Hilda Rix Nicholas. Part 2. Morocco and many family tragedies

Morocco, marketplace with pile of oranges by Hilda Rix Nichols painted during one of her two trips to Tangier

It would have been almost impossible to actually paint plein air in oils in the chaotic marketplaces, so Hilda resorted to completing many outdoor pencil and crayon sketches and then later fashioned a completed work when she returned to her hotel.  Her painting style had changed and was now more in line with the Post Impressionists.  An example of this is her work entitled Morocco Marketplace with the Pile of Oranges.  It is a good example of the changes that her style underwent in Morocco. Now she is painting with flowing brush strokes in thick slabs of impasto, a technique used in painting, where paint is laid on an area of the surface in very thick layers, usually thick enough that the brush or painting-knife strokes are visible. The scene is framed by buildings in the background and strewn across the foreground we see a large pile of oranges. The mountain women are wearing red striped skirts and bright haiks, the large pieces of cotton, silk, or wool cloth worn as an outer garment by some Moroccan women.   

                            Men in the Marketplace by Hilda Rix (1914)

In 1914 she completed her painting entitled Men in the Market Place, Tangier.   It is set during the late afternoon once all the shops had closed and in front of us are a group of men deep in conversation.  She has cleverly used a much-reduced palette of pale blues, creams, browns, and yellows.  We do not see the facial feature of the men as they are bathed in a dark grey shadow whilst the buildings behind them are bathed in late afternoon light.  Hilda wrote a letter home describing how she had to endure the strong sunlight coming from the low sun.  She wrote:

“…’The sun has sunken down in a daffodil bed – feeling he has well earned his rest. (But I have a bone to pick with him – he burnt my arms while sketching till they positively hurt – next time I’ll fool him & put gloves over them). The Moors have turned around from their haggling & marketing, gossiping & dreaming & murmuring to face the setting sun, their lips moving in prayer, their eyes beautiful to look upon – The pale yellow light giving a weird pallidness to the sheet of faces …”

                                                       Grande Marché, Tangier by Hilda Rix (1916)

Hilda completed a pastel drawing, Grand Marche, Tangier, which she later copied in oils.  When it was exhibited in her show at Paris’ Galerie J. Chaine and Simonson in 1912 it was much admired and was bought by the French government for the collection of the Musée du Luxembourg.  Centre stage in the depiction we see two women wearing red-and-white-striped cotton dresses or skirts, covered by white robes.  Their legs are bare and they wear red shoes and socks. One of them pulls her white robe tighter across her upper body. The other, who has her back turned to the viewer, is carrying something on her back, which could be her young child.  The art critics for the French edition of the New York Herald was impressed by Hilda Rix’s realist art, stating that in his opinion the figures in her compositions must surely have been sketched and later added to the finished work.  He further commented:

“…’This artist has the ability to make lifelike images in remarkable compositions bringing outstanding realism and accurate impressions that capture the ‘types’ to be found among the Moroccan people…”

Not everybody loved the painting as the art critic of The Sydney Morning Herald commented that:

“…the drawing and colour are eccentric, after the post-impressionist manner” and described the central figure as “grotesque in its want of finish…”

 Moroccan Market Scene by Hilda Rix Nicholas (crayon and pastel on paper)

The paintings which she did during her periods in North Africa led art historians to compartmentalise her as an Orientalist, a term which referred to the depiction of people or places in present-day Greece, Turkey, North Africa or the Middle East, by painters from the West.  In addition to displaying the results of her trip at the Salon, she also had her Tangier works exhibited in 1913 and 1914 at the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, an art society which staged not only Orientalist paintings, but also encouraged the travel of French artists in the Far East. Her work was illustrated in the Notre Gazette, reflecting her emerging status as an important artist, and there were many column inches in the French about her exhibitions.

                           Moroccan Loggia by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1912-1914)

Her colourful paintings featuring life in Morocco highlighted the powerful North African light and concentrated on the people and their colourful clothing and sometimes the local architecture.  It could be levied against her that many of her depictions were idealised versions of life in Morocco and steered clear of the more squalid aspects of the poverty that pervades the area and yet in Jeanette Hoorn’s 2012 biography, Hilda Rix Nicholas and Elsie Rix’s Moroccan Idyll : Art and Orientalism, she takes the opposite view, writing:

“…She did not seek out or embellish her pictures with the “orientalist” stereotypes that she had learned while growing up in Melbourne…In her writing and painting, she actively campaigned against what she saw as the fakery of “orientalism”. Her pastel drawings and oils strive to present an accurate account of the dress, manners and appearance of her subjects…”

Hoorn believed that Rix and her sister were, to a significant extent, counter-orientalist as they endeavoured to portray everyday life in Tangier as they found it, rather than presenting generalised views of the orient.  Rix adopted a counter-orientalist position in lectures and articles upon her return to Australia.   There were some that viewed her North African depictions as being somewhat abstract and flat and that could well be due to the influence Matisse had on her. 

