First World War Portraits

This compact little exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery is an ideal reintroduction to some of the protagonists of the First World War.  First there are the monarchs: the Tsar, the Kaiser, the Emperor, and King George V with their stately mien, flashes of gold and military accoutrements – accompanied by a small and pathetic photograph of the young Serb who brought three of them down.

Orpen Haig

Next door there are the military leaders (Haig above, Foch below right) – most, it seems, dragged out of semi-retirement.  William Orpen was chosen to immortalise them, his flattering impressionistic style making them appear distinguished yet human, the honours pinned to their uniform the only flash of bright colour. Orpen is an often forgotten name in British art; it is good to see here how he earned his once impressive reputation.


Accompanying the leaders are a few selected pictures of the ‘ordinary soldier’ – one also by Orpen, the Grenadier Guardsman facing his superiors alike in stance, from a canvas of equal size.  Others show Tommies in action in the trenches: crouched below the tangle of barbed wire firing a machine gun in C.R.W. Nevinson’s angular, futurist style ‘La Mitrailleuse’ – and the aftermath in ‘The Dead Stretcher-Bearer’ by Gilbert Rogers (below). In the central display cabinet these glorified or explicit portraits are countered by postcards of these same figures that were widely produced and disseminated, small, disposable or collectable – and back in 1914-18 not confined to the rarefied halls of the gallery.


Churchill portrait by William Orpen 1916Through the entryway into the large final space one is confronted by Orpen’s 1916 life-size three-quarter length portrait of a very gloomy Churchill. As First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill had just suffered the ignominy of the defeat at Gallipoli, for which he was consequently forced to resign from government. It is more powerful than any of the satisfied elderly ‘hero of the nation’ portraits that followed, and works here to conjure up exactly the feeling of tense uncertainty that every man in power must have felt as each offensive increased the vast list of the dead and the position returned again to stalemate.


At the far end of the room entitled, melodramatically, ‘The Valiant and the Damned’ there is a wall of digitised photographs of a diverse selection of participants in the war, from Mata Hari and Wilfred Owen to the first black officer in the British Army. On the right of this are portraits of a number of ‘heroes’ of the war, whose personal stories of bravery are fascinating to read; on the left are some pictures by official war artists of the actual conditions facing the unlucky casualties of trench warfare, such as Eric Kennington’s ‘Gassed and Wounded’ (above). There is also a small and graphic display of Henry Tonks’ – now well-documented, but until recently not available to public view – pastel portraits of plastic surgery patients alongside the medical photographs showing the progress of the treatment.


In contrast to the documentary realism of such official British war art, the curator has inserted a few German Expressionist paintings inspired by the conflict which show how the chaotic situation in Germany conversely encouraged radical modernism to flourish. Kirchner’s ‘Self-Portrait as a Soldier’ (above), all jagged forms and intense, nauseating colour, places the war in the context of a disillusioned and decadent Berlin. It is an interesting juxtaposition to end on: Epstein’s ‘Rock Drill’ (below) stands at the entrance/exit, a forceful statement of a pre-war modernism that was quenched – the robotic sculpture literally amputated – by the allied reaction to the horror of the first mechanised war.

Torso in Metal from 'The Rock Drill' 1913-14 by Sir Jacob Epstein 1880-1959

Cats in Ruffs & Other Idiosyncrasies: Modern British Art at the RCA

The autumn season of art fairs has begun – and in suitably September-ish rain – with the 20/21 British Art Fair.  My mission (after tracking down the source of complimentary wine) was to find the Burra painting – just the one, though used to publicise the whole event.  Why is Burra suddenly the star of the show?  Is it the very scarcity of his works on show, along with his recognisable and idiosyncratic style, that distinguishes him from all the other prestigious names represented at the fair?

BurraWell here it is, presented by Austin/Desmond Fine Art.  Entitled ‘The Garden’, it is dated 1927, a period when Burra was excitedly discovering the South of France, holidaying at Toulon with his art-school friends, and visiting the seedier parts of Marseille.  Burra, never in the best of health, would withdraw to his hotel room during the heat of the day and sit at a table painting in watercolour from the lower right hand corner outward across the page as his imagination dictated.  Jean Cocteau was at one point staying in the same hotel, and Burra’s friend Barbara Ker-Seymer, who was beginning to earn a reputation as a society photographer in her own right, was commissioned by him; she recalls being unable to carry this out owing to the thick haze of opium that permeated his room.

