Well-known French military author and illustrator Patrice Courcelle is in conversation with Waterloo Uncovered’s Camille Machiels from Belgium, and describes his passion for bringing the Napoleonic past to life.
Patrice Courcelle is a highly respected French painter and military historian now living in Belgium. His detailed drawings, plate illustrations and paintings of the uniforms and equipment of soldiers from many historic periods are all based on intensive research. His passion is for the armies of the Napoleonic Wars, and he’s written or illustrated over 80 books on the period including more than 25 on Waterloo. His works are published by specialist companies in Belgium, France, and Britain and he has an avid readership ranging from historians, to enthusiasts and military modellers. His particular skill is not just in rendering detail accurately, but in capturing the feeling of soldiers on campaign.
His original paintings sell worldwide and are exhibited in prestigious venues such as the French Military Academy. In 2013, the Royal Army and Military Museum in Brussels held a 6-month retrospective exhibition of his artwork, and in 2019, the Memorial 1815 Museum in Waterloo showed some of his work in their temporary exhibition on Blücher and Napoleon.
More information about Courcelle’s work can be find on his website and newly opened platform HERITAGE where he hosts articles about the Napoleonic era.
Why did you decide to focus on military illustrations? Do you only focus on the Napoleonic era or do you illustrate scenes from other time periods as well?
I was seven when I really fell in love with model soldiers. One evening with my father, I walked by two enormous shop windows filled with armies in miniature. I was bowled over and I became completely obsessed by them. Since we didn’t have a lot of money – and certainly not enough for toy soldiers – I experimented with making some out of Play-Doh, and I started to doodle. Over the years, the obsession didn’t leave me. When I turned 20, I was still doodling, and getting better all the time, because I just loved to draw. And I was still fascinated by toy soldiers. I did try training in “Fine Arts” but this didn’t excite me -I always wanted to get straight to the heart of the subject. Practicing drawing geometrical pyramids and spheres in the correct perspective wasn’t really my thing. Instead, I learned the right way to draw a horse, for example, which is actually a lot more difficult.
To answer the second part of your question. Yes, let’s say that my main interest is in the British and French armies during the Napoleonic wars. But to understand that period we also need to look at the end of the French Monarchy and the Revolutionary Wars, as it’s a chain of events. The last 10 years of the so-called Ancien Régime really interest me – let’s say from the end of the American War of Independence onwards. I’ve done a lot of work to study the armies of Russia, Prussia and Austria as well, and the colonial wars of overseas empires, in Canada, for example. In addition to my Napoleonic specialism, I also really enjoy looking at other historical periods such as the 16th, 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries and even more recent times, like World War One. Without being a specialist, I can pick up on the differences in style and appearance from one period to another. As a consequence, I’m able to respond to a lot of different requests for my work.
What types of scene do you prefer to draw?
What I love best is drawing, but I also love to compose a battle scene. Talent– as Jacques Brel would say is “5% inspiration and 95% perspiration”. The one talent I feel I have – because all the rest is hard graft- is to be able to compose a scene. I taught myself the rules of composition and I quickly started to play with them. I soon learned how it works, so arranging a battle scene – putting in cavalry charges and so on- is a real pleasure that never stops.
I also like to convey the sense that there’s a human being in the uniform, and that the drawing tells a story. Capturing that in each drawing is important and it’s the reason why I really enjoy working at my drawing canvas. If the character is alone and static, then I try to capture the details of their facial expression to tell the story of that character.
Can you describe the work that you need to do before starting a new illustration?
I have been collecting books, magazines, sale catalogues; doing research in archives and the internet; exchanging information with other amateurs and militaria collectors for a very long time. Over the years, I’ve acquired some solid knowledge and a huge working library that stretches all the way into my garage. I have read a lot so when I receive a commission for a new illustration or when I want to create one, I already have the outlines in my head, and I know where I need to look for the information that I need. This is how it all starts. I also realise what I’m missing as I progress into the painting because there always is a piece of information that is missing. In addition, if the work is for a client, then it’s usually the case that the client has already done some research on his side and brings in a portfolio of reference material. We would then compare and discuss the work together.
How do you approach an illustration when there are no surviving examples to base your work on?
That’s the kind of challenge that interests me. To give you an example of a complex illustration, I love to depict the historical sites of my country and the region where I have been living for 40 years, in their original state from centuries ago, using all the information it’s possible to collect. If I don’t have enough information, I simply do not start the illustration. But in reality, if I have the desire to start work on a new illustration, it’s because I’ve collected enough source material, and the illustration then starts to appear in my head. I try to recreate what I see in my mind. I collect everything. If it’s about a particular location or battlefield (and in the case of Waterloo I have the privilege of living 3km away from the battlefield), then I begin by going to the site and I stand there to see how certain buildings look from a certain angle. I also search for original engravings which show more or less the same angle that I want to draw. Having done all of that, then I look at the uniforms. For me the uniforms are only pieces of cloth on men and it’s the men that really interest me. So, the uniforms (with the buttons and other accessories) come at the end.
Your work is mostly your personal interpretation of a scene. What kind of feedback do you get? Do you ever get criticisms from the audience?
My work does seem to be a real success with editors and amateur historians. You just need to take a look at my Facebook page – sometimes I get comments like ‘You’re amazing!” – which I think is a little too much. But people are happy so it makes me happy. Getting such a response is one of the reasons we do our job. In my case, it also brings in new information, there is an educational aspect to it. I want to share what I know, and from what I see, people are happy and enthusiastic about my drawings. The people whom I respect recognise the quality of my work, even in some French universities, which can be quite close-minded. When it comes to the uniforms, the buttons, the weapons … I do not invent anything. But I recognise that sometimes I might get something wrong. In addition, military illustration is not an exact science. The information changes, and styles change too. Maybe I wouldn’t redo a painting now in the same way I would have done 20 years ago.
And of course, from time to time there’s some negative feedback. It’s inevitable. If we produce a lot of work, there is going to be someone who will take issue with it. Sometimes they are right and sometimes they just want to show off. There are some people who try to find errors in the background of the paintings. With most people I usually have a conversation. If someone doesn’t agree with me, I can often learn something from them. I don’t pretend to know everything. I am someone who works hard and tries to get it right. If someone has done more work than me on a particular subject or finds out something that I didn’t know, it’s good. We can share.