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The defence of Rorke's Drift 1879



Alphonse de Neuville


31 May 1835 - 19 May 1885


The so-called Zulu War came at the moment of greatest British imperial presence in South Africa. Though understood differently today, in 1879 - the year of the event depicted in de Neuville's famous canvas - the violent exchange was seen in terms of Britain's rightful defence of its own colonial prestige. Rorke's Drift was a small outpost on the banks of the Buffalo River in Natal Province. A large Zulu force, having slaughtered around 900 troops and native levies at nearby Isandlhwana, set upon the eighty soldiers of the Warwickshire Regiment stationed at Rorke's Drift. The defenders managed to hold off their attackers, usually characterised as an undisciplined horde, in a bloody hand-to-hand battle of Boys' Own proportions. The subsequent awarding of eleven Victoria Crosses confirmed the heroic dimension of the skirmish, though it hardly explains the interest of a Parisian Salon painter in this quintessentially English subject. De Neuville based his pre-cinematic version of events on military reports and survivors' accounts.

AGNSW Handbook, 1999.





Media category


Materials used

oil on canvas


181.4 x 301.5 cm stretcher; 261.0 x 377.0 x 29.0 cm frame

Signature & date

Signed and dated l.r., black oil "A de Neuville / 1880".


Purchased 1882

Accession number


Artist information

Alphonse de Neuville

Works in the collection


Shown in 4 exhibitions

Exhibition history


Fine Art Society PLC, London/England, Purchased by the AGNSW from the Fine Art Society 1882. 'The Defence of Rorke's Drift 1879' was commissioned by the Fine Art Society.

Referenced in 25 publications


Renée Free, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'European', pg. 36-56, Sydney, 1988, 41.

Bruce James, Art Gallery of New South Wales handbook, 'Western Collection: Paintings and Sculpture', pg. 17-77, Sydney, 1999, 43 (colour illus.).

Steven Miller, Look, 'Anatomy of an artwork - The killing field', Sydney, Jan 2018-Feb 2018, pp 24–25 (and p 15), col illus pp 24–25.

Steven Miller, Look, 'A dog's life', Sydney, Dec 2015-Jan 2016, pp 18–19: p 18, col illus p 19 (detail).

Roslyn Russell, National Library of Australia news, 'Eliezer Montefiore from Barbados to Sydney', pg. 11-14, Canberra, Dec 2008, 12.

Brian Turner, Look, "Rorke's Drifters: a battle for the empire lures visitors to the Gallery", Melbourne, Mar 2001, 26 (colour illus.). illustration is a detail

The Dust Rose Like Smoke: The Subjugation of the Zulu and the Sioux, United States of America, 1996, cover (illus.).

Tom Roberts, Adelaide, 1996, 24.

British Artists and War: The Face of Battle in Painting and Prints, 1700-1914, London, 1993, 189 (illus.).

The fine art of surgery, 'Surgeons on the battkefield in the 19th century', pg.36-47, London, 2012, 46, 47 (colour illus.). fig.25a and 25b

Art and Australia, 'Victorian favourites: a conversation - Elwyn Lynn and Lloyd Rees', pg. 49-56, Sydney, Spring 1984, 49, 51 (illus.), 56.

Salon and Académie: the charm of tradition: a catalogue of nineteenth-century European salon works, Sydney, 1984, (illus.). no catalogue numbers

Portrait of a Gallery, 'European art in the old courts', pg. 14-23, Sydney, 1984, 19.

History and legend in some selected paintings at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1980, 13 (illus.).

Alphonse de Neuville: L'épopée de la défaite, 1979. plate no. 31

BA Hons Thesis University of Sydney, 1979.

The Defence of Rorke's Drift, January 22nd 1879, by an Eye eitness, 1915.

Catalogue of the loan collections of oil paintings: exhibited at the Melbourne, Sydney, and Adelaide national galleries, Melbourne, 1894. 2

The Saturday Review, 27 Mar 1880, 411.

The Art Journal, London, 1880, 170, 125.

The last Zulu King.

Washing the spears, cover (illus.).

War in the nineteenth century 1800-1914, 2009, cover (colour illus.).

Lieutenant Colonel George Stratford Mardall and his family, London, 2017, illus p 54, col illus p 365, no 11.

The transformation of peace, 2005, cover (colour illus.).