While we were in London recently we went to the Imperial War Museum to see Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War. It’s billed as being the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years, and there is certainly a great deal to absorb. I’ll review what for me were the highlights in this and two succeeding posts. As its title suggests, this retrospective encourages us to think about how artists represented the war, and helped commemorate it – but also, how their work still affects our perception of it a century later. Continue reading “Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War at IWM (part 1)”
Stanley Spencer, Family Group: Hilda, Unity and Dolls, 1937
After seeing the paintings of Ben Nicholson and Winifred Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Alfred Wallis in Art and Life at Leeds Art Gallery last week, we started to look around the permanent collection. No sooner had we begun than the lighting began to flicker and everyone was asked to leave while an electrician was summoned to diagnose the problem.
So we strolled for an hour through the lovely Victorian arcades and Kirkgate market – all built when Leeds was at its most prosperous at the end of the 19th century. Then we headed back to the gallery to see if the problem had been sorted. Thankfully, it had – for the gallery has a superb collection of early 20th century British paintings. The excitement begins as you mount the staircase to the first floor galleries which house the permanent collection. For here are masterpieces by Stanley Spencer, Jacob Kramer and Walter Sickert.
Here is Family Group: Hilda, Unity and Dolls, one of Stanley Spencer’s greatest pictures, painted in 1937. At first sight it appears to be a straightforward depiction of a woman, a child and some toys. But this is a painting with a complex psychological undertow in which Spencer confronted the pain of separation from his first wife and his seven year old daughter.
The Hilda of the title was Spencer’s first wife and Unity was one of his two young daughters. The family had been living in the Berkshire village of Cookham when Spencer became obsessed with Patricia Preece who lived nearby and was, apparently, a painter. In reality, Preece was a con artist. The paintings she exhibited under her own name were executed by her lover, Dorothy Hepworth. She had no real interest in Spencer except to get hold of his money – which she did very successfully. Spencer and Hilda divorced when the children were seven and eleven, and he married Preece. But they never lived together and Spencer was reduced to penury for the rest of his life. Spencer came to regret his disastrous decision, but too late to repair the damage done.
Hilda, Unity and Dolls was painted soon after it became clear that his second marriage was a fiasco. In the summer of 1937 Spencer returned to London, where Hilda, who was ill, was living with her mother. Spencer hoped to renew the relationship, but Hilda refused. In the painting she turns away, while the seven-year-old little girl stares intently at the artist with an unreadable expression. The gallery caption offers this analysis of the painting’s disturbing psychology:
Spencer seems to push the viewer into close contact with the child’s gaze. The adult looks wearily away, while the two eyeless dolls suggest a sinister unseeing presence. It is the intense and poignant expression of a broken relationship.
Stanley Spencer, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, 1920
Nearby is another superb work by Spencer, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, painted in 1920. It was particularly interesting to see this work so soon after seeing Spencer’s Sandham murals at Somerset House, where they are on display temporarily. They were were inspired by Spencer’s experience in the First World War, serving as a medical orderly in Macedonia. Whereas the murals were not completed until the early 1930s, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem was one of the first paintings that Spencer completed after his return from the war. It represents his own joyful feelings at returning to his beloved Cookham – for he has set the Biblical scene in Cookham’s High Street.
Christ’s Entry is one of a series of large scale religious paintings which Spencer began in 1920 – the same year in which he was invited to submit designs for murals for Leeds Town Hall. The project never came to fruition, though Spencer did come to Leeds to discuss the plans. When he arrived in the city he was shown around the town and its slums by Jacob Kramer, a Leeds artist who, like Spencer, had studied the Slade School of Art. Kramer’s masterwork, The Day of Atonement is displayed at the top of the staircase, alongside the Spencers.
Jacob Kramer, The Day of Atonement, 1919
Kramer had been born in Russia, arriving in Leeds in 1900 with his parents after they had fled Tsar Nicholas II virulent anti-Semitic policies that forced Russian Jews either to assimilate or leave the country. Desperately poor, Kramer obtained support from a Leeds-based Jewish foundation that enabled him to study at the Slade. There he came into contact with the Vorticist movement led by William Roberts and Wyndham Lewis.
Spencer later congratulated Kramer on The Day of Atonement, one of the first modernist paintings to enter the Leeds collection. Both artists shared an interest in finding modern expression for deeply-held religious beliefs. Kramer once wrote:
The degree of expression in a work of art is a measure of its greatness. A spiritual discernment is more essential than the reproduction of the obvious.
The painting depicts a group of Jewish men gathered for prayer on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur. There is a Vorticist dynamic in its stark portrayal of a procession of figures in silent prayer, its rhythmic intensity conveying strong emotions.
CW Nevinson, The First Searchlights at Charing Cross, 1914
CW Nevinson was at the Slade at the same time as Kramer, where he came into contact with the individuals who would announce the instigation of the Vorticist movement in the manifesto Blast, published in July 1914 (it was Nevinson who came up with the title of the magazine). Nevinson was already impressed with the ideas of the Italian Futurists (after all his mother, Margaret Nevinson had written that the Futurists were ‘young men in revolt at the worship of the past . . . determined to destroy it, and erect upon its ashes the Temple of the future. War seems to be the chief tenet in the gospel of futurism: war upon the classical in art, literature and music’. Craig Raine, in the Guardian, described the movement as ‘a parochial British attempt to emulate and excel Cubism and Futurism. […] The impulse behind Vorticism, the theory, is simple. The machine is central to Vorticism. Everything was subsumed to the machine’.
The Futurists praised war and ‘beautiful ideas that kill’ as the only way of escaping a stultifying past. But the movement was swept away in the horrors of the First World War. However, not before Nevinson had made Futurist paintings of machine-age London that celebrated the dynamism of underground Tube trains, traffic in the Strand, and – after war had been declared – the sight of searchlights over Charing Cross. The First Searchlights at Charing Cross is currently on display in Leeds Art Gallery.
The advent of World War I changed Nevinson’s mind. Having refused as a pacifist to become involved in combat duties, volunteering instead to work for the Red Cross, he was invalided home in January 1915. On his return he announced that he would be using ‘Futurist technique’ to express the reality of war in his new work. In subsequent paintings Nevinson confirmed that he saw the Great War essentially as a tragic event. Nevinson understood that the very things that the Vorticists celebrated had become instruments of destruction. Bleak, outspoken and often angry, his paintings of 1915–16 are among the masterpieces of his career, bravely opposing the prevailing jingoistic tendency. He argued:
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.
In The Daily Graphic he was quoted as insisting that all British artists should enlist:
I am firmly convinced that all artists should enlist and go to the front, no matter how little they owe England for her contempt of modern art, but to strengthen their art of physical and moral courage and a fearless desire of adventure, risk and daring.
Wyndham Lewis, one of the co-founders of Vorticism, subsequently tried to revive the Vorticist spirit, but the movement had met its end amidst the torn metal and broken bodies in the mud of Flanders and the Eastern Front.
William Roberts, The Dance Club (The Jazz Party), 1923
William Roberts was a founding member of the Vorticist group who served in the war as a gunner. After the war he developed an interest in picturing people at work and at play – as seen in The Dance Club (The Jazz Party), painted in 1923, which reflects the fascination of the Vorticists with dancing as a subject. Some have recognised the figure on the right, standing and yawning, as Jacob Kramer. In 1915 Roberts met Sarah Kramer, Jacob’s sister, who he later married.
