Curated by Brian Leigh Dunnigan
The Clements Library is pleased to share a new online exhibit, 1759: Britain's Year of Victories, based on an exhibit that was on display in the Avenir Great Room of the William L. Clements Library from June 8 to October 9, 2009.
Benjamin West’s iconic history painting, “The Death of General Wolfe,” has looked down on the Avenir Foundation Room of the Clements Library since it was acquired by William L. Clements in the late 1920s. It is surely the best-known image of the Seven Years’ War (or the French and Indian War as the American part of that global conflict is called in the United States). The painting commemorates the defeat of a French army at Québec on September 13, 1759, and apotheosizes the victorious British commander, Major General James Wolfe, who died on the field of battle. Idealized in almost every respect, West’s composition was intended to represent the triumph of British arms and the acquisition of a much-expanded empire rather than to realistically depict the event itself. A British officer, approaching from the left with a captured white regimental color, heralds the decline of French fortunes that, with the signing of a treaty of peace in 1763, would cost France most of her American empire.
Québec was only one of a series of British victories in 1759—the annus mirabilis—that would decisively shift the momentum of the war against the French and in Britain’s favor. A celebratory medal struck that year recognized victories and victors in seven major engagements fought in America, in Europe, and on the high seas. An inverted fleur-de-lis symbolized the reversal of French ambitions and the prowess of the forces directed by Prime Minister William Pitt under the auspices of King George II, whose profile graces the obverse of the medal.
In 2009 the Clements Library marked the 250th anniversary of the British victories of 1759 by presenting a few of the treasures from its collections that illustrate the events and participants in that momentous year. This online version has been enhanced by the addition of a number of items that could not be displayed in 2009 due to the limited space available in the exhibit cases.