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.
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".
Shown in 4 exhibitions
Unknown, Fine Arts Society, Fine Art Society PLC, London, Mar 1880–Mar 1880
Loan collections of oil paintings:
- Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide 1894–1894
- Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney 1894–1894
- National Gallery of Victoria [Swanston Street], Melbourne Sep 1894–Sep 1894
Centenary of Rorke's Drift, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1980–1980
Salon and Academie: the charm of tradition, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 15 Nov 1984–May 1985
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 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
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 transformation of peace, 2005, cover (colour illus.).
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
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
The Saturday Review, 27 Mar 1880, 411.
The Art Journal, London, 1880, 170, 125.
Washing the spears, cover (illus.).
Portrait of a Gallery, 'European art in the old courts', pg. 14-23, Sydney, 1984, 19.
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.