The Last Muster - Sunday at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea

LL 3627


An old soldier - seen at the end of the central bench - has just died during a formal chapel service. Only one of the other pensioners is aware of his death, but for him at least it was indeed the Last Muster. Herkomer has painted an arbitrarily chosen section of the congregation with no regard for formal rules of composition. He has shown what seems at first to be an everyday scene on a very grand and solemn scale, more appropriate to a great occasion. The powerful and varied characterisation of the individual heads, indicating very different characters and past lives for each man, adds yet more grandeur - and pathos - to the event. Death for these old men may be expected, scarcely noticed and strictly disciplined, but it is still heroic. No preliminary sketches or drawings for the work were made. Instead, figures were sketched directly onto the canvas from models. Approximately 70 pensioners are depicted in the painting and its impact stems from Herkomer's sensitive portrayal of their individual characters. A very successful painting, the work was bought by CE Fry for £1,200 before being sent to the Royal Academy, where the hanging committee clapped as the painting was brought in front of them. 'The Last Muster' won a gold medal at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1878, an accolade only awarded to one other British painter, John Everett Millais.