The painted palm trees suggest a location on the French Riviera, while the androgynous central figure is dressed in some sort of effeminate adaptation of a sailor’s outfit.  Sailors as a social group held a fascination for Burra – much as they did for Stephen Tennant too, who spent most of his life attempting to write and illustrate a novel called ‘Lascar: A Story of the Maritime Boulevard’.  Yet though there is always (to a greater or lesser extent) androgyny, none sport the striking blue eyeshadow of the the sailor in ‘The Garden’.WorkImageFull-1643

And what of the dog (or is it a cat?) with the ruff around its neck?  Is this a nod to the commedia dell’arte, elements of which so frequently appear in Burra’s pictures?  It certainly adds to the sense that this is a scene without narrative, plucked from a vaudeville piece now lost and, lacking its comedic context, looking a bit silly.  In fact, could it be a satire on the decade’s obsession with dressing-up for pointless theatrical tableaux? Though Burra was far from critical; indeed he positively revels in the flamboyance.

WorkImageFull-1244Considering the title of the Burra, there were two interesting comparisons: John Nash’s ‘The View from the Rose Garden’ (left, 1928) and Julian Trevelyan’s ‘The Garden’ (above, 1946).  One is exotic, the other in its muted colours a clearly English landscape; in both, however, the garden itself dominates – it is the subject, in itself – while Burra treats his garden, trees like cardboard props, as a backcloth to the human comedy that undfolds in the foreground.  It shows what a wealth of difference such a simple title can encompass.

????The Nash brothers were particularly well represented this year.  Paul Nash’s lithograph ‘The Strange Coast (Dymchurch)’ (above, 1920) contrasted with his brother’s garden scene in its monotone precision.  Rather than an idyllic vision of timeless nature, the lithograph seems to recall the man-made coastal defences of the recent war, the repetitive wooden groynes and tiered rocks of the sea wall standing like ranked armies.

1003_NORTHCOTE NASHMessums was showing John Nash’s ‘The Woodpile’131143 (left), just as accomplish- ed as his brother’s quiet tree- dominated reveries – though without the foreboding that often dominates Paul’s seemingly innocuous landscapes, imbuing them with a mysterious symbolic meaning.  Meanwhile Lucy Johnson presented Paul Nash’s ‘Haystack at Oxenbridge Farm, Iden, near Rye’ (1923), a gentle vision in pencil and watercolour.

Bell_river_at_cagy_artworkThe Court Gallery had an interesting pair of works by Nevinson – though ‘pair’ is the wrong word because one would never imagine they were by the same artist.  One was a 1911/12 prepatory drawing for a fragmented, futurist-style composition with dominant typographic elements; the other a colourful painted nude in traditional figurative style.  It was a particularly stark example of an avant-garde artist whom the Great War turned backwards (neither, sadly, seem to be illustrated on the website).  Also at the Court Gallery was a lovely Vanessa Bell, ‘The River at Cagy, France’ (c.1950) – as close to a Monet as anything I have seen by an English artist, though painted almost a century after the arch-Impressionist’s first depictions of bridges over the Seine.

tn_253704At the London Art Fair earlier this year Ewan Mundy Fine Art showed some very fine Elizabeth Blackadder paintings; this time it was the turn of the Colourists – Cadell’s deserted white beaches of Iona and George Leslie Hunter’s ink drawing of ‘A Street in Provence’ (left, c.1927-9).  An exquisite Charles Rennie Mackintosh watercolour of catkins may have been my ‘most desirable object’ of the entire fair.

_sjc1706There was, as always, a tempting array of prints – easy to imagine on the walls of even the smallest flat, so almost affordable…  Hockney’s ‘Cushions’ (right, 1968), where the protagonists’ absence creates an atmosphere tense and palpable with expectation; or Henry Moore’s placid ‘Sheep in a Landscape’ (below, 1974) – both at the William Weston Gallery.  Or the charming Peter Blake etching accompanied by a poem about Monica, beautiful and poignant, at Simon Hilton, that I wish I could remember.

moore_-_sheep_in_a_landscapePiano Nobile showed some superlative Dieppe views by Sickert.  And a ‘Siamese Cat Asleep’ (1925) by Christopher Wood – close rival to Mackintosh in the hallowed halls of my imaginary collection.