Louis Haghe was born in Belgium and trained there as a watercolour painter and lithographer. He came to London in 1823 and entered into partnership with the publisher William Day, making superior quality lithographic illustrations for which the firm Day & Haghe became famous. A founding member of the New Society of Painters in Water Colours, Haghe exhibited with the organisation from 1835 and served as president from 1873 to 1884.
Given Haghe’s predilection for historical genre scenes and architectural interiors that were often set in Belgium, it is reasonable to assume that the Art Gallery of NSW’s watercolour The miseries of war illustrates a fictive event woven around the backdrop of almost continual warfare in the Spanish-ruled Southern Netherlands during the turbulent 17th century, when Flemish towns were frequently besieged by foreign armies fighting the Spanish.
When the work was exhibited in 1850 at the New Society of Painters in Water Colours, it was accompanied by a quote chosen by the painter from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, part 2:
O War, thou son of Hell,
Whom angry heavens do make their minister
Throw in the frozen bosoms of our part
Hot coals of vengeance!
The particular conflict to which the painted episode relates was deliberately unspecified, the watercolour addressing in generalised terms the fate of ordinary mortals caught up in military warfare. However, we can see from the clothing worn by the figures that the setting is the 17th century – a fact noted by the reviewer writing in The Art Journal in 1850: ‘The subject is an allusion to the capture of a town, some of the inhabitants of which are made prisoners in a portion seemingly of the crypt of a church, which has been appropriated as a guard-room. The period is about the middle of the seventeenth century, and the locale any part of the Low Countries. The charm of this work is the unmistakeable daylight which pervades it. The light, from a window on the right, breaks on the figures in a manner at once to demonstrate light and substance… The shades are equally successful, every degree being accompanied by a perfect transparency, and the depths are produced without blackness.’
Adapted from Victorian watercolours, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 2017