David Wilke’s famous painting, Chelsea Pensioners Reading the Waterloo Dispatch, was commissioned by the Duke of Wellington and completed in 1822, when it was shown at the Royal Academy and was so popular that railings had to be put up to protect it. The painting celebrated the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the Duke asked Wilkie for a picture of old soldiers outside a public house. It was Wilkie who chose the Royal Hospital at Chelsea as a setting. Nothing could have been more fitting – by 1815 there were more than 30,000 Chelsea pensioners, soldiers who were discharged as unfit for further duty because of injury. Most received cash payments and did not live at Chelsea. Many had served with the Duke of Wellington, whose body lay in state in 1852 in the Great Hall of the Royal Hospital Chelsea.
As the Royal Hospital Chelsea website says: There are few institutions in the United Kingdom with an unbroken three centuries of service and none of them is so close to the heart of the nation as “The Men in Scarlet”, the Chelsea Pensioners, and their home, the Royal Hospital Chelsea. Founded in 1682 by King Charles II and intended for the ‘succour and relief of veterans broken by age and war’, the Royal Hospital, with its Grade 1 listed buildings, still serves its original purpose and intends to continue to further its role well into the 21st Century.
The painting still hangs at Apsley House and is on public display.