- Art and Life: ‘you cannot tell where one begins and the other ends’
- Stanley Spencer’s Sandham murals: ‘a heaven in a hell of war’
- British Masters: We Are Making a New World
- The art of war
Somerset House’s partial reconstruction of Stanley Spencer’s Sandham Memorial Chapel
I had buried so many people and saw so many dead that I felt that death could not be the end of everything.
– Stanley Spencer
There’s a scene at the end of J’Accuse, the film made by Abel Gance in 1918, in which the war’s dead soldiers rise up from their graves and return to their villages where they discover how little their sacrifice has mattered to the living. Terrified by the spectral army, the villagers mend their ways.
The return of the dead was something longed for, dreamed of and dreaded in post-war Europe, as Jay Winter observed in his study of mourning and remembrance after the First World War, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning. The apocalyptic nature of the carnage and the unprecedented loss of life and sense of bereavement drove a desire to remember the dead in traditional forms of remembrance, such as war memorials and art that often invoked traditional or even religious imagery.
Ten years after the end of the First World War, Stanley Spencer was commissioned to paint a series of wall paintings in a private chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire which was built as a private family memorial dedicated to the memory of Lieutenant Henry Willoughby Sandham, who had died in 1919 as a result of an illness he had contracted during the Macedonian campaign.
Previously, Spencer, who had served in the army during the war, had painted a unique vision of the resurrection, setting it in the graveyard of the parish church at Cookham, the small Thames-side village where he was born and spent much of his life and which he once described as ‘a village in Heaven’. For the Sandham Memorial Chapel, Spencer designed a central panel that at first seems to be a jumble of white crosses. Christ, the judge of the Last Days, is present, but in the middle distance; Spencer’s concern here is not judgement. Instead, the viewer’s attention is drawn to the characterful faces of the multitude of soldiers rising from their graves.
Traditionally, the dead were meant to remain dead. Ghosts appeared occasionally, but usually uninvited and unwelcomed. Their purpose in returning – as in Abel Gance’s film – was generally to complain, to warn, to threaten, to make demands on the living. But for Jay Winter, Spencer’s work is unique in war art, both in its evocation of the entirely ordinary and unheroic world of military life, at home and abroad, and in its treatment of resurrection. The dead who rise from their graves in Spencer’s Sandham Resurrection panel are as genial and neighbourly as they were in life; they are simply getting on with things.
It’s a unique vision, the centrepiece of one of the great works of 20th century art that is infused with Spencer’s unique blend of deep religious feeling and empathetic portrayal of the ordinary men and women going about their daily business. We saw it during our long weekend in London last month, exhibited in a one-off, temporary exhibition at Somerset House where the eight large vertical panels were displayed with the smaller horizontal predella beneath, just as they are in Sandham Memorial Chapel.
Henry Lamb, ‘The Behrend Family’, 1927
Spencer’s poignant paintings have temporarily left their permanent home at Sandham due to a major conservation project being carried out by the National Trust, which now owns the building. The Chapel was built by John Louis and Mary Behrend, and dedicated to Mary Behrend’s brother, Harry Sandham, who had died while serving in Macedonia, and the paintings that Spencer created for it were inspired by Spencer’s own experiences serving with the 68th Field Ambulance unit as a medical orderly there. The paintings took six years to complete, and are considered by many to be the artist’s finest achievement.
Henry Lamb, Stanley Spencer, 1928
Spencer conceived the scheme for a memorial chapel while he was staying with his friend, the artist Henry Lamb. It was when visiting Lamb that art patrons John Louis and Mary Behrend saw Spencer’s drawings and decided to help Spencer fulfil his vision by commissioning the architect Lionel Pearson to design the building that would be a memorial to Mary’s brother, who had died of an illness contracted while serving in the same front as Spencer.
Henry Lamb, ‘Irish Troops in the Judean Hills Surprised by a Turkish Bombardment’, 1919
The panels that Spencer painted featured scenes of his own wartime experiences, both as a hospital orderly at the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol and as a soldier on the Salonika front. Painted entirely from memory, the panels focussed on domestic routines rather than combat, and evoked everyday experience – washing lockers, inspecting kit, sorting laundry, scrubbing floors and taking tea – in which Spencer found spiritual resonance and sustenance.
Hospital Ward, Beaufort War Hospital, with Stanley Spencer, standing extreme left and marked as ‘me’
‘They don’t look like war pictures; they rather look like Heaven, a place I am becoming very familiar with’, wrote Spencer to his sister, Florence, 1923. The design for the chapel, with both sides divided into four arched panels, with a predella panel beneath each, was based on the frescoes painted by Giotto in the Arena Chapel in Padua. Rather than depicting combat and death, Spencer transformed the essence of his experience into a vision in which the menial and the everyday became sublime. The work was also inspired by the Confessions of Saint Augustine, with its message that the monotony of fetching and carrying and the drudgery of daily routine could bring a person closer to God.
Unusually for art that responds to war, Spencer does not depict combat, acts of military heroism, or death; instead, Spencer portrays the everyday routine in soldiers’ lives. Each panel depicts a scene teeming with activity: men sorting out kit at a training camp, washing themselves in a bathroom, sorting laundry or filling urns with tea. There’s an element of religious allegory – from an orderly’s outstretched, cross-like arms as he makes a bed, to the soldiers’ capes that hang from their shoulders like angelic wings – but always rooted in the realism of everyday life. Spencer described the paintings as ‘a symphony of rashers of bacon’ with ‘tea-making obligato’, representing a ‘heaven in a hell of war.’
Stanley Spencer, ‘Self-Portrait’, 1923
Spencer would sometimes explain to interviewers (there’s a superb BBC programme from 1956 – Spencer: War and Peace – showing at Somerset House alongside the paintings) how, for him, losing himself in the menial routines of war, whether in Beaufort hospital or at the front in Macedonia, became the miraculous, a means of reconciliation with the death and suffering he encountered.
For the crucial thing about Spencer’s murals is that you approach the Resurrection through panels that depict the drudgery of the daily tasks assigned to soldiers, but also the release and comradeship involved – making beds, scrubbing floors, buttering sandwiches for tea, washing in the bathroom, sorting laundry and making beds.
Before serving as hospital for the war wounded, Beaufort was – and continued to serve as – a mental asylum and what is revealed in many of the details in these pictures – the handkerchiefs of the mentally ill piled up in the hospital laundry room, a distant figure from the asylum in Filling Tea Urns, a disturbed inmate repetitively scrubbing the floor as others go by – is how sensitive Spencer was to mental instability around him.
So here are the panels, in the order that they are encountered by the viewer, with the notes provided by the Somerset House curators.
Convoy Arriving with the Wounded
The narrative sequence of Spencer’s canvases from the Sandham Memorial Chapel begins with Convoy Arriving with the Wounded. An open-topped bus forces its way through rhododendron bushes to the gates of the Beaufort Military Hospital in Bristol, which Spencer described as being ‘massive and as high as the gate of Hell’. The unpleasant-looking gatekeeper adds an ominous element to the wounded soldiers’ arrival. The keys at his belt belong to the chapel rather than the hospital, thus visually connecting the painting with its location.
