At the Imperial War Museum (3): Percy Delf Smith’s ‘Dance of Death’

Dance of Death war etchings by Percy Smith - Death forbids

Percy Smith, Death forbids, from The Dance of Death series

While in London recently we saw the extensive Imperial War Museum exhibition, Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War. Billed as being the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years, it has needed three posts to do it justice. In this final post I want to highlight a suite of seven etchings by an artist who was completely new to me. The printmaker Percy Delf Smith’s series The Dance of Death, utilises the medieval allegory of the universality of death to express the macabre lottery of life on the Western Front.

Percy Smith self portrait

Percy Smith self portrait, 1941

Percy Smith was an artist, a print maker, and an expert in typography and calligraphy. He volunteered for war service but was only accepted on his third application. In 1916 he joined the Royal Marine Artillery and arrived at the Somme in October. He served as a gunner until 1919 in France and Belgium.

Thiepval chateau Thiepval church

Thiepval chateau and church before the war

The remains of Thiepval chateau on the Somme battlefield, 28 September 1916

The remains of Thiepval chateau on the Somme battlefield, 28 September 1916

At the start of 1917, Percy Smith was located in Thiepval, where Lutyens’ Memorial to the Missing of the Somme now stands. When the Germans entered Thiepval on 26 September 1914, the village and its chateau were utterly destroyed. Smith’s diary entries describe the desolate landscape:

Thurs. 4th (January 1917)
‘Trenching’ as usual. No shelling. Went over Thiepval hill. Thiepval simply a heap of rubbish decorated by gaunt tree trunks. Must sketch it. Finished reading Doyle’s ‘The White Company’ – war as it was and read about while the guns cracked.

Percy Smith, Thiepval Chateau (from Sixteen Drypoints of War 1914-1918) , 1917

Percy Smith, Thiepval Chateau, from Sixteen Drypoints of War, 1917

Smith surreptitiously made drawings of his war experiences while at the front. Because of this, he was twice  arrested as a spy. Etching plates were smuggled out to him between the pages of magazines.  The sketches Smith made at Thiepval formed the basis for his series Drypoints of the War printed in 1917 while he was on leave – and for The Dance of Death series, published after the war.

Percy Delf Smith, Thiepval, 1916

Percy Smith, Thiepval, from Sixteen Drypoints of War, 1917

Although virtually unknown today, Percy Smith was  responsible for several important projects in his day, most notably the four year commission for the lettering of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge. Curiously, then, I had seen an example of his work previously – when I visited Vimy Ridge in the summer.

Vimy 5

The names of missing Canadians at Vimy Ridge: Percy Smith’s major project

When Smith returned from the war, he produced the distinctly anti-war The Dance of Death series inspired by the ruins of the Thiepval chateau which he had sketched, and quoting Holbein and Dürer.

Percy Delf Smith, The Dance of Death

Percy Smith’s The Dance of Death: portfolio

The concept of dance of Death imagery began as a medieval allegory on the universality of death and the all-conquering and equalising power of death. In the Dance of Death series, even Death appears to flinch at the depravity unleashed by the war.  Here are the seven plates which make up the series.

Dance of Death war etchings by Percy Smith - Death forbids

The Dance of Death No. 1: Death forbids

In this etching, ‘Death forbids’, a soldier is pinned down by a fallen tree among a tangle of barbed wire. His hand raised is in an attempt to attract the attention of stretcher-bearers, who are disappearing into the far left distance carrying with them a more fortunate comrade. Death, personified as a skeleton wrapped in a cloak, reaches out and stays his hand.

Dance of Death war etchings by Percy Smith - Death marches

The Dance of Death No. 2: Death marches

In this etching ‘Death marches’, a column of British troops are marching along a road in strict formation, and are seen from a slightly elevated angle. Marching alongside them, along the top of a wall is Death, personified as a skeleton wrapped in a cloak, a patient figure keeping pace with the soldiers and awaiting the inevitable death that war shall bring.

Dance of Death war etchings by Percy Smith - Death awed

The Dance of Death No. 3: Death awed

In this etching ‘Death awed’, Death stands on a duckboard in a flooded battlefield of the Somme and contemplates two boots in the mud, which have broken bones and flesh protruding from them.

Dance of Death war etchings by Percy Smith - Death refuses

The Dance of Death No. 4: Death refuses

In this etching ‘Death refuses’, two soldiers lie at the bottom of a dark trench. one dying soldier lies entangled with his dying companion in a gas mask. He raises his arm in supplication toward the departing figure of Death who has turned his back on them.

Dance of Death war etchings by Percy Smith - Death Waits

The Dance of Death No. 5: Death Waits

In this etching ‘Death waits’, Death sits alone with his head in his hands, waiting pensively for the impending doom. He is surrounded by desolation and destruction (shattered posts, barbed wire, and the air is thickened with smoke).

Dance of Death war etchings by Percy Smith - Death Ponders

The Dance of Death No. 6: Death Ponders

In this etching ‘Death ponders’, Death watches a soldier gasping for air. He is clutching at the edges of the shell-hole he has fallen into and wearing a gas-mask, enveloped in a cloud of gas.

Dance of Death war etchings by Percy Smith - Death intoxicated

The Dance of Death No. 7: Death intoxicated

In this etching ‘Death intoxicated’, a British soldier wearing a gas mask is poised to bayonet a German soldier emerging from a trench on the left of the composition. The German is unarmed and has his back to his assailant. Death, personified as a dancing skeleton, appears with obvious delight. In the background there are violent scenes representing the action on the battlefield in full flight.

When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you’ll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead.
Say only this, “They are dead.” Then add thereto,
“Yet many a better one has died before.”
Then, scanning all the o’ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.

– Charles Sorley, ‘When you see millions of the mouthless dead’

See also

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4 thoughts on “At the Imperial War Museum (3): Percy Delf Smith’s ‘Dance of Death’

  1. Hi Gerry this link is not working, It looks to be a really excellent show , I am going down in the next few weeks. Many thanks steve

    1. Hi Steve – do you mean the link to this post, ‘cos it’s working now, as are the links to the other two posts about the show. Please let me know if you have further problems.

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