CRW Nevinson, ‘Returning to the Trenches’, 1914
The art and poetry that emerged from the First World War had no precedent, and both exercise a persistent hold over the public imagination and consciousness in a way unparalleled by any other body of wartime artistic expression. I’ve been reading A Terrible Beauty, Paul Gough’s excellent survey of British artists in the Great War, which makes plain just how unprecedented was the war artists’ work: both in terms of official patronage and as the individual expression of the horror and waste of war.
Gough has drawn the title of his book from WB Yeats’ poem, Easter 1916, which proclaimed ‘A terrible beauty is born’. Though Yeats was addressing an entirely different subject, Gough’s choice is apt, encapsulating the central problem of art in the war: how can artistic beauty emerge from something so terrible?
Following the wartime careers of artists such as William Orpen, Paul and John Nash, Wyndham Lewis and Stanley Spencer and discussing the work they produced, Gough confronts us with the question: What is the point of a war artist? Is it to produce patriotic propaganda or, like a journalist, to record the routines of war? Many (though by no means all) of the artists who enlisted in the armed services – including those recruited into Britain’s first-ever official war artists scheme – produced works which rejected both these options. Instead, they created art which questioned the war’s purpose and in which the horror of war is palpable.
This generously illustrated volume is based on Gough’s research in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, drawing on letters, diaries and sketches to tell the stories of the British artists who produced extraordinary paintings and drawings of the war. Gough places the artists in their social, artistic and military context, explores their motivations, and reveals how every one of them was changed forever by the war.
In the heady first months of the war, many painters and sculptors enlisted in the armed forces. Around thirty joined the Royal Army Medical Corps en bloc, while many joined the Artists’ Rifles, an officer-training unit, which attracted painters, poets, architects, writers, and many others with artistic aspirations. In the years before the war, many younger artists, such as Wyndham Lewis and CWR Nevinson, had been inspired by the ideas of the Futurist Movement that glorified machinery, noise, and destruction, welcoming the prospect of war as an ‘essential hygiene’ that would cleanse a decadent society. For the right-wing press, however, war offered an opportunity to rid the country of the avant-garde, with its distinctly un-English and unpatriotic ideas.
But there were others for whom military service offered no attractions: sculptor Jacob Epstein declared ‘Really I am too important to waste my days thinking of matters military’; Paul Nash and William Roberts were cautious, and Richard Nevinson actively tried to avoid active service.
Gough tells how, from the early days of the war, one of the largest and most comprehensive official arts patronage schemes ever devised was initiated by the British government. He traces the origins of the official British war art scheme to a decision made by the Foreign Office in late August 1914 to establish a secret agency to manage and disseminate British propaganda. Headed by the Liberal politician Charles F.G.Masterman, it published and distributed clandestine literature aimed at neutral countries across the globe. In April 1916 a section was established to produce visual propaganda, including war films, picture cards, calendars, bookmarks, lantern-slides as well as photographs and line drawings.
Muirhead Bone, cover of ‘The Western Front’, Part 1
Gough describes how, by early 1916, the illustrated newspapers were also seeking authentic front-line images, leading Masterman to contract Muirhead Bone, a well-known Scottish etcher, as the first Official War Artist. Two hundred of his drawings were subsequently published for sale in ten monthly parts, starting in late 1916. The first part featured an effusive foreword by Douglas Haig, Commanding General of the British Expeditionary Force in France.
Muirhead Bone, ‘Heavy Artillery Officers’ Mess, Vlamertinghe Chateau’, August 1916
Bone set out on his first sketching trip in the late summer of 1916, ‘equipped with little more than twigs of charcoal and a sketchbook of fine-quality drawing paper’. It was the height of the offensive on the Somme. At first, as Gough notes, Bone toured the front line in a chauffeur-driven car, but soon set out on foot to see for himself some of the infamous sites of the Somme battlefield – Delville Wood, Montauban, High Wood. Between mid-August and early October, in his billet after a day’s sketching, he completed around 150 drawings in charcoal or pencil, with additional touches of brown or grey watercolour.