Scrubbing the Floor
In the first of the smaller, predella canvases painted for the chapel, a shell-shocked soldier lies prostrate in a dark hospital passageway while he obsessively scrubs the floor with a soapy rag. Above him figures rush back and forth with trays of bread. Spencer would sometimes envy the repetitive, insular lives of the asylum patients at the Beaufort Hospital. saying, ‘I would like to do things that way . . I could contemplate. Nothing would disturb me’.
A sense of clam activity fills this everyday scene of a bathroom at Beaufort, busy with soldiers cleaning, drying themselves, dressing and, in the case of the man at the centre of the canvas, having iodine painted onto a wound. The detailed depiction of the sponge seen below the orderly cleaning taps, as well as the towels and the soap suds in the soldiers’ hair, shows Spencer’s fascination with painting different materials and surfaces.
Sorting and Moving Kit-Bags
Orderlies sort the kit-bags belonging to a newly-aarived convoy of soldiers in a bleak courtyard – a part of the Beaufort Hospital that, in essence, survives to the present day. Spencer wrote about the scene, remembering that, ‘Immediately on arrival at the hospital the kit-bags of the soldiers just arrived would be stacked all together in the courtyard . . . The orderlies would then carry them to wherever the patient wanted them, or open them if so required. They were all padlocked’.
Soldiers struggle to flatten out the blankets onto which their kit is to be laid out prior to inspection. A humorous touch is provided by the one soldier who is near to completing his task, who appears awkwardly sprawled out as if he has fallen asleep on top of his kit. Kit Inspection is the only one of the chapel canvases to be set at Tweseldown, the camp near Farnham in Surrey, where Spencer was sent to train before he left for the Macedonian front.
Sorting the Laundry
The laundry at Beaufort was a space where Spencer found respite from unwelcome chores. In this cheerful scene, a nurse supervises orderlies who sort through bags of laundry, including towels, jackets and sheets. A giant pile of white sheets builds up against the wall – a second pile, of spotted red handkerchiefs belonging to the permanent inmates from the asylum at Beaufort, reminds the viewer of the hospital’s dual purpose during the war.
Dug-out is the first in the narrative sequence of the Sandham canvases to depict a scene set at the Macedonian front. Soldiers in two trenches prepare their equipment for a ‘stand-to’ order about to be given by their sergeant, whose uniform is camouflaged by fern fronds. A tense, sombre atmosphere is created by the piles of barbed wire that appear like black thunder clouds, and by one of the soldiers looking ominously towards the right, which in the chapel is where Spencer’s altarpiece of the Resurrection of the Soldiers appears.
Filling Tea Urns
Orderlies fill urns with tea to take back to the various military wards at the Beaufort Hospital, while a small figure behind a counter in the far background represents someone filling an urn for one of the asylum wards. Spencer was curious about the lives of the mental patients, who were housed in a separate wing. and he saw the counter as the dividing point in the hospital, that separated the patients into two distinct worlds.
The Resurrection of the Soldiers
This is Spencer’s vision of the end of war, in which heaven has emerged from hell. Each cross amongst the astonishing and brave tumble across the canvas serves as an object of devotion (some of which are handed to Christ, who has been unconventionally placed in the mid-background); or marks a grave from which a soldier emerges; or serves to frame a bewildered face. The central motif is a pair of fallen mules, still harnessed to their timber wagon. The position of the cross on the altar in the chapel was of great importance to Spencer, for he felt it ‘imperative that the top of the altar should be slightly above the bottom of the big picture’ so that it might be incorporated visually amongst the mass of his own painted crosses.
Resurrection was painted on canvas adhered to the wall of the high altar at Sandham Memorial Chapel and so is presented as a projection in the exhibition.
Reveille (the morning wake-up) shows soldiers looming into the tent, announcing the fact that the war is over. In the chapel itself, the Resurrection (or the end of the war) has already taken place in the narrative sequence. Soldiers are shown dressing under mosquito nets, with malaria-infested mosquitoes hovering above them. Spencer had suffered from malaria whilst serving in Salonika, and it is probable that Harry Sandham, the dedicatee of the chapel, had died of complications related to the same disease.
This scene at Beaufort Hospital is one of the busiest canvases in the chapel. Medical orderlies are shown bustling around patients, one of whom is having his feet scraped, which was one of Spencer’s tasks. One of the orderlies has even sprouted angelic ‘wings’ in the form of the buckets that he carries. Whilst at Beaufort, Spencer was introduced to the Confessions of St Augustine. He advocated that busyness brought one closer to God. Spencer used this philosophy to help him during his time at the hospital.
The orderly’s ‘wings’ in Frostbite are echoed here in a different form – in the dramatically flowing ‘wings’ of the soldier’s mackintoshes, as they collect water from a spring. The technical skill evidenced here demonstrates how Spencer had matured during his painting of the chapel canvases, for this was one of the last scenes he painted. Spencer had written about water fountains like this one, with ‘a great crowd of men round a Greek fountain or drinking-water trough (usually two slabs of marble, one set vertically into the side of a hill, having a slit-shaped hole in it which the other slab fits …)’.
Tea in the Hospital Ward
Tea-time must have been one of the highlights in the daily routine at the Beaufort Hospital. The contemplative figure in the bottom left-hand corner suggests that it was a quiet time, although a photograph in the Glenside Hospital Museum shows a reality quite different from the cosy scene evoked by Spencer, with formal, serried ranks of patients sat at trestle tables. This scene did not feature in Spencer’s original scheme and was the last of the predella canvases to be painted in 1932.
The officer is the only soldier in command represented in the cycle. He is shown holding a map of Macedonia, on which Spencer noted all the places that he could remember visiting there. The soldiers in the background are shown feasting on bilberries, in a landscape that might almost be his home town, Cookham. The rendering of landscape and greenery typifies Spencer’s skill at painting landscape and still-life, reflecting the rhododendrons by the Beaufort gatehouse in Convoy Arriving with the Wounded, and the rolling landscape above the Resurrection.
This seems a quintessentially English scene, with the mismatched fabrics, stripy wallpaper, and pin-ups above the bed (both Hilda and Spencer’s father are shown). It has been suggested that the scene shows a hospital ward in a requisitioned house in Salonika, but it is more like to be a fusion of memories of Beaufort and Macedonia, where Spencer had been a patient himself. A figure – perhaps Spencer himself – is cocooned inside his blankets. but unlike his companions in Frostbite, he is upright, his expressive. oversized toes dancing on the urn-like form of the hot water bottle.
The creation of a firebelt entailed the burning off of grass around the camp in order to create a protective fire barrier: here the soldiers are using copies of the Balkan News as firelighters. ‘Of the last three arched pictures, I like [this] the best,’ Spencer wrote to Mary Behrend. The tangle of pulleys and complicated interplay of figures, including a Stanley-esque figure in uniform, holding a tent pole, does indeed make for a complex, but resoundingly successful composition
This ritual of scrubbing bedside lockers at the Beaufort Hospital took place in the bathroom of Ward 4. This duty was often overseen by the fearsome Sister Hunter, who once caught Stanley’s brother, Gilbert, cleaning the floor with a mop instead of a scrubbing brush. ‘There are no corners to Spencer’s Ward’, she admonished. Spencer shows himself squeezing himself between the bath tubs, where he was able to find some all-too- elusive personal space. For him, this menial task – like scrubbing floors – assumed a spiritual quality.
