, or simply drop in between 2:30-3:30pm. For more information on how to take part please ring the Royal Armouries on 0113 220 1999 or email enquiries@armouries.org.uk. Alternatively, keep your eye out for further blog posts over the next few months as conservation work progresses

Cymbeline Storey
Waterloo Model Conservator

 

A Model Battle

The Royal Armouries in Leeds is home to a model of part of the battle of Waterloo; the model was made by Captain William Siborne in 1842–43. Siborne had not been at the battle but on hearing that the site was to be altered he decided to make a model of the site exactly as it was on 18 June 1815 at 2pm.

A section of the Battle of Waterloo model

A section of the Battle of Waterloo model

The model of the battlefield is 18 ft 4 in. by 7 ft 5 in and made up of ten sections. The model is made to a scale of 15 feet to 1 inch and the figures are to a scale of 6 feet to 1 inch in order that they might remain identifiable. The farm buildings are also this scale to avoid incongruity.

The model shows the area around the Brussels-Wavre crossroads, including the farm of La Haye Sainte, which was a critical position during the battle. The farmhouse was key to the centre of Wellington’s position. It was held by an Allied German garrison who fought bravely. When they ran out of ammunition they went on fighting with rifle butts and throwing stones, but eventually the French captured this important position. The Duke of Wellington and his staff are shown in the model to the North-West of La Haye Sainte.

Close up of Battle of Waterloo model

Close up of Battle of Waterloo model

The model was first exhibited in London in 1844 but we do not know for certain where the Royal Armouries model moved then until 1868 when it was shown in Germany. Further exhibitions on the continent were then abandoned due to representations from the French Government.

The model returned to Dublin in possession of a Mr Evans, who seems to have put up the money for it and to have foreclosed. It was later rediscovered in the possession of a Mr Barrington in a storehouse near Dublin in 1907. Mrs Barrington-Malone inherited the property, and transferred the model to the Staff College, Camberley.

In 1925 it was taken into charge of the Tower Armouries, and moved to the Tower of London in 1935, where it was restored by a Mr Cawood. The model was displayed in the Small Arms Room of the White Tower until 1949. Then it was cleaned again, possibly by Russell Robinson, and stored until 1962 when it was moved to Dover Castle. It was returned in 1982, and finally put back on display in Leeds in 1996.

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