When I was 18, and a sophomore in college, I bought Omdurman by Philip Ziegler. I was taken by the British struggles to mount the expedition that avenged the fall of the Sudan to the Mahdist forces in 1885, and particularly the difficulty in fighting the Mahdists in 1883-1885. As I said in an earlier post, I knew something about the conflict from the movie Khartoum with Charlton Heston and Sir Lawrence Olivier. Before I’d read Ziegler’s book I’d read the chapter on General Charles Gordon in Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. I’d come to admire the man and his ability to work with native troops, respect their ways and accomplish great things with very little.
Gordon and the Sudan inspired one of my earliest wargaming projects. Some of the first 25mm figures I purchased were Hinchcliffe highlanders for the 1898 campaign. I actually paid someone to paint them as Gordon and Seaforth Highlanders, as they appeared at Omdurman. I bought 15mm Peter Lang miniatures for the period. In the 1980’s I put together a sizable British and Mahdist army for the period. 25mm Ral Partha figures, 25mm Minifigs, and even those Hinchliffe Highlanders made it on to the table. We played with Lynn Bodin’s Imperialism rules. I wonder where those figures are now?
When Alan and Michael Perry split off from Games Workshop and Foundry to begin their own ranges of historical miniatures, I became immediately interested in their Agincourt to Orleans and American Revolution ranges. Though they also included a very nice range of miniatures for the Sudan, I swore them off. Pretty figures, but not one of my core periods, and therefore, I chose to stay away. But one day in perusing the lists under Sudan Extras at the Warstore, I ran across a couple of interesting items. There was a heliograph team, and something called General Gordon’s Last Stand.
I recognized the Last Stand. It was a vignette based on a painting I knew well. The painting is General Gordon’s Last Stand by George William Joy from 1893. The painting depicts Gordon standing on the top step of his residence, pistol in hand, quieting the mob of Mahdist soldiers come to dispatch him and appears in Ziegler’s book. This scene figures crucially in the last scenes of Khartoum. The dervishes have overpowered the half-starved garrison and are searching for the Governor General. They come into his residence courtyard, a bloodthirsty mob, shouting for his head. Gordon takes his place before them, and for a moment he holds them in his quiet gaze, they are stilled, and their weapons fall to their sides. But one man breaks the spell and hurls his spear into Gordon’s chest. He falls, is beheaded, and is lost to the mythmakers.
I’ve owned the vignette for several years. It’s a special order item and must come from England. It took considerably more than four weeks to get it. I decided to assemble and paint it during the Christmas break.
The vignette comes in several pieces. The stairs of the residence comes in resin. There are the two railings in metal. There are four figures in metal, including Gordon and the three dervishes. You can see, in comparison to the Joy painting, the impossibility of duplicating Joy’s work while making it doable and affordable. So the vignette is basically cropped from Joy’s depiction. The painting shows many more of the Mahdist soldiers in the foreground as well as Gordon’s men in the background.
The first challenge I had was trying to figure out how to work with the pieces. I decided to mount the whole business on a circular Litko base 75mm in diameter. This ended up being a bit too large, but workable. Before fixing the stair piece to the base, I coated the disk with Liquitex modeling paste. It’s an acrylic material I believed would bond quickly to the resin staircase. I was right. The staircase itself required some trimming, easily done with a sharp X-acto knife.
While giving some time for this to dry (acrylic materials dry quite quickly,) I had some decisions to make about further assembly and priming. The top of the staircase, a metal piece required gluing. Despite some handy guides in the piece, it didn’t fit properly and required some trimming and puttying to get a seamless bond. I also decided to trim and glue the General Gordon figure into his position on the staircase before priming. There are pegs for his location that fit pretty accurately. Done and done. The remaining figures were posed a bit of a quandary for me. The three Mahdists had to fit together into extremely tight spaces on the stairs. It was going to take some doing. I assembled them and hand-primed them using Liquitex Gesso.
One of the problems I knew I was going to have was reproducing the feeling of Joy’s work. The painting is very dark. Gordon is dark and backlit by light. The Dervishes pop into the painting because of their white jibbahs, and I knew I would not have the light on dark feeling working for me. So, I did the best I could.
I started painting the staircase with Ceramcoat Ivory, which gives it a slightly yellow color, and dry brushed it with antique white. Not sure it makes a big difference, but there is lightening in places. After that I began painting Gordon. He appears almost black with a red fez and red shirt in the painting. I painted trousers and jacket with Vallejo Dark Prussian Blue. The fez was painted Vallejo Flat Red, and the shirt I painted Vallejo Vermillion. I highlighted the jacket and trousers with a mix of the DPB and light gray. This worked better than the Vallejo Prussian Blue or mixing the DPB with white. The tonal differences are there, but not as stark. I used Reaper Tanned Flesh for his skin tones, and Ceramcoat Antique Brown for his hair, sideburns and moustache. I think I did manage to get his eyeballs in there with some blue-gray.
While I was waiting in between bouts of painting Gordon I primed the three Dervish figures. I also painted the long railing and glued to its place on the wall. The railings I painted Ceramcoat Territorial Beige, which is a nice medium brown color.
The three Mahdist warriors are tricky. The figures themselves are fairly easy. They wear white jibbahs (a loose garment made from coarse cotton cloth, covered with patches,) and two wear turbans. The positioning of the soldiers on the staircase is critical. All three of the figures have pegs to help position them in holes cast into the staircase, but the position of the holes are not correct. The figures have no bases, so holding them properly to paint them can be tricky. So these are the complications in working with them. Having said that, they are quite nice and relatively easy to paint.
I chose the standing spearman to paint first. In the painting, his back is to the illustrator and he is closest to the wall. His position is critical and he should be glued first on to the staircase. He is the only black warrior. As I stated earlier, I primed all the figures with Liquitex Gesso, which is a white chalk-like material. Then I went over the jibbah with Ceramcoat White, two coats. Next, I painted the flesh using Ceramcoat Burnt Umber, which is a wonderfully rich dark brown and highlighted with Spice Brown. I used black for the hair, which is probably a little shorter than it should be and dry brushed it with Ceramcoat Charcoal. Though historically the jibbah patches could be quite bright and multi-colored, those in the painting are limited to red and black. I used vermillion for the red patches for its brightness. It’s important to get this figure first. The two semi-prone figures on the staircase won’t fit the narrow area properly if this figure takes more than the allotted space.
The remaining dervishes are Arab and I used Vallejo Medium Skin Tone for their flesh. No beards and their faces are sort of hidden from view. The swordsman is closest to Gordon and the elbow peg fits into the notch in the staircase. Nothing else special to mention. With all three dervish figures, I used a light gray paint to show creases and the outlines of the cotton belting. I probably could have used a lighter color, but I wanted it to be clearly visible from a distance. The vignette will be in a display case, and I would like to be seen without being handled. The final figure, the prone spearman was a little trickier. The contours of the steps are built into his body, and there is a peg on his elbow. No way does that peg fit into the staircase notch provided. In fact the painting shows this figure at the foot of the staircase, so I ended up cutting the peg off his arm. After doing this the figure fit fine.
I’ll close with this. I’m an out-of-the-box kind of miniaturist. I tend not to plan ahead and don’t like to go to a lot of extra trouble. I think the vignette as I’ve approached it works fine. The Joy painting shows many Mahdist soldiers in the foreground and it certainly would look great with a few of the Perry Nile Swordsmen and Spearmen to fill the space. Not what I need to do at this time, but an interesting idea.
General Gordon’s Last Stand was a different kind of painting experience for me. It was a pleasure to work on and I enjoyed it very much. Recommended.