                             Hilda Rix painting in Tangier market place (1914)

Matisse returned to Morocco in October of that year while it was two years later that Rix returned to North Africa, this time accompanied by her sister, who also sketched and wrote but whose main function was to be company for her sister and provide assistance and protection from enquiring bystanders while Hilda painted.  Hilda was surrounded by spectators as she sketched and painted and her audience would, on occasions, halt the flow of the traffic

                                         The Arab Sheep Market Tangier by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1914)

Another of her works from her second trip to Morocco was her 1914 painting entitled The Arab Sheep Market, Tangier.   The searing North African sunlight illuminates the whitewashed buildings and the textured garments worn by the shepherds.  Hilda Rix has used a striking palette of pinks, purples and oranges which is an acknowledgement of the Fauvism style of painting.  Sadly, a house fire claimed many works from her African series of paintings.

                                Grandmère by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1914)

Hilda and Elise returned to France in 1914. Around this time, whilst she was in her studio at Étaples, she completed a work entitled Grandmère.  It is a plein air work which shows an elderly peasant woman in a beautiful garden setting affording the work a luminously colourful background.  Many of Hilda’s paintings were bought by the French government, exhibited in the Salon and the Société des Peintres Orientalistes Français, and she was elected an Associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. 

                                           Hilda with her mother and sister during European trip.

Hilda still had studios in Paris and one for the summer months spent in Étaples.  The summer of 1914 she was at Étaples but the outbreak of World War I on July 28th 1914 resulted in Hilda, along with her sister Eliseand her mother evacuating to London.  If that upheaval was not enough, Hilda had to endure a number of family tragedies.  Her mother had been taken unwell during the Channel crossing and was admitted to hospital on arrival in England.  Although Hilda’s mother was not fully recovered, she left hospital and went to recuperate at a nursing home.  At the same time as the mother was extremely ill, Hilda’s sister Elise contracted typhoid and died on September 2nd 1914, aged 37.  Hilda kept the death of her sister a secret from her mother who she believed was too ill to receive such sad news.   Her mother slowly recovered and was later told of the death of her daughter.  For the next eighteen months Hilda Rix painted few paintings presumably because she spent all her time looking after her mother and was too tired to concentrate on her paintings.  She remembered the time saying:

“… I could scarcely put one foot in front of the other and walked like an old thing…”

 Finally, in March 1916 Hilda’s mother, Elizabeth died.

Hilda and Matson after the marriage

Enter onto the scene, Major George Matson Nicholas, a soldier from Melbourne.   George, usually referred to as Matson, was the eldest of six brothers.  Before he enlisted in the Australian army in April 1915, he had been a schoolteacher.  He fought at the Battle of Gallipoli and was wounded.  Once recovered he was sent to France where he was awarded a Distinguished Service Order at Pozieres, single-handedly capturing an enemy machine gun post.   His regiment was based in Étaples, and according to Hilda’s stories, he found her paintings which she had left behind when she had had to quickly abandon her Étaples studios.  Then, during his leave he travelled to London in pursuit of Hilda. They met in September 1916, love blossomed between the two, and on October 7th 1916 they married in St Saviour’s, Warwick Avenue in London.   

Major George Matson Nicholas charcoal and pastel drawing by Hilda Rix Nicholas drew this portrait of her new husband two days after their wedding on October 9th 1916

Two days after the wedding Hilda completed a sketch of her husband. Three days after the wedding Major George Matson Nicholas returned to the front and assumed command of the 24th Battalion,  He was shot and killed in action at the Normandy town of Flers on the Western Front on November 14th, aged 39.

                                           These Gave the World Away by Hilda Rix Nicholas, (1917)

Hilda was devastated and in a diary entry she wrote that she had lost the will to live.  In her grief Hilda Rix Nicholas painted morbid images, symbolic of death and sacrifice in war which contrast markedly with the light and life of her French and Moroccan works.  One such work was entitled These gave the world away which she completed in 1917.

                                               Central panel of Pro Humanitate by Hilda Rix Nicholas (1917)

Another of her war paintings was Pro Humanitate, the central panel of a triptych. It clearly depicts the futility of war and more personally for Hilda, the tragedy of her short marriage to Nicholas.  The work comprised of three panels.  The left-hand panel depicted an outdoor scene with a happy couple standing on top of a hill contemplating their future together; the central panel depicts a soldier husband giving his life for the cause of humanity.  Hilda Rix has depicted the soldier at the moment of his death with arms outstretched in a crucifixion pose.  The right-hand panel of the triptych portrays the heartbroken wife grieving and is watched over by the shadowy figure of her lost hero.  Rix Nicholas offered her triptych Pro Humanitate, which depicted Australian soldiers, to the  Australian War Memorial, which was building a collection of art commemorating the war, but it was rejected; the acquisitions committee described it as “of too intimate a character for inclusion in a public collection.

                                                           Desolation by Hilda Rix Nicholas (c.1917)

She painted a strange and moving painting around 1917 entitled Desolation.  This work depicts an emaciated woman crying.  She is shrouded in a black cloak and is squatted down staring at us.  The setting is a battle-scarred landscape which lacks any vegetation.   The National Gallery of Australia holds a charcoal drawing made as a study for the work.  In a review, the Arts correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, wrote:

“…Desolation is almost gruesome in the grim delineation of the figure typifying all the widowed world in one lone woman. There she sits, lost in an awful reverie, over the stricken battlefield.  The work is an epitome of wasteful ruin …”

Sadly, both Desolation and Pro Humanitate were destroyed in a fire.