Muirhead Bone, ‘Waiting for the Wounded at a Collecting Station in the Field on the Somme at Montauban’, 1916
Muirhead Bone, ‘A Soldiers’ Cemetery at Lihons’, May 1917
Muirhead Bone, ‘Watching our Artillery Fire on Trônes Wood from Montauban’, 1918
Gough writes that ‘Bone’s mastery of detail is extraordinary’. While many of his most poignant images of the Western Front ‘depict little more than gaps and absences’, he also captured the individual character of fighting men, drawn resting behind the lines. Ironically, however, his most acclaimed drawing, Gough notes, is not one of these but is the charcoal drawing of a tank made immediately after the war machine’s first combat on 15 September 1916.
Muirhead Bone, ‘Tanks’, 1918
In September 1916, an exhibition opened in London of ‘Paintings and Drawings of War by C.W.R.Nevinson’. Gough writes that ‘it is not too great a claim to make that Nevinson’s work marked the beginning of a new form of war art’. The exhibition aroused an extraordinary burst of critical and popular approval. Outwardly, Nevinson’s paintings could not have seemed more different than the work of Muirhead Bone, but Nevinson, writes Gough, ‘established a balance between literal representation and the near-abstract visual language of modernist art’ that appealed to the public.
With the flair of a journalist, Nevinson was quick to grasp the greatness of the opportunity offered by the war. He was one of the first British artists to go on active service in the autumn of 1914, volunteering with a Red Cross unit, based at Dunkirk. The unit served in the rear of the French forces in the early months of the war when the worst slaughter occurred (almost half of French war losses came in the first 18 months of the war). Nevinson’s health broke down under the stress, but back in Britain he painted a series of pictures reflecting his experiences.
CRW Nevinson, ‘The Doctor’, 1916
The Doctor is, in Gough’s words, ‘a brutally frank canvas, unstinting in its depiction of terrible pain’. Doctors and medical orderlies are treating injured soldiers in an open building with straw on the floor. The setting is the ‘Shambles’ (old English for a slaughter-house), a covered goods yard outside Dunkirk where wounded soldiers were treated. Nevinson’s first job as a volunteer with the Red Cross was to tend to the dying men. In his autobiography, Paint and Prejudice, Nevinson describes his work at the ‘Shambles’:
Our doctors took charge, and in five minutes I was nurse, water-carrier, stretcher-bearer, driver, and interpreter. Gradually the shed was cleansed, disinfected and made habitable, and by working all night we managed to dress most of the patients’ wounds.
Nevinson fully intended the painting to be a grim statement of the horrors he had seen at casualty stations:
I regard this picture, quite apart from how it is painted, as expressing an absolutely NEW outlook on the so-called ‘sacrifice’ of war. It is the last word on the ‘horror of war’ for the generations to come.
CWR Nevinson, ‘La Patrie’, 1916
In La Patrie, Nevinson used his memories of what he had seen as an ambulance driver in Dunkirk following the early fighting around Ypres, depicting the awful conditions in an improvised field hospital housed in railway sheds. It’s a picture that still has elements of Futurism, but though no doubt strange to most exhibition-goers in 1916, the scene was intelligible.
In 1915, Nevinson had told the Daily Express: ‘Our Futurist technique is the only possible medium to express the crudeness, violence, and brutality of the emotions seen and felt on the present battlefields of Europe. His style gradually evolved as the war went on, with the paintings and drawing he made early on reflecting most clearly the elements of Futurism, as seen in reflected in Returning to the Trenches (top) painted on the Western Front in the first year of war. It demonstrates Nevinson’s extraordinary power and success in suggesting movement, and implies, like many of his pictures, that modern war is not about men as individuals but as merely parts of a complicated and inexorable machine.
CRW Nevinson, ‘Column on the March’, 1915
CRW Nevinson, ‘A Dawn’, 1914
A Dawn shows French infantrymen marching with a relentless machine-like rhythm to the battle front. The use of repetitive stylized wedge-shaped forms to convey both movement and mass was a recognisable Futurist device. With the fervour of Futurism, before the war Nevinson had celebrated and embraced the violence and mechanised speed of the modern age. But his experience as an ambulance driver in the First World War changed him, and in the paintings and drawings he made while serving at Dunkirk and later when a volunteer in the Royal Army Medical Corps at the General Hospital at Wandsworth, the soldiers are reduced to a series of angular planes and grey colouring, losing their individuality and appearing almost like machines.
