Boudica Revisited

In stature she was very tall, in appearance most terrifying, in the glance of her eye most fierce, and her voice was harsh; a great mass of the tawniest hair fell to her hips; around her neck was a large golden necklace; and she wore a tunic of divers colours over which a thick mantle was fastened with a brooch. This was her invariable attire ...
— Cassius Dio

History is an interesting thing. It makes ordinary people larger than life, and the longer the time that passes, the more mythical they become. They are less human, more god – or demon. They become one dimensional characters, defined by a moment so glorious or terrible or brave that it becomes all there is to know about them.

Boudica, the red-haired Celtic warrior queen, is one such person. “… a terrible disaster occurred in Britain. Two cities were sacked, eighty thousand of the Romans and of their allies perished, and the island was lost to Rome. Moreover, all this ruin was brought upon the Romans by a woman, a fact which in itself caused them the greatest shame. Indeed, Heaven gave them indications of the catastrophe beforehand. For at night there was heard to issue from the senate-house foreign jargon mingled with laughter, and from the theatre outcries and lamentations, though no mortal man had uttered the words or the groans; houses were seen under the water in the river Thames, and the ocean between the island and Gaul once grew blood-red at flood tide.” Cassius Dio

Clearly she made a major impression!

Boudica - The Aftermath

© Chris Cole 2018

Boudica, even with what little we really know about her, is a compelling character. Women in the Iron Age generally don't get much lauding in history books. Women in any age, for that matter. She was queen of a Celtic tribe called the Iceni, in a Britain occupied by Rome.

Her story is one of rage. She's remembered for a moment of vengeance, brought on by abuse and humiliation of herself, her daughters, her people. It's a story of bravery, leadership, and tragedy; of intense emotions and short-lived victories. She booted the Romans' backsides soundly, much to their humiliation, but was later defeated in The Battle of Watling Street. It remains up for debate whether she self-administered poison to avoid capture or died by illness from wounds sustained in the battle. She boldly stepped onto the pages of history and has never left. On her death at age 31 she ceased being a woman and became a myth that has survived all the way from 61AD to current times. Today she's a rallying cry for women's equality, a source of Celtic British pride, an engaging story. But who was she really? The woman behind the story, behind the mask of warrior queen? What did she do for fun when she wasn't torching cities and slaughtering Romans? That wasn't her regular day job. She was a queen, and a mother, but those are merely labels. There's some suggestion she had Druidic training. She was certainly not a shrinking violet, that much is clear. Did she have a good sense of humour? Was she a dog person? A compassionate friend? We will never know because she's now her story. I wonder what she'd think of history's version of her.

We forget these characters from the distant past were really just people like us, living their lives the best they could, under the circumstances they were faced with. That they had good days and bad days. Sometimes they may have acted like jerks and other times they were kind and generous. They may have loved wine and hated vegetables and hid behind the door when their annoying neighbour came knocking. They were three dimensional until History yanked them into the realm of myth. They became their stories … and really, when you think of it, we all become our stories to some extent … ours just rarely make it into the history books. Our stories are so compelling we forget that they aren't us.

I don't make a habit of revisiting and reworking older paintings. I tend to believe that the image is what it is and whether or not it could have been better, it's a testament to where I was skill-wise at the time. I just paint new stuff. But I made an exception to my rule. My painting, “Boudica – Camulodonum” from back in 2008, had some really good elements and some big misses. It was a painting that seemed to beg for a reboot. I could have just painted a completely different image of Boudica but I lacked any interest in doing that. I liked the mood, I liked the facial expression in the original, it just needed some fresh insights and some fresh skills. So Boudica came out of the archives – much like the story of the woman herself. It became “Boudica – The Aftermath”, a nod to the time following the burning of her enemies' strongholds, and a nod to the period of time in between painting the first and second versions of the image.

I didn't want to paint her with her face contorted in rage, charging on horseback through Camulodunum, skewering every Roman soldier she confronted. In the painting I wanted to draw your eye to the raging inferno on the distant shore as if you've just crested the hill and find yourself confronted with the alarming scene. And then suddenly you realize you're being watched. She's looking at you - calm, unwavering, almost quizzical. It's a moment of quiet, reflective victory. The intense emotions and energy of the day have been spent. Today's battle is won but the war is far from over.  Are you unnerved by her gaze? Comfortable in it? Challenged? What's your story of the red-haired warrior queen this night?

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