…………………………….to be continued.

Eric Henri Kennington, Part 2 – the Second World War Artist

Eric Kennington (1926)
Eric Kennington (1926)

At the end of Part 1 of this blog about Eric Henri Kennington we had reached a point in his life when he had travelled to Arabia to prepare sketches which would later be used in his friend, T. E. Lawrence’s 1922 book entitled Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

In 1922, Eric Kennington first met Edith Cecil when he received a commission to paint a portrait of her husband, William Charles Frederick Hanbury-Tracy, 5th Baron Sudeley, whom she married in August 1905.  They had no children.  Kennington and Edith fell in love and in 1922 she and her husband divorced and in September 1922 she married Eric Kennington.  The couple went on to have a son, Christopher, in March 1925 and a daughter, Catherine in February 1927.  It is said that both Eric and Edith remained on friendly terms with Edith’s ex-husband.

The 1922 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence
The 1922 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence

Eric Henri Kennington, as well as having been a war artist during the Great War, was also a revered portrait painter.   During his time in Arabia sketching and working on paintings for T E Lawrence’s autobiographical book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he met Field Marshal Allenby.  Allenby, at that time, was the High Commissioner for Egypt and was based in Cairo.

Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby, 1st Viscount Allenby by Eric Kennington (1926)
Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby, 1st Viscount Allenby by Eric Kennington (1926)

In March 1921 Kennington met Allenby at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo and produced a pastel portrait of Allenby.   It is remarkable to think that this pastel work was completed by Kennington in less than an hour.

Effigy of T.E. Lawrence - 'Lawrence of Arabia' in St. Martin's Church, Dorset by eric Kennington (1926)
Effigy of T.E. Lawrence – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in St. Martin’s Church, Dorset by eric Kennington (1926)

Kennington and T.E.Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) had an enduring friendship up until the day Lawrence was killed in a motorcycle accident in May 1935.  After his friend’s death, Kennington spent years completing a full-length reclining stone effigy of his friend dressed as an Arab sheikh.  This beautiful tomb effigy which was completed in 1939, and can now be found in the church of St Martin’s in Wareham in Dorset

Head of T. E. Lawrence by Eric Kennington (1926)
Head of T. E. Lawrence by Eric Kennington (1926)

Kennington also completed a bronze sculpture of the head of T.E.Lawrence in 1926 and the intrepid British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat was delighted with the work.  He said:

“…Magnificent; there is no other word for it. It represents not me but my top moments, those few seconds when I succeed in thinking myself right out of things…”

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the War Artists Advisory Committee was formed as part of the Ministry of Information.  The chairman of the new committee was Sir Kenneth Clark.  Clark who had been a fine art curator at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum,  had, in 1933 at age 30, become the director of the National Gallery and as such was, and still is, the youngest person ever to hold the post.   One of the artists he chose was Eric Kennington, as by this time, he had built up a reputation as a leading portrait artist.    Kennington became a war artist for the second time in December 1939.   His contract with the War Artists Advisory Committee was to produce pastel or charcoal portraits and for each one he would be paid 25 guineas.  Kennington agreed but said he would need a minimum of three hours per sitter.

General Sir Edmund Ironside, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Home Forces, May-July, 1940. by Eric Kennington (1940)
General Sir Edmund Ironside, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Home Forces, May-July, 1940. by Eric Kennington (1940)

One of his first sitters was the Chief of the Imperial Staff, General Sir Edmund Ironside.  He completed the portrait in January 1940

Portrait of Stoker A.Martin of HMS Exeter by Eric Kennington
Portrait of Stoker A.Martin of HMS Exeter by Eric Kennington

In 1940 Kennington was sent to Plymouth to sketch portraits some of the seaman who had served in the great 1939 sea battle of the River Plate.  One such portrait, which he completed in the April of that year, was of Andrew Martin, a senior stoker aboard HMS Exeter during the River Plate battle.  Kennington wrote a small piece to accompany the portrait.  He wrote:

“…Man of Action: instantaneous: 100 per cent reliable: expert technician. Much humour under thorough camouflage. Very gentle, sensitive, and great physical strength…”

The painting found favour with the art critic, Herbert Granville-Fell who wrote:

“…Kennington’s harsh iron technique has a force admirably suited to conveying unflinching and dauntless resolution in the faces of his seamen and soldiers. I know of no other artist who can so convincingly depict the salt of the earth, and evoke palpably, in a portrait, the very essence and savour of courage…”

Kennington, as was the case during the First World War,  soon clashing with his “employer” the War Artists Advisory Committee principally because of his personal dislike of Colin Coote, a journalist, who was the War Office representative on the committee.  In May 1940 the Home Guard, the Local Defence Volunteers was formed and Kennington decided to leave his role as a war artist for the War Artists Advisory Committee and join the Home Guard.

In July 1940, shortly after Kennington left the War Artists Advisory Committee the Committee held an exhibition of official war art at the National Gallery.  The art critics and public were both pleased with what they saw and in particular the works of Eric Kennington which were said to have been the most popular.  In particular his works depicting the generals and the sailors received the most praise.