CRW Nevinson, ‘A Flooded Trench on the Yser’, 1916
CWR Nevinson, ‘After a Push’, 1917
Gough is reluctant to divide Nevinson’s war work into two distinct and successive styles – early radical, later more overtly realistic and less modernist. Certainly A Flooded Trench on the Yser, painted in 1915, is a bolder, simpler depiction of the battered Flanders landscape than After a Push from 1917. The earlier work is powerful and effective, with design emphasised more strongly than realism. As in a Japanese print, the falling rain and the bleakness of the devastated landscape is expressed with an economy that is also poignant.
But who would argue that the scarred battlefield covered with water-filled shell craters and barbed wire depicted in After a Push is any less powerful as a critical response to the meaningless destruction of war? The desolate shattered landscape, speaks powerfully of the bleakness of a war empty of meaning.
CWR Nevinson, ‘A Taube’, 1915
As Gough observes, the overtly realist and non-modernist A Taube was painted in 1915, during the first phase of Nevinson’s war work. The body of a French schoolboy lies on the pavement outside a house. The corpse is surrounded by broken cobblestones from a hole blown in the street during an air raid. The child is the casualty of an attack made from a Taube, a German reconnaissance plane which also carried bombs that were thrown from the cockpit. (Ironically, taube translates as ‘dove’, taub as ‘death’). The casual violence of the scene is symbolic of the deliberate targeting of civilian populations in this war: as the technology of the First World War developed, almost any target could be hit and its legitimacy justified.
In his autobiography, Paint and Prejudice, Nevinson described the scene that had inspired this painting:
Dunkirk was one of the first towns to suffer aerial bombardment, and I was one of the first men to see a child who had been killed by it. There the small boy lay before me, a symbol of all that was to come.
CWR Nevinson, ‘La Mitrailleuse’ 1915
For Paul Gough, of all Nevinson’s war paintings La Mitrailleuse represents ‘the single most successful synthesis’ of Nevinson’s talents. It depicts a French machine gun team ‘bent over their fearsome weapon’:
Everything is locked into place, the three living figures hemmed in by a stockade of wooden beams, the jagged sky barred by an interlocking web of barbed wire. A fourth figure lies sprawled in the shallow foreground, pale and wasted, sinking into the deep mire of the trench while the remorseless noise of the gun fills the composition.
Quoting Laurence Binyon, writing in the New Statesman in May 1917, Gough asserts that Nevinson grasped the appalling truth of war – ‘a world of men enslaved to a terrific machine of their own making’. His genius, Gough argues, lay ‘not merely in articulating the dehumanization of the modern condition, but also in making palpable the soldier’s sufferings, and being able to communicate the ‘feelings of pity and horror that had driven him to paint’.
CRW Nevinson, ‘Night Arrival of Wounded’, 1915
After he returned from the front, Nevinson served as a volunteer in the Royal Army Medical Corps at the 3rd London General Hospital at Wandsworth (an experience that must have been very similar to that of Stanley Spencer, who was a hospital orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol at about the same time). While there, Nevinson contributed drawings to The Gazette, a monthly magazine for staff and patients. The standard of prose and drawing was high since many of the staff and patients were artists and journalists. In one of the best drawings, Night Arrival of Wounded, a faceless ambulance crew is lifting stretchers from their vehicles. There is both a sense of activity and of mounting casualties.
Nevinson’s exhibition in 1916 was a great success and brought him to the attention of Charles Masterman, head of the government’s War Propaganda Bureau, leading to his appointment as an official War Artist in July 1917. He was sent to the Western Front where he painted another sixty pictures, works that were to feature in a second, hugely successful, exhibition in London in 1918.
Nevinson shared the same mixed feelings about being an official War Artist as Paul Nash who wrote at the time:
I am no longer an artist. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.
Nash and Nevinson were right to be sceptical: being an official artist meant that Nevinson’s second exhibition in 1918 was subject to the intervention of the military censor. Though contemporary critics complained that the second exhibition lacked the visual fervour of his earlier pictures, the military censor prevented the display of Paths of Glory. Nevinson had the painting displayed, but covered by paper with the word ‘censored’ scrawled on it. The painting of two corpses face down in the mud and barbed wire makes a polemical statement, but artistically inferior to the earlier work.