Sandham Memorial Chapel: the panels in situ
These paintings, which took six years to create and were completed in 1932, are considered by many to be Spencer’s finest achievement. Simon Schama has called the Spencer murals ‘the most powerful art to emerge from the carnage of the Great War’.
In his review for the Independent, Adrian Hamilton wrote:
Spencer described some of these paintings as a “symphony of rashers of bacon” with “tea obligato”, which makes him sound like Alan Bennett artist conjuring up fond characters. But he isn’t. Behind these pictures is an intensity of feeling and urgency, alongside the humorous detail, that speaks of a march towards death and a promise of paradise after. Even in the fondest pictures such as Bedmaking the outstretched arms of the soldier stretching the sheet along with the standing figures in their blankets covers either side suggest crucifixion. “They don’t look like war pictures,” he wrote as he started sketching out his first ideas in 1923, ‘they rather look like Heaven, a place I am becoming familiar with’.
In another article in the Independent, Claudia Pritchard wrote:
With his pots of jam and rashers of bacon, his view of war might seem, at first glance, flippant. But look again. The Beaufort patient scrubbing the floor is doing so obsessively, repeatedly, traumatised by warfare. The mounds of dirty washing and the Beaufort patients’ uniform illustrate that the men who are cannon fodder are interchangeable, dehumanised. Spencer knew about war, right enough. And he chose to depict, in honouring his fallen fellows, not death and destruction, but mankind’s magnificent capacity for selfless drudgery in the service of others.
Stanley Spencer, ‘Poppies’, 1938
How should we remember those who have died in war or through genocide? What purpose do memorials and remembrance serve? In his poem Recalling War, written some twenty years after the First World War, Robert Graves writes about how the Great War was remembered by his generation. As we are about to begin a year marking 100 years since the beginning of that war, Graves poem is timely, commenting as it does on the fading common memory of the war as so little physically remains to remind people of its significance. As wars fade from memory and the last of the survivors dies, the reality of war is lost in a false memory of military bravado, while the causes of war are forgotten too.
Entrance and exit wounds are silvered clean,
The track aches only when the rain reminds.
The one-legged man forgets his leg of wood,
The one-armed man his jointed wooden arm.
The blinded man sees with his ears and hands
As much or more than once with both his eyes.
Their war was fought these twenty years ago
And now assumes the nature-look of time,
As when the morning traveller turns and views
His wild night-stumbling carved into a hill.
What, then, was war? No mere discord of flags
But an infection of the common sky
That sagged ominously upon the earth
Even when the season was the airiest May.
Down pressed the sky, and we, oppressed, thrust out
Boastful tongue, clenched fist and valiant yard.
Natural infirmities were out of mode,
For Death was young again; patron alone
Of healthy dying, premature fate-spasm.
Fear made fine bed-fellows. Sick with delight
At life’s discovered transitoriness,
Our youth became all-flesh and waived the mind.
Never was such antiqueness of romance,
Such tasty honey oozing from the heart.
And old importances came swimming back –
Wine, meat, log-fired, a roof over the head,
A weapon at the thigh, surgeons at call.
Even there was a use again for God –
A word of rage in lack of meat, wine, fire,
In ache of wounds beyond all surgeoning.
War was return of earth to ugly earth,
War was foundering of sublimities,
Extinction of each happy art and faith
By which the world has still kept head in air,
Protesting logic or protesting love,
Until the unendurable moment struck –
The inward scream, the duty to run mad.
And we recall the merry ways of guns –
Nibbling the walls of factory and church
Like a child, piecrust; felling groves of trees
Like a child, dandelions with a switch.
Machine-guns rattle toy-like from a hill,
Down in a row the brave tin-soldiers fall:
A sight to be recalled in elder days
When learnedly the future we devote
To yet more boastful visions of despair.
Spencer’s chapel murals: clip from BBC British Masters series
- Exhibition review: Brian Sewell (Telegraph)
- British Masters: We Are Making a New World
- The Art of War
What a dispiriting programme this was, the second in the British Masters series presented by James Fox. It offered a survey of British art in the inter-war years, an interesting period in British art when artists were facing up to challenging continental currents in artistic expression, and responding to the aftermath of the War, growing social distress and intensified class conflict.
But, as in last week’s episode, Fox dealt in elision and hyperbole, determined to shoehorn glimpses of artists and their work into his argument that British artists collectively came to define what it meant to be British – to such a degree, he implied, that they helped Britain win the Second World War:
It was their paintings together that gave us a vision of the England that we were fighting for. In an age of anxiety, artists helped Britain find itself again. In their paintings they remembered a country to which we could escape; they invented a country that all of us could love. And in the shadow of a new war, they forged a country for which all of us could fight.
While it is true that an argument can be made that artists such as John Nash, Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and others helped define an image of England in the public mind, this largely came about as a result of a phenomenon not mentioned by Fox – the outstanding and iconic images produced for Shell and London Transport posters by these artists and others during the 1930s. Here is a selection:
Edward McKnight Kauffer
Eric Ravilious produced a series of acclaimed woodcuts for London Transport, and although Train Landscape (above) was not used as a poster, it might have been.
The image chosen to open and close the episode – The Cornfield by John Nash (top) was painted as a response to war, though not, as Fox implied, the Second World War. John Nash and his brother Paul had served at the Western Front in the Great War. On their return to England, they rented a studio in Chalfont St Giles, Buckinghamshire, where John painted The Cornfield, a poignant contrast to the brothers’ paintings of devastation and death at the front they were working on as commissions at the same time. John later said that they used to paint for their own pleasure only after six o’clock, when their work as war artists was over for the day. This explains the long shadows cast by the evening sun across the golden field of corn that is the focus of the painting. John Burnside’s wrote a beautiful meditation on The Cornfield for the Tate blog:
Nothing is as it was
in childhood, when we had to learn the names
of objects and colours,
and yet the eye can navigate a field,
loving the way a random stook of corn
– not by shadows; not by light –
but softly, like the tinder in a children’s
story-book, the stalled world raised to life
around a spark: that tenderness in presence,
pale as the flame a sniper waits to catch
across the yards of razor-wire and ditching;
thin as the light that falls from chapel doors,
so everything, it seems,
not for a moment, not in the sway of the now,
as the evening we can see
is all the others, all of history:
the man climbing up from the tomb
in a mantle of sulphur,
the struck match whiting his hands
in a blister of light.
In the last four stanzas it’s as if Burnside has moved on to contemplate another painting discussed by Fox in the programme – Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection, Cookham (below).
After the usual tour of Cookham and the details of Resurrection, Fox quickly moved on to consider Spencer’s sex life, spending some time poring over Double Nude Portrait- The Artist with His Second Wife and what it tells us about his two marriages. Fascinating, perhaps, but more pertinent to Fox’s thesis about artists contributing to a sense of national unity during wartime would have been the eight panels he painted while working as a war artist at Lithgows Shipyard in Port Glasgow, on the Clyde in 1940.