Eric Kennington in his Home Gurad uniform
Eric Kennington in his Home Gurad uniform

Kennington rose in its ranks and in July 1940 he was put in charge of a section of six countrymen in the south Oxfordshire countryside, defending an observation post he had set up to the north of his home in Ipsden.   We are so use to thinking of the Home Guard as the people we see on the very popular TV comedy series, Dad’s Army or maybe we have a romantic view of the brave men who protected our homes.  Apparently Kennington did not view the Home Guard or his fellow Home Guardsmen in such an idealised and romantic manner.  Kennington was very vociferous in his criticism of the equipment they were given and was also critical with regards the senior officers, of whom he said were tied up in bureaucracy.   He wrote to his older brother William:

“…The men, if not suitably motivated, did not report for duty in the evenings, but sloped off after roll call to go poaching, fishing, or playing cards in the pub…”

Sergeant Bluett, Cornwall Home Guard by Eric Kennington
Sergeant Bluett, Cornwall Home Guard by Eric Kennington

For all his criticism of some of his fellow volunteers he completed some wonderful portraits of them, such as Sergeant Bluett of the Cornwall Home Guard which he completed in 1943.

Corporal Robertson, City of Edinburgh Home Guard by Eric Kennington (1943)
Corporal Robertson, City of Edinburgh Home Guard by Eric Kennington (1943)

….and Corporal Robertson of the City of Edinburgh Home Guard which he also completed in 1943.  Both these paintings are housed in the Imperial War Museum.

The War Artists Advisory Committee in August 1940 not wanting to have lost such a great artist approached Kennington and asked him to return to the fold as a war artist.  The War committee was delighted that Kennington agreed to return.  The secretary of the Committee, Edmund Montgomery O’Rourke Dickey, wrote to Kenneth Clark about how Kennington’s work instilled hope in those who saw his portraits.  He wrote:

“…The best of this artist’s [Kennington] portraits of sailors in the exhibition at the National Gallery have, in the eyes of the public, a nobility not shared by any other work that’s on display at the National Gallery. These portraits typify the fighting man who’s going to win the war for us…”

Pilot Officer M J Herrick, DFC, by Eric Kennington (1941)
Pilot Officer M J Herrick, DFC, by Eric Kennington (1941)

Kennington agreed to return as a war artist and the Committee offered him a commission to draw portraits of RAF personnel at a time when the Battle of Britain was at its fiercest and these men were often referred to as “fighting aces”.

Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Watt Coleman, DFC, by Eric Kennington (1940)
Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Watt Coleman, DFC, by Eric Kennington (1940)

The pastel portraits were sensitive depictions of the air force heroes and many were used as illustrations in Kennington’s 1942 book Drawing the RAF.  There is a simplicity about these portraits but the underlying thought that these were some of the men who would fight for and save our country, was unmistakeable.

Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Frederick Algernon Portal DSO & Bar by Eric Kenningtonn(1941)
Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Frederick Algernon Portal DSO & Barn by Eric Kennington (1941)

One must remember that the War Arts Committee would give Kennington a list of people who were to appear in his portraits.  This caused a rift between Kennington and the Committee as Kennington believed that all the Committee wanted was portraits of senior officers and Kennington wanted to highlight some of the fighting men from the lower ranks.  Once again Kennington threatened to walk away from his position as a war artist but he was such a great portraitist that he was talked out of his impending resignation by none other than the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal.

Wing Commander Geoffrey William Tuttle OBE DFC by Eric Kennington (September 1941)
Wing Commander Geoffrey William Tuttle OBE DFC by Eric Kennington (September 1941)

As he carried on with his portraiture commissions they were often exhibited at the National Gallery.  Previously they had been lauded as great works of art but occasionally they received some adverse criticism, such as piece written by the art critic of the Sunday Times, Eric Newton, who wrote:

“…Eric Kennington goes on and on with his over-life-size portraits of supermen. They are strident things whose assertiveness almost hurts the eyes.’ But then he did concede: ‘They do look like men who are going to win the war. Some are positively frightening. Dropped as leaflets over enemy country, I can imagine them being as effective as a bomb…”

Cover of Eric Kennington's book Tanks and Tank Folk
Cover of Eric Kennington’s book Tanks and Tank Folk

In November 1941, Eric Kennington was invited to Ripon, Yorkshire by Sir Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart, the General Officer Commanding of the 11th Armoured Division to sketch portraits of some of his men.  Whilst there Kennington completed over twenty portraits of the men and also this small (29 x 38cms) oil on board portrait of his host.  Many of the portraits Kennington did whilst at the Ripon barracks appeared in his 1942 book Tanks and Tank Folk and many featured in his solo exhibition held at the Leicester Galleries, London in September 1943

Seeing It Through, by Eric Kennington, (1944)
Seeing It Through, by Eric Kennington, (1944)

My final offering is a painting by Kennington which was used as one of the war posters in the series Seeing it Through.  It was not of  a fighting man or woman, but commemorated everyday heroism of normal people going about job in difficult and dangerous times.  Kennington preferred not to use models for this type of work and in this work he used the woman herself as the model.  It is of a young twenty year old woman, Mrs M.J. Morgan, who was a conductor on one London buses.  She had become one of the first generation of female bus conductors employed by London Transport in November 1940. She’d only just started her job as a “clippie” when the bus she was assigned to was caught in the blitz.  She became an instant heroine when she shielded with her own body two young children, and then helped passengers who’d been injured when the bus was riddled with shrapnel from a bomb exploding nearby.