CWR Nevinson, ‘Paths of Glory’, 1918
Meanwhile, Gough recounts how a new Department of Information was created in February 1917 under the direction of John Buchan (replaced in 1918 by the Anglo-Canadian media tycoon Max Aitken – Lord Beaverbrook). It was Beaverbrook who created the British War Memorial Committee, modelled on the ambitious Canadian War Memorials scheme, which he personally directed. Beaverbrook altered the direction and tone of official war art, moving it from the representation of the present (with a short-term emphasis on propaganda and documentary record) to the creation of ‘a permanent legacy for future generations, an emblem of remembrance, a lasting memorial expressed in art’. Gough describes the rivalry between Beaverbrook’s department and the newly-formed rival National War Museum, which also saw itself as taking the lead in gathering existing war art and settings its own agenda for commissioning new art.
Under the energetic leadership of Arnold Bennett, and with the support of Beaverbrook, the British War Memorials Committee set itself on a very different trajectory from the War Museum. Gough writes:
Independent and original in its thinking, the committee did its utmost to frustrate establishment efforts to promote the old guard of British art. Instead, Bennett and his fellow members offered work to the cadre of younger soldier-artists with the ulterior motive of assembling a significant contemporary collection that would be representative of ‘the greatest artistic expression of the day’.
Remarkably, this meant the Committee giving its support to the sort of modernist work that right wing and conservative factions in the press and society at large despised, since it reminded them of alien and undesirable movements (Futurism, Cubism, Expressionism!) which they regarded as antithetical to British values.
John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919
However, the work which came to be the best known of all the commissioned war paintings was a very conventional painting by an artist whose work had come to be regarded as old-fashioned, out of touch and superficial – John Singer Sargent, a man, Gough writes, ‘so removed from the realities of warfare that on his only visit to the battle zone he asked whether there was any fighting on Sundays’.
Yet Gassed is, writes Gough, ‘a vast frieze of pain; a work of compassionate engagement’. The image is of a scene encountered by Sargent on the road south west of Arras – several hundred gassed men, blindfolded and being led away from the battlefield. Though Gough regards the painting as ‘one of the great monuments of the conflict, a testament to the pity of war’, it is also strangely sanitised – there is an air of discomfort, but no sense of the intense pain that came with the effects of mustard gas. The bandages are clean, the wounds discreet, the soldiers fit and statuesque. A single figure appears to vomit, though not in the direction of the viewer.
Beaverbook planned to house the commissioned works in an imposing Hall of Remembrance – similar to an equally grand planned hall in Ottawa. Artists were paid to produce a single picture for the planned Hall. Younger, less established artists were offered a rather more modest deal – a salary of £300 per annum in return for their total artistic output during that period. This proposal was accepted by artists such as Paul Nash and John Nash
Seventeen large history paintings by artists such as Henry Lamb, Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash, John Singer Sargent, and Stanley Spencer; large sculpture reliefs by Charles Jagger and Gilbert Ledward, and twelve smaller canvases were produced by thirty-one artists. These formed the backbone of major exhibitions of the Nation’s War Pictures that toured Britain immediately after the war.
By contrast the National War Museum (renamed the Imperial War Museum in December 1917) set a very different course. To achieve a comprehensive visual record of the war, the Museum commissioned artists in a systematic and prescriptive way to produce work that recorded wartime activity in eight subject groupings (Army, Navy, Air Force, Merchant Marine, Land, Munitions, Clerical and other work by Women, Public Manifestations).
Beaverbrook’s Hall of Remembrance was not built, probably because, suggests Gough, the War Museum began to openly plot against him, seeking to discredit him, his Ministry and the War Memorial Committee. In July 1918 Beaverbrook ceded the entire operation to the Imperial War Museum, and later resigned as Minister of Information.
However, the paintings, prints, drawings and sculpture that Beaverbrook commissioned survive and are still housed (many of them in storage) in the Imperial War Museum in London. It is, reckons Gough, ‘probably the finest collection of British art in the country outside Tate Britain’.
William Roberts, ‘A Shell Dump, France’, 1918
Another example of a work commissioned by Beaverbrook’s department is A Shell Dump, France by William Roberts, one of the pre-war avant-garde Vorticist group. Like his fellow Vorticist and rival, Wyndham Lewis, Roberts enlisted in the Royal Artillery as a gunner, serving on the Western Front.