These works seem much more relevant to the question of how British people saw themselves in relation to the war effort. Spencer depicts an egalitarian working environment, one operating through co-operation and co-ordination. There are no foremen. It’s a vision of a new social order and a challenge to the existing order, and articulates a mood that emerged during the war and was expressed ultimately in the Labour landslide in the 1945 election.
Perhaps Spencer’s complicated sex life was the sort of thing that Fox was referring to in his blog on the BBC website when he wrote in advance of the series, ‘I promise you that there will be some jaw-dropping stories’. Or perhaps it was the story of the obnoxious president of the Royal Academy and painter of endless horse portraits, Sir Alfred Munnings, getting pissed before making a speech in the presence of Winston Churchill in which he savaged modernists. But Dr Fox loves Munnings – he, too, helped define true Englishness.
The final work that Fox considered was John Piper’s Interior, Coventry Cathedral (below), painted in the immediate aftermath of the German bombing raid on the city on 14 November 1940. For the 12 hours German bombers laid waste to the city below, destroying thousands of buildings and killing hundreds of civilians. Early the following morning, Piper, an official war artist, painted the aftermath of the attack.
James Fox said of the painting:
It shows the city’s great medieval cathedral in ruins. The roof has collapsed, the windows are smashed, and the rubble is still smouldering. It was a metaphor for the entire British nation as it teetered on the brink of annihilation. In the darkest hour of World War 2, the public actually saw it as an image of defiance. Because in the face of all that terrible destruction, those old English walls are standing firm. And if a building won’t give up, neither will the people.
The story is a good one, and the contextualisation was appropriate. But surely, in a series about art, there should be more of a focus on the art itself? What makes this a great piece of art – apart from the circumstances of its creation? How does it relate to Piper’s other work and his artistic strategies? This is not a new complaint about art documentaries on TV, and the response is usually along the lines of: to attract and hold an audience it’s necessary to focus on drama and personalities, rather than abstractions. And there isn’t time to go into all the twists and turns of art movements.
But how long would it take to outline the role that artists like Paul Nash or John Piper played at this time in creating something new – a blend of abstraction and an older tradition of landscape painting to produce an approach that was distinctively British? Surely that is an interesting story – not the fanciful idea that they helped win the Second World War?
It’s a story that Alexandra Harris tells in her prize-winning book Romantic Moderns. She writes that ‘Piper is so well-known today for his romantic vision of churches and country houses that it can be difficult to imagine him as a leader of the abstract movement’. In Breakwaters at Seaford (1937, below), jetties and waves are inked ‘with calligraphic sketchiness’ and paper is torn and ripped, leaving raw edges exposed, to evoke a sense of winter wind and waves.
A painting like this that is part-collage reveals the influence on Piper of the Cubist practice (Braque, for instance) of pasting pieces of paper, newsprint and so on into a painting. This can be seen clearly in Beach with Starfish (below).
But, says Harris, ‘whereas Braque and Picasso made their collages indoors, arranging wallpapers and veneers with infinite deliberation to signify tables, bottles, and guitars, Piper sat outside with a board on his knees, opening his work to nature and to chance’.
Piper crystallised his ideas in an essay, ‘Abstraction on the Beach’, in which he argued that ‘abstraction is a luxury’ – and as old as the hills. He wrote that,
The early Christian sculptors, wall-painters and glass-painters had a sensible attitude towards abstraction. However hard one tries … one cannot catch them out indulging in pure abstraction. Their abstraction, such as it is, is always subservient to an end – the Christian end, as it happened. Abstraction is a luxury that has been left to the present day to exploit It is a luxury just as any single ideal is, and like a single ideal it should be approached all the time, but not pre-supposed all the time. To pre-suppose it always, if you are a painter is to paint the same picture always: or else to give up painting altogether because there is nothing left to paint….
Piper was determined to renew the connection between art and life, that would look for the sacred in ordinary, local things.On the beach, for example:
At the edge of the sea, sand. Then, unwashed by the waves at low tide, grey-blue shingle against the warm brown sand: an intense contradiction in colour, in the same tone, on the same plane. Fringing this, dark seaweed, an irregular litter of it, with a jagged edge towards the sea broken here and there by washed-up objects; boxes, tins, waterlogged sand shoes, banana skins, starfish, cuttlefish, dead seagulls, sides of boxes with THIS SIDE UP on them, fragments of sea-chewed linoleum with a washed-out pattern. This line of magnificent wreckage vanishes out of sight in the distance, but it is a continous line that girdles England, and can be seen reappearing on the skyline in the other direction along this flat beach. Behind this rich and constricting belt against the sand dunes there is drier sand, sparser shingle, unwashed even at high tides, with dirty banana skins now and sides of boxes with the THIS SIDE UP almost unreadable. That, in whatever direction you look, is a subject worthy of contemporary painting. Pure abstraction is undernourished. It should at least be allowed to feed bare on a beach with tins and broken bottles.
This tension between nationalism and internationalism, between abstraction and the English landscape tradition, in British art of the period makes for an interesting story, and challenging questions. Has British art been at its best when drawing on influences from abroad? Or when it draws strength from native customs and traditions?
Paul Nash was a pioneer of modernism in Britain, promoting the avant-garde European styles of abstraction and Surrealism in the 1920s and 1930s. In 1933 he co-founded the influential modern art movement Unit One with fellow artists Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth (no mention of them by Fox), and the critic Herbert Read. It was a short-lived but important move towards the revitalisation of English art in the inter-war period. But then, in Axis, England’s most adventurous art magazine at the time, Paul Nash expressed his desire to be a modernist while still working in a native tradition:
Whether it is possible to ‘go modern’ and still ‘be British’ is a question vexing quite a few people today […] The battle lines have been drawn up: internationalism versus an indigenous culture; renovation versus conservatism; the industrial versus the pastoral; the functional versus the futile.
He explained why he was ‘For, but Not With’ the abstract painters, able to appreciate abstraction, but ultimately more satisfied by nature: by stones and leaves, trees and waves. Nash wanted to create a national identity for modern art, and began by exploring the coastline of Dorset, its cliffs studded with fossils, and the chalk downland marked by paths like mysterious engravings on the land.
Nash was a member of the English Surrealist movement, and his greatest paintings were symbolic representations of specific landscapes – the Dorset coast (above), the ancient stone circle at Avebury in Wiltshire, and of other ancient sites in England including Wittemham Clumps (below). The Clumps – the two dome-shaped hills topped by a thick clump of trees – had been familiar to Nash since spending family holidays nearby from 1909. He painted the Clumps in a series of dream-like works, three of which present the vernal (or spring) equinox, with the sun and moon depicted simultaneously in the sky.
Like Piper, Nash wanted to reconcile modernity with Britishness. Having tried abstraction, he returned to painting of natural forms – stones, leaves and trees. Although he greatly admired (and in many cases rubbed shoulders with) Picasso, Max Ernst, Magritte and other modernists, he continued to find inspiration in nature and the British landscape. He saw himself in the tradition of English mystical painters such as William Blake and Samuel Palmer.
