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An interpretation of a meeting of army and navy veterans, the Chelsea Pensioners depicted dressed in scarlet coats and the pensioners of Greenwich Hospital in blue. They are portrayed during a viewing of the Naval Gallery paintings in the Painted Hall at Greenwich Hospital, where the resident naval pensioners are entertaining the soldiers. The principal group of men in the foreground are recognizable portraits. Nine of the Greenwich pensioners had served with Nelson. The rank of Boatswain was accorded to selected 'in-pensioners' out of the 2,710 who lived at Greenwich Hospital by 1814. Their enhanced status in helping maintain order and compliance with Hospital rules was marked by the broad gold lace on their coat sleeves and tricorn hats, as depicted in the painting.
The artist has used the colours red and blue to unite the various elements in the painting. The unsettling perspective, the positioning of Joseph Burgin, facing the paintings, and the ambivalence of his gaze invite further interpretations of the narrative, which on one level is concerned with the didactic function of art and the continuity of national legends of valour. The pensioners stand for witness and truth, and the young women and children for the transmitters and receivers of knowledge. A link is thus established between the realm of heroic masculine action and the feminine task of creating the next generation. Each depends on the other and they are mutually reinforcing: comfort, beauty and nurture depend on armed force, and vice versa. There is mutual dependence between home and battlefield.
The United Service
oil on canvas
H 116.8 x W 147.3 cm