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Villiers: Drawings from the South African War

Villiers: Drawings from the South African War

Frederic Villiers was popular at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th as a war correspondent and war artist. He reported from military campaigns, 1870s on, being credited with many “firsts” amongst which the use of a bicycle as a vehicle and of a cine-camera on the battle fields. He also travelled across the globe to cover important events such as the coronation of Tsar Alexander III in Russia. To report from the various war theatres or noteworthy occasions, he used the written word, but also pencil, brush, photography or film. Villiers contributed illustrations to the Graphic, Black and White, Standard, English Illustrated Magazine, Idler and The London Illustrated News. In addition, he published several books, using his photographs or sketches as illustrations: Peaceful Personalities and Warriors Bold (1907) and Villiers. His Five Decades of Adventure (1921).

Frederic Villiers’ drawings in our collection have been produced most likely before Christmas 1899 to mid-February 1900, during the Second Boer War. According to His Five Decades of Adventure, Villiers travelled to South Africa from Australia arriving there in the early days of December 1899. A distinguishing feature are the author’s annotations in pencil explaining the subject of the image, in a cinematic storyboard-like manner (or cartoon-like manner). All drawings are executed in pencil and diluted black watercolour on paper, giving the impression of a black and white image.

According to the museum records, the drawings were presented by the 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment on the occasion of the Regiment’s centennial anniversary in 1983. They were acquired on the 3rd of March 1983 in Germany, from a member of Canadian Forces Base Lahr - Fire Department, who procured them in a Danish antique store. 

The Orange Free State

The inscription in pencil on the left upper side of the desolate image is an inside of the landscape depicted here: “On the heel of an invasion, The Orange Free State.” The vantage point is from Jacobsdaal, a village where the Boers led by Piet Cronje were encamped; very far, in the background, as the artist indicates, there is a glimpse of Paardeberg, the drift on the Modder River, where they confronted the British troops.


DATE: ca. 1899-1900
DONATED BY: 3rd Battalion, The Royal Canadian Regiment
OBJECT ID: RCRM1983.006.0001a

The Crown Royal Hotel (Boer Wounded)

The title “Crown Royal Hotel” is an irony to the condition of the improvised first aid station depicted here. This image has striking similarities with a photograph taken by Reinhold Thiele of a crowded field hospital at Paardeberg, with wounded people unsheltered, waiting on the floor, or on the ground, for medical care. According to the Villiers’s note in the lower left corner, the scene of this sketch is in the aftermath of a confrontation at Springfontein, a farming area in the Orange Free State, where a the British would eventually establish a Boer concentration camp in 1900.


DATE: ca. 1899-1900
OBJECT ID: RCRM1983.006.0001c

The Heroes of Kimberley

This image depicts the meeting between Sir Cecil Rhodes, mining magnate and former prime minister of the Cape Colony, and Lieutenant General John French, officer commanding the artillery of the IX British Division.

The siege of Kimberley had held back the British for almost four months in their efforts to reach Bloemfontain, the capital city of the Free Orange State. During the siege, Sir Cecil Rhodes, better known after the scholarship he named after him, had interfered with the British Army attempts to lift the siege, but ultimately he provided them with water and food. Between 11 and 15 February 1900, Lieutenant General French and his men managed to relief the siege thus commencing the march towards the more important target, Bloemfontein.

As Villiers was attached to the Kimberley relief column led by French, he may have witnessed this encounter, at Hotel Sanatorium. Yet another reason for Villiers to pay attention to the episode is his friendship with Rhodes’ brother, Colonel Frank Rhodes, who served 23 years in the British Army.

DATE: ca. 1899-1900
OBJECT ID: RCRM1983.006.0001e

Guard of Royal Artillerymen

According to an autograph inscription on the verso of this sketch, Villiers illustrated a colloquial luncheon offered to Piet Cronje, the Boers commander, and his wife: “Cronje the Boer Commander (and wife) entertained to a champagne luncheon by the General in Command at Modder River at the Hotel Royal before leaving by train for Cape Town”. The episode being placed in the aftermath of Cronje’s surrender, the “guests” are heavily guarded by British artillerymen.

The inscription nevertheless raises more questions than it answers. Did the artist use his imagination, ultimately giving a distorted account of the British treatment to their Boer prisoners? Without going over all the arguments, it seems so.

It is unlikely that the Boer commander would have been offered such courtesy following a very costly victory to the British camp. The Battle of Modder River (28 November 1899) was won at great losses and Cronje did not surrender until 27 February 1900, when Lord Roberts’ formation forced him to do so at Paardeberg Drift. Also, Hotel Royal, was situated in Springfontein, a considerable distance from Modder River.

However, two elements can be authenticated: Cronje did bring his wife, Hester, at the front, and they did leave from Cape Town into their exile to St Helen Island, after the Boer defeat at Paardeberg.

DATE: ca. 1899-1900
OBJECT ID: RCRM1983.006.0001b

The Vickers Mayin, at Paardeberg

One of the most famous weapons of the Boer war was the 37 mm one pound Maxim Nordenfeldt or Vickers Maxim. It was offered to, but refused by the British Army. 

The Transvaal however thought differently: it was a cost-effective way of getting a light support weapon in the hands of their commandos and they bought 22 under licence in Germany and Holland. From the first day of the war, the gun rapidly developed a mystique and had a demoralising effect on British soldiers. Outgrowing their fear, the British managed to capture most of the Boer cannons, but not before the Battle of Paardeberg.

DATE: ca. 1899-1900
OBJECT ID: RCRM1983.006.0001d