Kennington remembered her well describing her:

 “…like a Rubens Venus’ and she had a complexion that was ‘edible as a peach…”

Beneath the portrait of the bus conductor was a short verse by the novelist and humorist, Alan Patrick Herbert:

“…How proud upon your quaterdeck you stand

Conductor- Captain  of the mighty bus!

Like some Columbus you survey the Strand

A calm newcomer in a sea of fuss

You may be tired – how cheerfully you clip

Clip in the dark with one eye on the street –

Two decks – one pair of legs – a rolling ship

Much on your mind and fat men on your feet !

The sirens blow, and death is in the air

Still at her post the trusty Captain stands

And counts her change, and scampers up the stair

As brave a sailor as the King commands.

A.P.Herbert

 

Eric Henri Kennington died in April 1960 aged 72.  He is buried in the churchyard in Checkendon, Oxfordshire, where he was once the churchwarden and he is commemorated on a memorial in Brompton Cemetery, London..

Eric Henri Kennington. Part 1 – World War I and T.E.Lawrence

Photo of Eric Kennington by Howard Coster (1936)
Photo of Eric Kennington by Howard Coster (1936)

In my last blog I looked at the life and some of the paintings of Thomas Benjamin Kennington, the Victorian painter.  Today, in the first of two instalments, I want to look at the life and art of his son Eric Henri Kennington, who was an early twentieth century sculptor and artist.

Eric was born in Fulham in March 1888.  He was the second of two sons. His father was the Victorian artist Thomas Kennington and his mother, Elise Nilla Lindahl Steveni, was of Swedish origin.  His mother died when Eric was just seven years of age.

Eric was born into a middle-class professional household and received the best education possible, attending St Paul’s School, London, one of the original nine British public schools and from there he enrolled at the Lambeth School of Art.  He started exhibiting his works of art at the Royal Academy in 1908 and by the start of the Great War in 1914 he had gained a reputation as a skilful painter.

Costermongers (La Cuisine ambulante) by Eric Kennington (1914)
Costermongers (La Cuisine ambulante) by Eric Kennington (1914)

One of his pre-War paintings was entitled Costermongers (La cuisine ambulante) which was exhibited at the International Society in April 1914, and the work itself was actually bought by the then very famous society portraitist William Nicholson.  It is now owned by the Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.  It is the depiction of street life in London and is a fascinating capture of the individual characters.  The art critic of the Daily Mail wrote in the August 24th 1914 edition of the newspaper describing the scene as:

 “…‘huge staring groups of life-size people, represented in a brutal airless way, though with a great deal of technical cleverness…”

 and went on to acknowledge that they were protests against the “namby-pambiness’ of the usual group compositions..”

 With the sale of the painting Kennington was able to set himself up in a studio in Kensington High Street.

The Great War broke out in Europe in July 1914 and in the next month, Kennington took himself down to the recruiting office which was close to his studio, off Kensington High Street, and enlisted with the 13th Battalion, The London Regiment, Princess Louise’s Own Kensingtons.    He was sent to the Hertfordshire village of Abbot’s Langley where he did his three months of basic training before being sent to France in November 1914.  His days fighting on the front line were numbered as in mid-January 1915 he suffered a wound to his left foot which resulted in the amputation of his middle toe and he was extremely lucky not to have lost the whole of his left foot through infection.  He was discharged from the army as being unfit for duty.

The Kensingtons at Laventie by Eric Kennington (1915)
The Kensingtons at Laventie by Eric Kennington (1915)

It was during his time convalescing throughout the latter part of 1915, firstly in London, then Liverpool, that he painted one of his most famous works of art.  It was a portrait of some infantrymen entitled The Kensingtons at Laventie, Winter 1914, which is now housed in the Imperial War Museum, London.  The painting is extremely large measuring 140 x 152cms.  The picture is a complex reverse painting on glass, where exterior layers of paint are applied first, giving the oils a particular clarity.

In the painting, Kennington depicts part of his platoon standing around in a deserted street in Laventie, a small French village in the Pas-de-Calais region, close to the Belgium border.  The village had been almost destroyed by shell fire.  It is set in the winter of 1914 with snow on the ground.  The soldiers in this painting were comrades from his unit, Platoon no. 7, C Company of the Kensingtons, and he has even included a portrait of himself in the scene.  He is in the top left-hand corner wearing the balaclava.  The men have arrived at the village after a long and tiring four days and four sleepless nights of duty in the trenches having had to endure continuous snowfall and temperatures at night which fell to twenty below freezing.  It is a loose grouping of men, all but one standing.  What is strange about their depiction is that no two men look in the same direction.  The men seem disorientated and are awaiting their corporal to find out their next orders.  Soon they were going to have to set off and endure a five-mile march to reserve billets, which were out of range of the German artillery.

