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Western art

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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


C.T. Binns, The last Zulu King.

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

Annette van den Bosch, BA Hons Thesis University of Sydney, 1979.

Edmund Capon AM, OBE and Jan Meek (Editors), Portrait of a Gallery, 'European art in the old courts', pg. 14-23, Sydney, 1984, 19.

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

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

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

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

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

Samuel Carter Hall (Editor), The Art Journal, London, 1880, 170, 125.

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

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

Stephanie Lane and Guy Maddern, 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

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

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.

Donald R. Morris, Washing the spears, cover (illus.).

National Gallery of Victoria [Swanston Street], National Art Gallery of New South Wales and Art Gallery of South Australia, Catalogue of the loan collections of oil paintings: exhibited at the Melbourne, Sydney, and Adelaide national galleries, Melbourne, 1894. 2

Ron Radford, Humphrey McQueen, Mary Eagle, Virginia Spate, Daniel Thomas AM, Jane Hylton, Barry Pearce, Leigh Astbury, Helen Topliss, Roger Arthur Butler and Jane Hylton, Tom Roberts, Adelaide, 1996, 24.

Oliver Richmond and Palgrave Macmillan, The transformation of peace, 2005, cover (colour illus.).

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

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

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

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

Author Unknown, The Saturday Review, 27 Mar 1880, 411.

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