The 1935 painting Equivalents for the Megaliths (above) shows Nash working in both traditions – juxtaposing avant-garde with the mystical spirit of a place in the English landscape. Near the horizon a hill-fort or barrow is visible, while dominating the foreground are his equivalents for the megaliths, the Avebury standing stones. Assembled in a cornfield are the powerful geometric forms of a gridded screen, standing and lying cylinders, and a steel-grey girder. Alexandra Harris explains that equivalents was a word that Roger Fry ‘often used to explain the goal of non-representational art, arguing that instead of mimicking the world the picture must be allowed to make its own, equivalent, reality’.
Nash was not the only artist ‘worried that they might be heading for … abstract oblivion’. Another was Ivon Hitchens. For Hitchens, the landscape was important as ‘a peg on which to hang a painting’. In other words,he wanted to paint something more than the landscape in front of him. After his house was bombed in 1940, Hitchens moved to a patch of woodland near Petworth in Sussex, living at first in a caravan. Here, using just patches of colour and brush strokes, he created landscapes (below) with a sense of movement, depth and space.
Eric Ravilious followed a similar path, working to create a traditional, non-chauvinistic sort of Englishness, and became one of the best-known artists of the 1930s. Inspired by the landscape of the South Downs, his paintings featured, in his words, ‘lighthouses, rowing-boats, beds, beaches, greenhouses’. Some dismissed Ravilious’s art as cosy or parochial, but he was a masterful watercolourist whose paintings are never merely pretty. They reveal the same complicated relationship with modernism as the work of Nash or Sutherland. ‘I like definite shapes’, he wrote, and his landscapes approach the abstract with their flat planes and hard lines and patterns.
A far less well-known painter in the inter-war years was David Bomberg. He had studied at the Slade alongside Stanley Spencer and C.R.W. Nevinson and in his early work had been greatly influenced by cubism. But in the post-war years his work, too, became increasingly dominated by landscapes drawn from nature that combined abstract, expressionist forms with naturalism. During and shortly after the Second World War he spent time in Cornwall, where he painted Tregor and Tregoff (below).
In 1944 he painted Evening in the City of London, which, like Piper’s painting of the bombed-out Coventry Cathedral, seemed to express optimism through its strong blocks of warm colour. It has been described as the ‘most moving of all paintings of wartime Britain’. Bomberg once said: ‘I want to translate the life of a great city … into art that shall not be photographic, but expressive’. Andrew Graham Dixon writes:
Like many another wartime Londoner, Bomberg was struck by the seemingly miraculous way in which Christopher Wren’s great cathedral of St Paul’s had survived the incessant bombing attacks of the Nazis. He took care to show the cathedral from a distance, framed by the desolation around it. According to the artist’s wife, Lilian Bomberg, “He got permission to climb to the top of a church, in Cheapside, I think, and painted St Paul’s from its east side.” The church in question was probably St Bride’s. Access to public buildings deemed to be prime targets for enemy attack was severely restricted.
The tension between realism and abstraction can also be seen in the work of Henry Moore. In his sculpture he had moved steadily from classicism to abstraction and his work became a target for the popular press. When his abstract Mother and Child in stone was put on display in a front garden in Hampstead, the work proved controversial with local residents and the local press ran a campaign against the piece for two years.
Yet the Shelter Drawings, created by Moore after he was commissioned as an official war artist, transformed his reputation. Along with the coalmining drawings also produced during the war, they transformed miners and London’s working class sheltering in the Underground into heroic figures, stoic and quietly determined.
James Fox touched on the two traditions of painting and photography that mingled from the 1930s onwards. There was often collaboration between photographers and documentary film-makers – such as Humphrey Spender, Bill Brandt and John Grierson – and painters, including Stanley Spencer, and the example Fox chose, William Coldstream.
I didn’t find the Coldstream images especially interesting (Fox observed that his early work was ‘rather pedestrian’, but I love the photos that Spender took in 1937-38, when he went to Bolton on behalf of Mass Observation, the ‘fact-finding body’ set up by Humphrey Jennings and Tom Harrison to document the lives of ordinary British people. As Spender saw it, his role as photographer was to provide visual “information” to complement the written accounts. This is his famous ‘Washing Line’ shot:
James Fox mentioned how Bill Brandt was photographing the Sitwells at Renishaw Hall at the same time as John Piper was painting the great house. Brandt photographed people in all kinds of circumstances in the 1930s:
Finally, what about some art produced by people at the other end of the social scale to the likes of Piper, Spencer or Nash? The Ashington group consisted of Northumberland miners who first came together in 1934 through the Workers Education Association to study ‘something different’ – art appreciation. In an effort to understand what it was all about, their tutor Robert Lyon encouraged them to learn by doing it themselves.
The images that the group produced were fascinating and captured every aspect of life in and around their mining community – above and below ground, from scenes around the kitchen table and on their allotments, to the dangerous and dirty world of the coal face. Was this the England for which James Fox was searching?
Leslie Brownrigg – The Miner, c.1935
Harry Wilson – Committee Meeting, c.1937
George Blessed – Whippets
Fred Laidler – Fish and Chips
Paul Nash, ‘We Are Making a New World’, 1918
Last night BBC 4 launched a new three-part series on 20th century British artists, British Masters, presented by art historian James Fox. I enjoyed seeing some favourite works by artists such as Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, but I wasn’t convinced by either Fox’s presenting style or his thesis.
Once again, a BBC documentary series is spoiled by the determination to make a drama out of everything. Discussing Walter Sickert’s Mornington Crescent Nude (below), Fox drooled, ‘The killer is still in the room: you are the killer…You arrive at this painting innocent. And you leave it… guilty.’ He concluded that Sickert’s painting was ‘not a painting at all but a crime scene’. OK – so Sickert did give this and three other paintings the group title The Camden Town Murder, but he was probably only up to the same as Fox – drawing an audience.
The trouble with all this is that it draws attention away from the art, so – strangely for a series with an art history thesis – there was far too little focus on the paintings and what makes them great. Fox’s thesis is that, in the period between the First World War and the 1970s, British artists produced paintings that outshone work that emerged from the art movements of Europe and America.
Wyndham Lewis, ‘Workshop’, 1914-5
The problem with this is that much of the art that he is examining in the series is now recognised as being amongst the greatest of the 20th century, whilst in his presentation British art seemed to exist in a vacuum, untouched by the European avant-garde. Cubism and its crucial influence didn’t get a mention. Picasso might never have lived. When discussing Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists, Fox made no reference to the Italian Futurists, who at the time were barking up the same tree.
David Bromberg: ‘The Mud Bath’, 1914
After considering David Bomberg’s The Mud Bath (above) – with again no mention of the influence of Cubism and the Italian Futurists on his work – Fox moved on to look at three artists – Christopher Nevinson, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer – who reconciled elements of the pre-War avant-garde with Britain’s realist tradition to create powerful images of the First World War.
C. R. W. Nevinson, ‘Machine-gun’, 1915
Speaking of Nevinson’s Machine-Gun (above), Fox couldn’t keep the sneer out of his voice as he described Nevinson’s exploits at the front and the ill-health that forced his return to England, where this and other paintings that drew on his wartime experience gained a rapturous public reception. This is how the Art of the First World War website assesses Nevinson’s significance:
Nevinson (1889-1946) emerged as one of the major painters of the Great War, on a par with Léger in France and Dix in Germany. The son of a journalist and famous war correspondent, Nevinson went to Paris in 1911, where he discovered Cubism, which was to have a lasting influence on him and which taught him all about construction and the geometry of modern forms. His representation of the machine-gun and its operator is exemplary: the hard lines of the machinery dictate those of the robotised soldiers who become as one with the killing machine. The painting caused quite a stir, in France as well as in Britain. Apollinaire praised its painter as being one who “translates the mechanical aspect of modern warfare where man and machine combine to form a single force of nature. His painting Machine-gun conveys this idea exactly. Nevinson belongs to the school of the English avant-garde influenced by both the young Italian and French schools.