 The painting was first exhibited at the Goupil Gallery in 1916 and caused a sensation.  The exhibition was in aid of the Star and Garter Building Fund charity.  Kennington’s accompanying notes detailed the individual soldiers and their experiences. The notes about  “Who is who” stated:

“…The portraits are of Private A. ‘Sweeney’ Todd (foreground) and (left to right) Private H Bristol in the red scarf, Private A. McCafferty carrying two rifles, the artist in balaclava, Private W Harvey, Private P A Guy, known as ‘Good Little Guy’, Lance-Corporal H Wilson in balaclava, Private M Slade resting both hands on his rifle and Corporal J Kealey…”  . 

Kennington did not complete the painting until December 1915 and sadly by this time, ninety per cent of the once 700-strong battalion, which he had arrived with in France twelve months earlier, had become causalities.  Many had died or had been severely wounded  during the battles of Neuve-Chapelle in March 1915, and particularly Aubers Ridge in May 1915..

The painting, when exhibited at the Goupil Gallery between April and June 1916, received glowing revues.  Kennington was described by The Times art critic: :

 “…the painter who knew how to properly portray the stoically enduring British Tommy’. For example,………: ‘He [Kennington] has painted the real war for us in all its squalor and glory…”

So impressed with the unemotional depiction of the hardships and endurance of the British soldiers whilst fighting on the Front, the War Propaganda Bureau, in June 1917, offered Kennington the chance to become an official war artist.   He was sent off to France in August 1917, where he spent about seven months.  In fact he was only supposed to be visiting the battlefields for one month  but after the first month had expired, he didn’t want to return to England and simply refused to come back home.  He would continually write to his employers stating that he needed to be on the battlefield so that he could “learn the war

Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington (1917)
Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington (1917)

One of his first paintings as an official War artist was entitled  Gassed and Wounded which he completed in 1918 and can now also be found in the Imperial War Museum.  The setting is the interior of a field hospital.  Eric Kennington made many sketches when he was at Casualty Clearing Station at Tincourt, a village in the Picardy region, some thirty miles east of Amiens.  This point in time when Kennington made these sketches was at the time the German air force was bombarding the English lines, prior to their last big offensive.  In the painting we see wounded soldiers, who have been gassed, lying on stretchers.  Look at the way Kennington has depicted the agony of the man in the foreground.  He lies on the stretcher.  His head is bound with bandages.  His eyes which have been damaged by the gas are covered.  His face is contorted and his mouth is open as he cries out in pain.

Eventually Kennington was persuaded to return to England in March 1918 Four months later a large selection of his pastel and charcoal drawings and watercolours were exhibited in an exhibition at the Leicester Galleries.  The art critics and public alike were astounded by the quality of his work

The art critic and poet, Laurence Binyon wrote in the New Statesman:

“…Mr Kennington has a genius for reality. He has not only the gift of exact and faithful record, but the power of giving expression to the latent vehemence, energy and passion that make up the controlled strength of a man. If a foreigner wished to see the British soldier, he could not do better than see him with Mr Kennington’s eyes…”

Kennington, had his differences with the Ministry of Information and parted company in September 1918.  He was not unemployed for long as in November 1918, he signed up with the Canadian War Memorial Scheme.  This scheme was established by the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook in 1916.  His aim was to commission official war artists to paint the Canadian war effort. The official war art programme would eventually employ close to 120 artists, most of them British or Canadian, who created nearly 1,000 works of art. Eric Kennington went back to France in November 1918 as a temporary first lieutenant attached to the Canadian Army and he attached himself to the 16th Battalion Highlanders of Canada, part of the 3rd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Canadian Division.

The Conquerors by Eric Kennington (1918) (Originally known as "The Victims")
The Conquerors by Eric Kennington (1918)
(Originally known as “The Victims”)

Kennington remained in France between November 1918 and March 1919, during which time he made a series of over 40 studies of individual soldiers from the battalion who fought their last major battle of the war in October 1918.  The next painting I am showing you is one entitled The Conquerors and featured men from the battalion of soldiers Kennington was assigned to as a war artist.  This was not the original title of the work as when the painting was shown in an exhibition in Canada, it was entitled The Victims but there was an objection to that title from the battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Cy Peck, Kennington who wanted it to be changed and be renamed The Conquerors.   Cyrus Wesley Peck objected to the title “The Victims” as it was a somewhat defeatist title for the work of art and so it was changed to a more acceptable title, The Conquerors. The painting depicts kilted Canadians of the 16th Battalion, marching through a battlefield littered with debris and informal graves.  Look at the faces of the soldiers.  Some have normal skin tones whilst others look much paler and these may represent the deceased.  The painting is housed in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

The Conquerors was exhibited in Ottawa during the summer of 1920 and it was later returned to London where, in October and November of that year, it appeared at Kennington’s solo exhibition at the Alpine Club gallery in London.  Whilst Kennington was present at the exhibition he met and was befriended by T.E.Lawrence the British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat.  Lawrence bought two of Kennington’s sketches depicting soldiers.  The intrepid Lawrence was a great influence on Kennington’s art and he even persuaded Kennington to come out to the Middle East to draw personalities who appeared in his account of the war with the Ottoman Turks that he was writing at the time, and which was eventually published as The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  The book was the autobiographical account of the experiences T.E. Lawrence  had, while serving as a liaison officer with rebel forces during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks which lasted two years from 1916 to 1918.  T E Lawrence soon became known as Lawrence of Arabia.

