Museum Monthly Highlights - April 2023

International Portrait Day 2023 - Portraits of the Light Brigade

The National Portrait Gallery has launched a new initiative, International Portrait Day, which will take place on 23 June every year. So in the spirit of the day we have chosen to look at two fascinating portraits which sit side-by-side in the museum, and depict two men who, on the 25 October 1854 rode ‘into the Valley of Death’ at Balaclava (Balaklava). 

The portraits are of two 11th Hussars, Major General John Douglas and Troop Sergeant Major John Ashley Kilvert. During the Charge of the Light Brigade, Colonel Douglas was leading the 11th Hussars and Kilvert was a young Corporal in the second line. The portraits offer an interesting contrast, one a high-ranking officer and the other a Non-Commissioned officer, and capture well not only the subjects but the uniform and spirit of the regiment. 

Colonel (later Major General) John Douglas, 11th Hussars (PAO), C.1862
Troop Sergeant Major John Ashley Kilvert, unknown artist, c1860-1870

Major General John Douglas, 11th Hussars (PAO)

This magnificent portrait of Colonel John Douglas measures approximately 1.5m tall by 1m wide, meaning it is essentially ‘life-size’. It is dated 1862 and is unsigned but believed to be by Franz Xaver Winterhalter (1805 – 1873), known for his portraits of royalty. Colonel Douglas is shown in full dress and with a distinctive brown fur busby. It is highly detailed and really brings to life the uniform of the period. 

He is also wearing his medals which are (from left to right): the breast badge of a Companion of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath (CB), The Crimean Medal, the French Legion D’Honneur breast badge (Chevalier class) and the Turkish Crimea Medal. Underneath is the breast badge for the Ottoman Order of the Medjidie, Fourth Class.

Life of John Douglas 
John Douglas was born at Gartcraig in Lanarkshire, Scotland on 25 April 1811. He first entered the Army as an Ensign in the 61st Foot but swiftly transferred to the 79th Foot (Cameron Highlanders). 

In May 1839 he transferred as a Captain into the 11th Light Dragoons, which in 1841 became the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own). It was a tumultuous time in the Officers’ Mess as  James Thomas Brudenell, Lord Cardigan, had been appointed Colonel in 1836 and it was not long before Douglas was involved in one of Cardigan’s controversies.

In September 1840 Douglas acted as Cardigan’s second in his illegal duel against Captain Harvey Tuckett, a former officer of the 11
th Hussars who had been critical of Cardigan in the newspapers.  When Cardigan was tried for assault with intent to murder in May 1841 Douglas, as his second, was also indicted. However he was absolved after Cardigan was controversially acquitted on a technicality.

In June 1854, with Cardigan leaving to command the Light Brigade, Douglas was appointed Lieutenant Colonel and would lead the 11th Hussars in the Crimean War.

Colonel John Douglas, 1856

He commanded the 11th Hussars during the Charge of the Light Brigade and survived without any serious wounds. In his memoirs Troop Sergeant Major George Loy Smith recalled that when the men were ready to advance Douglas turned in his saddle and gave one last piece of advice: “Eleventh, attention. Now in all probability we shall meet the enemy today. When you do, don’t cut but give them the point, and they will never face you again.”

He continued in command after Balaclava, including through the Battle of Inkerman and into the Siege of Sevastapol, but due to ill-health he returned to England in November 1855. 

In March 1842 he had married Rosa Maria Paget, daughter of Sir Arthur Paget. However in 1855, and with Douglas refusing to divorce her, she left for Canada with another 11th Hussar officer, and regimental hero, Lieutenant Alexander Roberts Dunn VC. Dunn had earned his Victoria Cross at the Charge of the Light Brigade and was the first Canadian recipient of the award.

In 1868 Douglas was promoted to Major-General and in January 1871 was appointed to command the Cavalry Brigade at Aldershot. Sadly, just a few months into his new post he died suddenly at his home on 10 May 1871, aged 60.

Lieutenant Colonel John Douglas (Standing left) and Lord George Paget, April 1855. One of the images captured by renowned photographer Roger Fenton

Troop Sergeant Major John Ashley Kilvert

In contrast is the far simpler portrait of Troop Sergeant Major John Ashley Kilvert, a fascinating survival as portraits of identified other ranks of the period are rare. He appears to be wearing only the Turkish Crimea Medal , but was also awarded the British Crimean War Medal with clasps for Alma, Balaklava and Sebastapol.

Life of John Ashley Kilvert


Kilvert was born on 29 September 1833 at High Ercall, Shropshire and was educated at High Ercall Grammar School. He started a career in the wine trade before enlisting at Nottingham in 1851 to join the 11th Hussars.

At the Charge of the Light Brigade he was a 21 year old Corporal, and in later life gave very vivid recollections of his experience:

‘I was in the second line and as we careered down the valley shot and shell were flying about like hailstones, it was only the pace of the horses, that carried us through at all. I don’t think if it had been a body of infantry, that a single man could have reached the bottom of the valley. As we advanced, there was a hot fire from the Russian batteries on either side and we survived, rode over the prostrate bodies of those who preceded us. Horses were killed, others galloped about riderless and before long, order was abandoned and it was a desperate attempt to cut our way back through as best we could, as the Russians closed in on us. The Russian gunners were cut down and we started back to our own lines, but I do not know what would have happened had not one of the Russian flanking batteries been attacked and forced to retire.

Of 110 men the forming my regiment, only 25 returned and of 14 comrades sharing my tent, only one was spared besides myself. As to my injuries, I was shot by a musket ball through my right leg and also received a slight cut on the head. My horse was shot under me, but although frightfully injured, bore me back to safety. All day long neither horses nor men tasted food or water.

I lay in a ditch waiting to be removed on an ambulance and had practically given up hope of ever being attended to, as darkness was setting in and I was nearly frozen. However, by-and-by, I heard an ambulance coming and, as the boys say, I hollowed with all my might and very thankful, I was picked up and taken aboard the steamer….I was removed to the hospital at Scutari, where I was nursed by Florence Nightingale, a lady whose name is as famous as that of Lord Cardigan, and will be for generations to come’

John Ashley Kilvert wearing his miniature medals. c.1858

He was evacuated to Malta and in February 1855 was invalided to England, where he was admitted to the hospital at Chatham. In 1857 he was promoted to Troop Sergeant Major and for some time was based in Bath as a recruiter.

He was discharged from the Army in 1861 and moved to Wednesbury in the West Midlands, where he became extremely active in civil life. For many years he lived at 13 Prichard Road which he aptly renamed ‘Balaclava House’. 

He was a member of several local Boards and when the town was incorporated in 1886 was one of the first Aldermen to be elected. Between 1905 – 1906 he served as Mayor of the borough and in this capacity was the the subject of another portrait, although this time in a rather different uniform!

After 40 years’ service to the town he resigned as an Alderman in November 1919. He died on 17 October 1920 and was buried at Wood Green Cemetery in Wednesbury where his headstone still stands today. The Journal of the 11th Hussars summed up the regimental feeling:

‘Our comrade died as he had lived, a gallant XI Hussar and soldier and one of nature’s great gentlemen, of whom all ranks in the regiment are deeply proud’

His medals, sword and a bible were donated to Wednesbury Museum and ‘Kilvert Road’ still exists in the town. You can see the sword and medals at the following link:

Alderman John Ashley Kilvert JP (Credit: Sandwell Museums Service Collection)
Survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, c.1908. John Ashley KIlvert is in the centre of the front row, 4th from the left, with his distinctive facial hair. Six other 11th Hussars survivors are present, including William Henry Pennington the last 11th Hussars survivor of the charge who died in 1923.

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