Paul Nash was discussed more sympathetically, although Fox made some oddly pedestrian remarks about We Are Making a New World (top). Introducing what he called the greatest masterpieces of Nash’s career, Fox quoted Nash’s superb statement of his intent as 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 forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.
Paul Nash, ‘The Ypres Salient at Night’
Paul Nash, ‘The Menin Road’
Paul Nash, ‘The Mule Track’, 1918
The programme concluded with a look at another work that emerged from experiences in the Great War: Stanley Spencer‘s ambitious cycle of 19 wall paintings for the Sandham Memorial Chapel, which took five years to complete.
Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, Hampshire, was commissioned in memory of Henry Willoughby Sandham, who died in 1919 as a result of an illness he contracted during the Macedonian campaign, and is based on Spencer’s own experiences during the First World War, also in Macedonia. Stanley served as a medical orderly, first at Beaufort Hospital in Bristol, and then, like Sandham, in Macedonia, where he subsequently transferred to the infantry.
The mixture of daily routine and the spiritual in these paintings is typical of Spencer’s greatest work. The chapel, now in the care of the National Trust.
Stanley Spencer, ‘The Resurrection’, Sandham Memorial Chapel
Stanley Spencer, ‘Tea in the Hospital Ward’, Sandham Memorial Chapel, 1932
Stanley Spencer, ‘Map Reading’, Sandham Memorial Chapel
Stanley Spencer, ‘Ablutions’, Sandham Memorial Chapel
There’s a wonderful gallery of Englishmen Working by Stanley Spencer on the blog, It’s About Time.
Big name for a small but ambitious gallery. Driving down to Pembrokeshire, Machynlleth marked the exact half-way mark on the journey. MOMA (or Museum of Modern Art) is located on the main road through the town in Y Tabernacl (English: The Tabernacle), converted in the mid-1980s from a Wesleyan chapel into a centre for the performing arts, with MOMA growing up alongside it.
Throughout the year MOMA shows Modern Welsh Art, a constantly changing exhibition featuring leading artists from Wales. Individual artists are spotlighted in a series of temporary exhibitions. Works in the permanent collection include an Augustus John portrait, a very characteristic Stanley Spencer, ‘Toasting’, and a John Piper – ‘Nursery Freize II’ (below). None of these, unfortunately, were on show when we visited. What did hold my attention, though, was an exhibition of recent work by father and son Aneurin and Meirion Jones.
Aneurin Jones was born on the Black Mountain in South Wales, and the eccentric characters of the locality remain a prime inspiration. Aneurin was appointed the first head of Art at Ysgol Y Preseli in the village of Crymych, Pembrokeshire, and spent the whole of his professional career there. The Preseli area inspired him greatly – both the landscape and the people. His most recent work centres on farm auctions, and the sadness and uprooting which follow in their wake.
In the exhibition catalogue, Aneurin Jones writes:
My ideas come from the rural west and mid Wales. I was born into one of these communities where the divide between reality and mythology was ambiguous. This was the age of the horse, and a time when the countryside was alive with colourful individuals whose imagination knew no bounds and whose physical shape was moulded by the land. I also felt the hand of an ancient inheritance. Although I left Cwmwysg to learn the craft of painting at Swansea College of Art, the countryside remained my driving force, and when I accepted the post of head of art at Ysgol Y Preseli, I found myself back in an area not dissimilar to the one where I was born, the communal hill farms and all its heroism. … It is these elements – the rural society, the physical shape of country people… that fire my imagination.
This exhibition … is a selection of recent work, based on direct observations in the … places where country people gather – farm sales, agricultural shows, horse fairs, marts, sheepdog trials – and certain events in the calendar, notably the Llanybydder Horse Fair and Barley Saturday in Cardigan. Although my interpretation of these ideas is personal, I am aware that I continue a tradition of country craftsmen in developing ideas from the source materials around us. There is therefore an element of documenting, but also of celebrating and lamenting – celebrating the elemental nature of country life but also lamenting the passing of tradition in the face of globalisation and rural depopulation.
The recent work has evolved to be more suggestive in nature, and yet retaining form and shape which are the driving force behind all my work. I begin with my first love, which is drawing, and from there I use the other media which are to hand: charcoal, pastel, various gels, and often finishing by applying rich Iayers of impasto. For me, painting is a process of simplification, and as we simplify, we mystify, until one is left with the essence and the purity of the experience.
Meirion Jones is from Dyfed and the vast majority of his work is inspired by that part of Wales, although he has also painted extensively in Latin America.
In the exhibition catalogue, Meirion Jones writes:
My paintings are inspired by light, be that the Iight of the West Wales coast or the lyrical contrejour light which brings a figure study to life with all its tonal relationships. I return again & again to certain places in Wales which have a physical and emotional ‘pull’, familiar places that are timeless and yet again constantly changing…. The other theme is essentially figurative. I often find myself ‘people watching’, contemplating the individual lost in a crowd, the solitary figure in time.
Tucked away in a back room used for seminars, we found the impressive Taliesin Mosaic displayed on three separate walls (below: click on image to enlarge for best view). It really deserves a more prominent position.
The Taliesin Mosaic was created by Martin Cheek in 1996 with the help of a donation from the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation. It consists of three panels illustrating the legend of Taliesin. Martin Cheek explains:
As a former animator I was particularly attracted by the ‘metamorphosis’ sequence, when the witch Ceridwen chases the boy Gwion. He changes into a hare, so she pursues him in the form of a greyhound; he then transforms himself into a salmon, she into an otter; followed by him changing into a bird and she into a bird of prey. (Here I chose a swallow and a buzzard [top] because as well as being attractive they can be found locally.) I love trying to put across the individual character of animals in my mosaics, indeed Iwould go so far as to say that I have made it my personal brief. So, clearly, the challenge of trying to capture three different animals each having the same personality was an attractive one.
The inspiration for the project came from the number of local place names that can be linked to the legend.
Last night’s Channel 4 documentary, The Art of War, presented by Jon Snow, was an impassioned and absorbing survey of the ways in which British artists have responded to the horrors of war and, since the First World War, challenged the idea that war art should simply celebrate valour, victory and glory. Snow traced this critical tradition from the artists of the First World War – Richard Nevinson and Paul Nash – via the work of Stanley Spencer and Henry Moore in the Second World War, to the work of contemporary artists such as Jeremy Deller and Steve McQueen. He demonstrated how Britain’s war artists have pushed the boundaries in their determination to express the pain and tragedy of war.
Richard Nevinson was under the spell of the Italian Futurists movement when he was appointed an official war artist in 1917. At first his paintings expressed the Futurists’ exultation in the drama and modernity of war, but their tenor soon changed, as a result of his experience as an ambulance driver. His painting Paths of Glory (above) was initially banned by the military censors, but Nevinson managed to display it during the war, attracting attention by taping ‘censored’ across the image. The ‘paths of glory’ have led these soldiers to death in a wasteland, imprisoned by barbed wire, faces down, anonymous and unrecognisable, slowly decomposing into the landscape.
