Retribution (1858) by Edward Armitage, 1817-1896. Oil on canvas. By kind permission of Leeds Museums and Galleries (Leeds Art Gallery).

The terrible massacres of soldiers and their families at Cawnpore (present day Kanpur) during the Indian struggle for independence in 1857 provoked an equally cruel reaction from the British — an alarmingly indiscriminate revenge. On both sides, these were probably the worst atrocities of the Sepoy Rebellion. But although voices were soon raised at home against British outrages, public opinion largely countenanced the response, and the spirit of righteous revenge is exactly what Armitage's painting embodies. Writing just over twenty years later, J. Beavington Atkinson explains,

The figure personifies Britannia in the act of overthrowing the Bengal Tiger, the symbol of the bloodthirsty Sepoy. The carnage of war is seen around. The composition, it will be observed, is strictly symmetric, the forms are massive, the treatment is broad, the action dramatic, the idea noble. Such is the school with which Mr. Armitage has become identified. [406]

It does not seem such a noble idea now, and the composition itself is tinged with sensationalism and melodrama. The tiger is obviously about to meet its doom from a furious, intently focused Britannia. However, being at least largely allegorical, it avoids too much graphic detail. The dead woman with her arm protectively over her infant is not too horribly blood-smeared, and the living child crouched fearfully behind them seems fully protected. The damaged book or books, scrap of blue material and bracelet on the ground beside them are the only other signs of the "carnage of war." Alison Smith explains that the composition was probably intended as a fresco for Cuthbert Brodrick's new Town Hall at Leeds. As it was, Armitage (whose family came from the Leeds area) gave the canvas to the town hall. It still hangs there, in what was once called the Queen's Room — it has since been renamed the Ziff Gallery, after the philanthropists and patrons of the arts, Arnold and Marjorie Ziff.

Many thanks to Leeds Art Gallery for permission to reproduce this image. Click on it for a larger picture. Text and formatting by Jacqueline Banerjee, with information about the Ziff Gallery from Jill Armitage.

Related Material


Atkinson, J. Beavington. English Painters of the Present Day. London: Selley, 1871: 19-24. Internet Archive. Contributed by Robarts Library, University of Toronto. Web. 3 February 2016.

Smith, Alison. "Edward Armitage (1817-1896), Retribution. Artist and Empire: Facing Britain's Imperial Past. Eds. Smith, David Blayney Brown, and Carol Jacobi. London: Tate Publishing, 2015. 105.

Last modified 1 March 2020