The phrase 'The Thin Red Line' is in fact a misquote. Eyewitness war correspondent William Russell wrote in his despatch for The Times of 'a thin red streak topped with a line of steel', but in later accounts he used the 'Thin Red Line' phrase, which stuck in the public consciousness. The phrase remains in wide use today, often used colloquially to mean infantry (as in Terence Malik’s 1999 film about US infantry in the Pacific in 1942) or any thinly-stretched group resisting greater forces, including – as 'the Thin Blue Line' – the police.
Why is the painting important?
With The Thin Red Line, Robert Gibb not only immortalised a brilliant feat of courage and military efficiency, he captured the essence of the Scottish military tradition at the height of the Victorian era. Scotland in 1854, and in 1881 when Gibb painted the picture, strongly identified with its soldiers, and with Highlanders in particular as symbols of Scottish historic nationhood, and of national contribution to the power of the British empire. This idea originated in the late 18th century and very early 19th century, when British military success against Napoleonic France combined with the craze for the Highlands occasioned by the European Romantic movement, seizing on the distinctively dressed Scottish Highlander as a heroic figure.
The Crimean War was controversial: the newspaper-reading public were appalled by accounts of the conditions endured and mistakes made, and shortly afterwards the shock of the Indian Mutiny of 1857 further rocked public confidence in the imperial project. In both of these wars, the conspicuous successes of the Scottish Highland regiments of the British Army were rare and comforting good news stories.
Who was Robert Gibb?
Scottish artist Gibb (1845-1932) was born in Lauriston near Falkirk. A historical genre and portrait painter, he is best known for his military pictures. Following up his success with The Thin Red Line, Gibb painted two further well-known Crimean War battle pictures, as well as other military historical paintings. He became Keeper of the National Gallery of Scotland from 1895 to 1907, during which time he painted his last major battle painting Hougoumont, a depiction of an incident at the Battle of Waterloo, which is also displayed at the National War Museum.
Above: Closing the Gates at Hougoumont, by Robert Gibb. This picture shows a turning point during the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when around 30 French soldiers forced the north gate and entered into the grounds of chateau of Hougoumont.
How did the painting come into the collection?
The dramatic painting created a sensation with the public when first displayed by the artist at the Royal Scottish Academy in 1881.
It was bought by a collector, the music entrepreneur Archibald Ramsden of Leeds, and, following Ramsden’s death in 1916, was bought at auction at Christies by Sir Thomas Dewar, one of the two brothers behind the international success of Dewar’s whisky. It was through this whisky industry connection that the picture has been on long-term loan to us since 2000 from Diageo.
Above: The Thin Red Line on display in the National War Museum.
Now generously donated to National Museums Scotland by Diageo, The Thin Red Line remains on display as one of the highlights of the National War Museum. It is the centrepiece there of the Highland Soldier gallery, which explores how the military reputation of the Highland regiments came to symbolise Scotland.