In La Patrie (above), Nevinson used his own memories of what he had seen as an ambulance driver in Dunkirk following the early fighting around Ypres.
The artistic reputation of Paul Nash was just beginning to take off when the war broke out. Nash joined the Artists’ Rifles and saw service in the Ypres Salient before being invalided home. While he was recovering he exhibited works that depicted the desolate landscapes of the trenches, which led to Nash becoming an official war artist. We Are Making a New World (above) is one of the most memorable images of the First World War, the title mocking the ambitions of the war, as the sun rises on a scene of the total desolation.
In early 1918 he was commissioned to paint a Flanders battlefield for a Hall of Remembrance (which was never completed). In depicting one of the most battle-scarred areas of the Ypres sector, Nash shows two human figures overwhelmed by a hellish landscape of flooded shell craters, shattered trees, concrete blocks and corrugated iron.
Paul Nash also responded to the Second World War, most memorably with Totes Meer (above). This painting, the title of which is German for ‘dead sea’, was inspired by a dump of wrecked aircraft at Cowley in Oxfordshire. Nash based the image on photographs he took there: ‘The thing looked to me suddenly, like a great inundating sea … the breakers rearing up and crashing on the plain. And then, no: nothing moves, it is not water or even ice, it is something static and dead’.
In The Art of War, Jon Snow was most visibly moved when visiting the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere in Hampshire, which is decorated with an outstanding series of large-scale paintings by Stanley Spencer (above). The images were inspired by his experiences as a First World War medical orderly and soldier in Macedonia, and are considered to be among his finest achievements.
The chapel was commissioned by Mary and Louis Behrends as a memorial to Mary’s brother, who died in Macedonia. The main painting, The Resurrection of the Soldiers (above), shows soldiers climbing out of their graves bearing white crosses and embracing their dead comrades. One man kneels at Christ’s side, his head in his lap, one man caresses a turtle, while another clasps a dove to his chest. Spencer wrote of the painting:
During the war, I felt the only way to end the ghastly experience would be if everyone suddenly decided to indulge in every degree or form of sexual love, carnal love, bestiality, anything you like to call it. These are the joyful inheritances of mankind.
In his film, Snow said:
Had his paintings been for a Wren church in the city, Spencer might even now be celebrated as the creator of our own Sistine Chapel. From the outside, the Sandham Memorial Chapel is unremarkable. Step inside and you are drawn into an account of war no artist has ever previously conjured.
Some of the best-known art works of the Second World War are Henry Moore’s sketches and watercolours of Londoners sheltering in the Underground during the Blitz. After the outbreak of war in 1939, Moore commuted from his home in Kent to London where he was teaching at the Chelsea School of Art. He began making drawings of people sheltering in the Underground during the German bombing raids and these came to the attention of the War Artists Advisory Committee, chaired by Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery. Moore was commissioned to make larger and more finished versions. When the drawings were exhibited in 1940 and 1941 they proved very popular with the public.
Returning to the work of Stanley Spencer, Jon Snow discussed his eight epic Second World War friezes, Shipbuilding on the Clyde, which depict the various stages of work in the shipyard- from riveting and pipe-bending to welding and rope making. Spencer was commissioned to paint civilian war efforts and he immersed himself in every aspect of the Glaswegian shipbuilding process to produce these images.
Snow concluded his survey by examining British Artists’ responses to recent conflicts. He discussed Jeremy Deller’s Baghdad, 5 March 2007 (aka It Is What It Is) with the artist, who described his experience of taking the work – a car destroyed in a 2007 truck bomb attack among the book stalls of Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad – on tour around the United States.
Of this work, Jonathan Jones wrote in The Guardian:
With his new work, Baghdad, 5 March 2007, at the Imperial War Museum, he makes us see real death. It is the closest he could get, within the parameters of public display, to laying out the bodies of Iraq’s killed on the floor of the gallery.
A dismembered body is what you immediately think of when you come into the museum and see a car destroyed in a 2007 truck bomb attack among the book stalls of Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, an attack that killed 38 people. Lying among the missiles, tanks and war planes in the museum’s main hall is the eviscerated corpse of what was once a car. It is more than wrecked. It appears to have been flung in the air, crushed, then burned in an inferno. It suggests a human body in a deeply perturbing way. First, because it is so flattened, with viscera of pipes and tanks sticking out. Then again it is scorched by fire to a colour that evokes dried blood. It looks curiously like Lindow Man in the British Museum.
That visual suggestiveness is not the work of a sculptor in a studio. Deller did not make this. He had the idea of exhibiting a car from a Baghdad bombing, was able to get his hands on one, and toured it around America as an object of curiosity before the Imperial War Museum made the brave decision to show it in their displays. The horrible sculptural quality of this relic is accidental, and it forces you to confront the real suffering of the people killed and wounded in Baghdad on that particular day. It is a simple enough thought: if the bomb did this to metal, what did it do to flesh?
The truth stares you in the face, while gleaming machines of death loom above. It makes you imagine not just this reality, but all the realities those weapons created, from a burned-out Panzer on the eastern front to a London street just hit by a V1. Deller has often created works of populist social theatre, but here he achieves something new: the most serious and thoughtful response to the Iraq war by any British artist.
Poet Abdul Zahra Zaki recites a poem outside the shell of the Al-Shahbandar café as part of a protest by artists and writers against the bombing of Al-Mutanabbi Street, March 8, 2007
The final piece chosen by Jon Snow was Steve McQueen’s Queen and Country. McQueen, collaborated with 160 families whose loved ones lost their lives in Iraq. He created a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets, each one dedicated to a deceased soldier. The Art Fund, the UK’s leading art charity, presented this cabinet to the Imperial War Museum in November 2007 and toured the work around the UK between 2007 and 2010.
Queen and Country was created by Steve McQueen in response to a visit he made to Iraq in 2003 following his appointment by the Imperial War Museum’s Art Commissions Committee as an official UK war artist. During the six days McQueen spent in Iraq, he was moved and inspired by the camaraderie of the servicemen and women that he met. He proposed that portraits of those who have lost their lives during the conflict be issued as stamps by Royal Mail.
An official set of Royal Mail stamps struck me as an intimate but distinguished way of highlighting the sacrifice of individuals in defence of our national ideals. The stamps would form an intimate reflection of national loss that would involve the families of the dead and permeate the everyday – every household and every office.
While discussions were under way with Royal Mail, Steve made Queen and Country – a cabinet containing a series of facsimile postage sheets bearing multiple portrait heads, each one dedicated to an individual, with details of name, regiment, age and date of death printed in the margin. The images were chosen by the families of the deceased.Viewers are invited to pull out the double-sided panels bearing the sheets from a wooden box and thereby create an intimate space to contemplate the imagery.
Steve McQueen: ‘Queen and Country’ (detail)
Until Royal Mail agrees to issue the stamps, the artist considers the overall work incomplete. The Art Fund is spearheading the campaign to gain public support for McQueen’s vision for Royal Mail to officially issue the stamps.
Steve McQueen with ‘Queen and Country’