My 'Trooping the Colour' and the Errors of the Daily Mail

This piece first appeared as a broadsheet with the above title in May 1959; the present text is that reprinted in William Roberts, Five Posthumous Essays and Other Writings (Valencia, 1990). © The Estate of John David Roberts. Reproduced with the permission of the William Roberts Society.

'Visnews filmed May 2 at London's historic Royal Academy artist William Roberts's £1,500 painting of the colourful and traditional Horse Guards ceremony Trooping the Colour – a painting that has shocked the Guards: There are 17 instances of improper dress in it.' (British Pathé)

Mr Stanley Bonnett, 'ace' reporter of the Daily Mail – I assume he is an 'ace', for he was given a front-page 'spread' in that newspaper's issue of 1st May – has been getting agitated about seventeen 'errors' of dress, etc., he claims to have found in my picture Trooping the Colour now on exhibition at the Royal Academy. This reporter seems to have been especially 'detailed' to 'cover' my painting. His first glance at my 'Parade' caused him to see red. Snatching a six-inch photograph of the nine feet by six feet canvas, he hurried with all speed from the gallery to the headquarters of the Guards Brigade at Birdcage Walk to ask them what they thought of it. Oh, Mr. Bonnett, collar and cuff details from a six-inch photo, was that quite fair to the Guards? In my opinion the Daily Mail should have invited a detachment of guardsmen to the Royal Academy for a dress-inspection of the picture, before eliciting their criticism; but in that case our reporter would have lost his seventeen-error scoop. From the Guards headquarters Mr. Bonnett rushed to a telephone to inform me in excited voice of his great discovery. In his report of our phone talk he adds another 'error' to his list, when he makes me say, 'I hope I shall be more correct next time – should I paint a military subject.'

Now let us take a look at the Daily Mail's famous collection of errors. I have divided the list into three categories: The Silly; The Sham; and the Genuine. I will take the silly section first:

No. 1 Prince Philip's spur is too high on his boot.

No. 3 None of the tunics seem to fit – not even the Queen's.

No. 4 Officers are wearing ammunition boots, and not Wellingtons.

No. 6 The Duke of Gloucester is holding his reins as if he is about to charge down the Mall.

No. 7 Mounted officers are holding their swords up in the air, instead of resting the tip of the hilt on their thighs.

No. 8 All the men have trouser stripes which are far too broad – they are as thin as piping.

No. 9 The pennants of the marker flags are shown as triangular and not square.
(Really, Mr. Bonnett, is this quite fair to the Guards? They, I am certain, know that a flag changes shape in a breeze, even if you do not.)
No. 15 The officer of the 'Blues' who leads the line of horsemen at the top of the picture has his reins too far forward – they should be over the withers.

No. 17 All the bayonets seem to be fixed in the rifle barrels, or are at least the wrong way round.

I do not think we need give those nine items any further attention. It is criticism of this sort that drives some artists to drink and others into 'Action painting' or 'Other Art'! Let us now consider the 'Sham' errors. In this section the confused criss-cross of the pattern of errors is completely bewildering.

No. 10 Some Coldstream Guards have their right buttons (in pairs) and cuffs, but Irish Guards collar badges.

No. 11 Some Scots Guards have their own collar badges and buttons (in threes) but Coldstream shoulder straps.

No. 12 Some Welsh Guards have their own collar badges, but Coldstream markings elsewhere.

No. 13 Some Irish Guards have their rightful collar badges, but Coldstream shoulder straps.

No. 16 The Scots Guards who are Trooping the Colour appear to be doing so through a mixture of Coldstream Guards and Irish Guards – very unlikely.
(A nice mess indeed if it were true, Mr. Bonnett. The responsibility for this does not lie with the soldiers, they had not seen the original work, but I am sure that no Guardsman viewing my picture would have mistaken a rose for a shamrock, as our ace reporter seems to have done. For your special information Mr. Bonnett, there are no Irish Guards in my painting.)
Of these seventeen 'errors' there remain only three to deal with: the genuine ones.

No. 2 Prince Philip's sword is reversed.

No. 5 The Ensign of the 1st Battalion, Scots Guards should be preceded, not followed, by a subaltern.

No. 14 The officer on the left of the picture has his sword up, when he should have it down at the salute.

In this final group I propose to eliminate No. 2, Prince Philip's sword, from the list of errors, because, firstly, if a soldier can fall down on parade, a sword could easily get reversed; secondly, and more important, it makes a better design in that position. Although I am afraid I shall infuriate the punctilious gentlemen of the Daily Mail, I nevertheless justify, for these same reasons of composition, the placing of the subaltern behind the Ensign, and the upraised sword on the left of the picture. From this review of the 'errors' it can be seen, that out of the seventeen attributed to me, fourteen belong entirely to Mr. Stanley Bonnett of the Daily Mail.

Not content with its efforts of 1st May to demonstrate to its readers that my TROOPING THE COLOUR was nothing more than a heap of incorrect military uniforms, the Daily Mail set out the following day to show the world how the Guards should be pictured. In its issue of 2nd May a pathetic little cartoon, a product of their comic-strip man, depicts two burlesque Guards officers wearing enormous moth-eaten busbys and boots that would do credit to Charlie Chaplin or Little Tich. This pair of slapstick comedians are placed beside a reproduction of my painting, the intention being, of course, to show the right from the wrong way to portray a soldier. [The cartoon, by Emmwood, showed two Guardsmen in bearskin caps standing in front of Roberts’s picture at the RA, with one of them saying, ' . . . not only seventeen errors of dress Fanshawe, but I’ll wager the feller painted it needs a blawsted hair-cut.']

Well, Guardsmen, you have given Mr. Stanley Bonnett your criticism of my picture, now let me have your opinion of this Daily Mail cartoon.

6th May, 1959


After W.R.'s death, the picture was acquired by the Tate. To settle the question of the uniforms, etc., an official of the Tate wrote to the Department of Uniform of the National Army Museum. His first two questions were:
Q. What colour was trooped at the birthday parade in 1958?
A. The Queen's Colour of the 1st Battalion, Scots Guards.

Q. Is the colour shown in the painting that of the 1st Battalion, Scots Guards?
A. Yes.
with 6 other questions.

The Department of Uniform gave a long list of battle honours, beginning with Namur, 1695. Going over the errors claimed by the Daily Mail, the Department disallowed 8 of them.

However, they gave a further 11 errors, wandering off into a wilderness of shabraques and martingales.

The Tate official summed up neatly:
All the evidence seems, however, to make clear that Roberts did not intend a strictly accurate representation of this ceremony, either specifically in 1958 (when by contrast with the strong sunlight of the Tate's painting, the Trooping of the Colour took place in rain) or in general; but that subject to the requirements of a strong design, he went to some lengths by both observation and research to give a convincing impression of the look and atmosphere of the ceremony.

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