Muttar il Hamoud min Beni Hassan by Eric Kennington (1920)
Muttar il Hamoud min Beni Hassan by Eric Kennington (1920)

One such portrait was completed by Kennington in 1920 entitled Muttar il Hamoud min Beni Hassan who was one of Lawrence’s s chosen bodyguards.  This pastel on brown paper was painted by Kennington whilst he was at a war camp in Western Arabia.  Lawrence had wanted Kennington to go out to Arabia and come back with some portraits which could be used as illustrations for his autobiography but strangely he would not let Kennington read the book before he set off on his Arabian journey.  On returning back to London Kennington gave Lawrence his sketches and paintings.  Lawrence was delighted saying:

“…I first saw one and then another of the men whom I had known and at once I learned to know them better. This may point indirectly to the power of the drawings and it points without contest to their literary completeness. There is quite admirable character here…”

Abd-el Rahman by Eric Kennington (1921)
Abd-el Rahman by Eric Kennington (1921)

Another portrait by Kennington used in Lawrence’s autobiography was Abd-el-Rahman, a pastel on green-toned paper, which he completed in 1921.   Abd-el-Rahman was mentioned in Chapter LXXI of the book as Lawrence recalls:

“…I enrolled Showakh and Salem, two Sherari camel-herds, and Abd el Rahman, a runaway slave from Riadh, now freedman of Mohammed el Dheilan, the Toweihi…”

On Kennington’s return home he exhibited the sketches and paintings from his Arabian trip at the Leicester Galleries in London and the portraits of Arabs became known as the ‘Kennington Arabs’.   The illustrations which Kennington worked on for Lawrence did not appear in the first edition of the book published in 1922 but four years later in 1926, in the next edition of the autobiography Kennington’s illustrations appeared along with those done by other well-known artists of the time such as Augustus John, Paul Nash and John Singer Sargent

Head of T.E. Lawrence by Eric Kennington (1926)
Head of T.E. Lawrence by Eric Kennington (1926)

Kennington also produced a bust of Lawrence  in 1926.  It was modelled partly from life and partly from drawings he made in December 1926.  It was also chosen by Lawrence’s mother and brother for the Crypt of St Paul’s. Kennington made three further casts of this head in bronze or brass, one of which can be found in the music room at Lawrence’s cottage, Clouds Hill, Moreton, Dorset.  Clouds Hill is an isolated cottage near Wareham, Dorset which Lawrence initially rented in 1923 but then bought it in 1925.  Lawrence himself loved the bust saying that it was:

“…magnificent; there is no other word for it. It represents not me but my top moments, those few seconds when I succeed in thinking myself right out of things…”

Sir William Rothenstein, an English painter, printmaker, draughtsman and writer on art. who was best known for his work as a war artist in both world wars and as a portrait artist wrote about Kennington’s relationship with T E Lawrence.  He wrote:

“…‘Kennington was devoting himself to Lawrence’s glorification – for him Lawrence was the perfect man who could do no wrong…”

Battersea Park Memorial. by Eric Kennington
Battersea Park Memorial.
by Eric Kennington

In 1924, Eric Kennington designed the War Memorial which can be seen in Battersea Park to commemorate the 24th London Division.

In the second part of my story of Eric Kennington I will look at his life between the world wars and also the paintings he completed as a war artist during the Second World War.

C R W Nevinson. Part 2 New York

Portrait of C R W Nevinson by  Ronald Ossory Dunlop
Portrait of C R W Nevinson by Ronald Ossory Dunlop

In my last blog I looked at the early life of Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson and featured some of his paintings which depicted the horrors of the First World War.  Today I want to conclude his life story and look at some of his other works of art which had nothing to do with war but which I find have their own beauty.

Nevinson had been taken ill in 1912 and was moved to Buxton to convalesce and it was whilst partaking of the healing waters at the Hydro that he met Kathleen Knowlman who had accompanied her father to the health resort.  With the outbreak of war in 1914, Nevinson, being a conscientious objector, had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in November 1915.  It was in this capacity that he had helped tend the wounded who had been brought home from the Front.  He was stationed at the Third General Hospital in London but was always aware that soon he would be called to leave the relative safety of England and travel to France.  Fully realising his possible death at the Front he decided that he should be married before he met his fate !  On November 1st 1915 he married Kathleen Knowlman.  It turned out that he was never sent to the front as he was invalided out of the army following bouts of pericarditis and rheumatic fever which he contracted in January 1916 which left him crippled and for a time he began to think he would never walk again.  He recalled the time in his 1935 autobiography, Paint and Prejudice:

“…I was now crippled completely. I began to think I should never walk again. Everything was tried on me while I lay helpless on my bed…”

Temples of New York by C R W Nevinson (1919) Drypoint. Trinity Church facade from the back, which faces Wall Street
Temples of New York by C R W Nevinson (1919)
Drypoint. Trinity Church facade from the back, which faces Wall Street

With the ending of the First World War in 1918, the public’s desire for his war paintings and their harrowing depictions of the suffering of the troops waned. Maybe people just wanted to forget about the previous four years and did not want to be reminded of the brutality of war.   For Nevinson, his favoured and once much appreciated subject matter had dried up and he had to make a decision as what to do next.   Paul Nash, a contemporary of Nevinson and also a war artist, summed up the war artists’ dilemma when he talked about the ‘struggles of a war artist without a war’.   At the end of the war, Nevinson went to Paris looking for new inspiration but soon tired of the French capital, a place he had visited as a child with his mother.  In the spring of 1919, he decided to visit America and in particular New York.  He had received an invitation from David Keppel to visit the American city to stage an exhibition of his War prints.  David Keppel who with his father, Frederick Keppel, were print publishers and owned a four-storey gallery on 4 East 39th Street in Manhattan.  They had exhibited many of Nevinson’s war prints which proved very popular with the American public.