Having been told that artists were being chosen to do war paintings for the Canadian War Records Office, he applied, and in 1918 was ‘loaned’ to the Canadians for six months as an official war artist. He was subsequently also commissioned by the British Ministry of Information, for whom he painted A Shell Dump, France. His experiences at the front shifted the direction of his work, and significant pieces from his wartime output, such as the powerful Canadian commission The First German Gas Attack at Ypres (1918), dramatically depict the horror of war and are possibly the most acerbic produced by any of the British artists employed under the government’s schemes, compared by some to the social realism of the German artists Otto Dix and George Grosz.
One interesting story recounted by Gough concerns William Orpen, ‘brilliant draughtsman, consummate water-colourist and virtuoso painter’ who before the war could command four-figure fees for his portraits of the wealthy and the powerful of Edwardian society. Employed as a war artist, and ‘equipped with his own transport, chauffeur, batman and indispensable personal manager’ Orpen toured the Somme producing ‘swagger portraits’ of officers (a ‘swagger portrait’, was, according to Gough, one in which the sitter is shown ‘full length in ostentatious and self-concious display.’
William Orpen, ‘To the Unknown British Soldier in France’, 1921
Days after the Armistice, the Imperial War Museum assigned Orpen to make two large official paintings of the Peace Conference at Versailles – ‘unsatisfactory pieces’, according to Gough. Having completed those, Orpen embarked on a third panorama of the statesmen gathered in the gilded surroundings of the Hall of Peace at Versailles. Then, without warning the museum, he painted them all out. Methodically, he obliterated thirty-six figures, painting in their place a coffin covered by the Union Jack, two semi-nude soldiers guarding it and two cherubs in the air above.
Orpen told the Evening Standard:
It all seemed so unimportant somehow. I kept thinking of the soldiers who remain in France for ever.
Exhibited at the Royal Academy in the summer of 1923, with the title To the Unknown British Soldier in France, it was voted ‘picture of the year by public ballot. However, the posture of the soldiers, the nudity, and the bitter irony of the symbols gave rise to contrasting reactions in the press, with right-wing papers attacking it as a ‘a bad joke’ that lacked dignity and good taste. The left-wing press hailed the painting: the Daily Herald calling it ‘a magnificent allegorical tribute to the men who really won the war’. The Imperial War Museum rejected the painting and witheld the final instalment of Orpen’s fee.
William Orpen, ‘To the Unknown British Soldier in France’, 1929
Five years later, in 1928, Orpen approached the IWM and offered to make changes to the painting. He painted out the ghostly, insane-looking soldiers, the cherubs and the wreaths. All that remained was the draped coffin and the marble hall. ‘Nothing is left,’ wrote one observer, ‘but a nameless dead soldier in a cold emptiness. It is a disturbing picture’.
Gough concludes his survey of First World War artists by considering whether any generalisations can be made about the motivations that drove artists to serve and record what they saw. He finds it a difficult task, since their attitudes and experiences, both during and after the war, were so varied:
Many wanted merely to escape the petty tedium of service life, to be relatively free from danger and to be modestly rewarded for their talents. [As a result of] wartime experiences a number of them, those who were naturally bellicose, soon found their enthusiasms dampened; those who wanted to be officially recognized and supported were often frustrated in their aims, and nearly all of those who produced memorable art often had to do so in the face of hardship, privations, and an implacable administration which censored their work and taxed their often meagre incomes.
The war stimulated some of the best British art of the twentieth century, giving shape to a scheme of arts patronage on a scale never seen before, and nourishing the work of dozens of artists who would populate the creative milieu for decades to come.
I have illustrated this post with work by only a few of the artists discussed in Paul Gough’s generously-illustrated book. I have written elsewhere about the murals produced by Stanley Spencer for the Sandham Memorial Chapel, perhaps the greatest artwork to emerge from the conflict. I need to devote another post to the work of the Nash brothers. In July, a transformed Imperial War Museum London reopens with Truth and Memory, the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years. I hope to be there.
- Art of the First World War: multilingual website produced on 80th anniversary of the end of the War
- War Art Schemes of the First World War: Imperial War Museum
- Why paint war? British and Belgian artists in World War One: article by Paul Gough (British Library)
- Representation and memory (British Library)
- Brushed aside by the chaos of conflict: A Crisis of Brilliance at the Dulwich Picture Gallery (Independent)
- Christopher Nevinson: slideshow on Your Paintings
- Stanley Spencer’s Sandham murals: ‘a heaven in a hell of war’
- The Art of War