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Canberra Today 6°/7° | Friday, July 1, 2022 | Digital Edition | Crossword & Sudoku

Tall tales but true, the hero behind the portrait

James Jacques Tissot’s 1870 portrait of dashing hero … one of the paintings in the “Shakespeare to Winehouse” exhibition.

WAS Frederick Burnaby the model for fictional Victorian hero Sir Harry Paget Flashman VC, KCB, KCIE?

Clive Williams.

I had not heard of Frederick Gustavus Burnaby (1842-1885) before I went to the “Shakespeare to Winehouse” exhibition at the Canberra National Portrait Gallery (showing until July 17). 

The exhibition of more than 80 portraits is on loan from the British National Portrait Gallery. The London gallery is currently undergoing renovations, which has allowed part of its priceless collection to travel to Australia. 

One of the portraits loaned to Canberra was by James Jacques Tissot (1870). It shows Frederick Burnaby relaxing in the splendid uniform of a captain in the Royal Horse Guards. But Burnaby was not just the military equivalent of that infamous social dilettante, Bertie Wooster.

Burnaby was an intelligence officer, Victorian hero, and larger-than-life figure. Burnaby’s adventurous spirit, pioneering achievements, and swashbuckling courage earned him great affection in the minds of Victorian imperial idealists. 

He entered the Royal Horse Guards in 1859, aged 17. Finding no chance for active service at that time, his spirit of adventure sought outlets in ballooning, and travels through Spain, Russia and what is now called the Middle East, often with his faithful servant, George Radford. 

To add to his image, he was 193 centimetres tall, weighed 127 kilograms and was said to be the strongest man in the British Army, able to lift a pony with each arm.

Burnaby spoke several foreign languages, including Russian, German, French, Arabic and Turkish, and was an accomplished observer and writer.

In the summer of 1874, Burnaby accompanied the Carlist forces in Spain as correspondent for “The Times”. He also wrote forPunch” and “Vanity Fair”.

He wrote five books. They include “A Ride to Khiva: Travels and Adventures in Central Asia 1876” and “On Horseback Through Asia Minor 1877” – both free to read on Google books.

Burnaby stood for parliament twice, in 1880 and 1885, and was admired and feted by the women of London high society. His popularity was legendary, and he appeared in a number of stories and tales of empire.

On March 23, 1882, he crossed the English Channel in a gas balloon. Having been disappointed in his hope of seeing active service in the Egyptian Campaign of 1882, he participated in the Suakin campaign of 1884 (in Sudan) without official leave and was wounded at El Teb when acting as an intelligence officer for his friend Gen Valentine Baker.

All of this reminds me of the “Flashman” stories by George MacDonald Fraser. Unlike Flashman, Burnaby does not mention his sexual exploits, but he clearly had an eye for the ladies. In Mongolia he saw one young woman whose mother had been captured by a Tartar raiding party. She was classically beautiful by European standards – but to Tartar men she was unattractive. Burnaby observed that Tartar men particularly prized women with round moon faces. Being practical, Tartar men also preferred an unattractive woman who could cook to an attractive one who couldn’t.

Col. Burnaby died as he lived – on another adventure; this time a British military expedition up the Nile. During the battle of Abu Klea, he ran forward from the British line to rescue a wounded British colleague and was struck fatally by a Mahdist spear that passed though his neck and throat. He was 42 years of age when he died.

There are two memorials erected to his memory – in Holy Trinity Garrison Church, Windsor, the first by the officers and men of the Royal Horse Guards, and the second, a privately funded memorial from Edward, Prince of Wales.

I thought I would end with some witticisms dating from the Victorian era:

  • “Why are circus horses the slowest breed?” 

“Because they are taught horses.”

  • “Who was the greatest chicken-killer in Shakespeare?” “Macbeth, because he did murder most foul.”
  • “Doesn’t it make you dizzy to waltz?” 

“Yes, but one must get used to it, you know. It’s the way of the whirled.”

  • “If all the seas were dried up, what would Neptune say?” 

“I really haven’t a notion.”

  • “What would contain all the snuff in the world?” 

“No one nose.”

And the descriptive:

“Pawnbrokers prefer customers without any redeeming qualities.”

“There’s a man at Camberwell so fat that they grease the omnibus-wheels with his shadow.”


Clive Williams is a Canberra columnist

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Clive Williams

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