Nevinson was made very welcome on his arrival and according to David Boyd Haycock in his 2009 book about the artist, A Crisis of Brilliance, relates how Nevinson was welcomed as a ‘war hero and victimised genius of modern European art, come to discover the USA and reveal it to itself ‘   Nevinson, on his arrival in New York, was taken aback by the city’s architecture, so much so when questioned by a local journalist of how he liked the city he commented that he loved the buildings so much he believed the city had been built for him.  Nevinson would roam around the city constantly sketching and after a month long stay in America, he returned to London and converted his sketches into paintings.   On his return to London he was to receive sad family news.  Whilst he was in America his wife had given birth to a son, Anthony Christopher Wynne on 21st May 1919. His mother, Margaret, recorded that the child only lived for fifteen days, which, as she put it, had been “just enough time to get fond of him.”   Nevinson later wrote in his autobiography:

“…On my arrival in London I was met by my mother, who told me my son was dead…”

 And he later added in a somewhat morbid fashion:

“…I am glad I have not been responsible for bringing any human life into this world…”

The Soul of the Soulless City (New York - an Abstraction) by C R W Nevinson (1920)
The Soul of the Soulless City (New York – an Abstraction) by C R W Nevinson (1920)

One of Nevinson’s depictions of  New York, which he completed back in London in 1920 before he returned to America that October to set up his second exhibition of work at Frederick Keppel & Co, New York gallery, was entitled The Soul of the Soulless City (‘New York – an Abstraction’).  The painting depicts an idealised view of a section of the elevated railway which ran through Manhattan. It was an unusual work with a narrow chromatic range reliant mainly on shades of greys and browns with just merest hint of blue for the skies between the tops of the skyscrapers.  The way he has depicted the skyscrapers with their complex faceting harks back to Picasso and Braque’s cubism of a decade earlier.  There is something very powerful and impressive about the way Nevinson has depicted the railway line receding dramatically into a cluster skyscraper blocks.  There is a sense of speed about the disappearing railway track.  Nevinson, was associated with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti  and his concept of futurism, who wanted  to revolutionize culture including art and make it more modern. The new ideology of Futurism was an art form which stressed modernity, and the virtues of technology, machinery, and speed and we can see in this work that Nevinson was a great believer of the ideals of futurism.

When the work was first exhibited at the Bourgeois Galleries in New York it was entitled New York – an Abstraction.  It was not received well.  According to David Cohen in his 1999 The Rising City Urban Themes in the Art and Writings of C.R.W.Nevinson’, C.R.W.Nevinson The Twentieth Century, one critic went as far as to dub the painting  “inhuman, metallic and hard”.  Later when he exhibited the work in London in 1925 at the Faculty of Arts Exhibition, Grosvenor House, London, it was given the title of The Soul of the Soulless City and this change was almost certainly made by Nevinson himself and although it has been likened to Karl Marx’s comment on religion being the “heart of the heartless world”, it could also be because Nevinson had fallen out of love with the American city.

New York, Night by C R W Nevinson (c.1920)
New York, Night by C R W Nevinson (c.1920)

Another work by Nevinson with New York as its subject is New York, Night which he completed somewhere between 1919 and 1920.  This work which was completed around the same time as the previous work and was painted at the time when Nevinson was still in love with New York.   There can be no doubt about his initial love affair with New York for Nevinson was quoted by David Cohen in his 1999 book, C.R.W. Nevinson, The Twentieth Century:

 “…New York, being the Venice of this epoch, has triumphed, thanks to its engineers and architects, as successfully as the Venetians did in their time..Where the Venetian drove stakes into his sandbanks to overcome nature, the American has pegged his city to the sky. No sight can be more exhilarating and beautiful than this triumph of man…”

 The painting depicts the busy harbour of New York at night.  It is a view I have witnessed many times from the bridge of a ship as the city’s skyscrapers loom large ahead as we enter the port.   In the painting we see the giant buildings through the smoke and steam emanating from the funnels of the small tugs and ferries which ply their way up and down the Hudson River.  It is a mystical and atmospheric scene.  It is a scene depicting industry.  This is a scene of modernity, loved by the futurists.  In the foreground we see jibs of cranes busily working on the loading and unloading of cargo vessels berthed at Brooklyn, across the river from Manhattan.

Looking through Brooklyn Bridge by C R W Nevinson (1920)
Looking through Brooklyn Bridge by C R W Nevinson (1920)

Nevinson built up a collection of prints of Manhattan, another of which is the drypoint print entitled Looking through Brooklyn Bridge.  This work and another entitled Under Brooklyn Bridge are housed in the British Museum and were part of a set of ten drypoints of the city of New York which were commissioned by Frederick Keppel.  Whenever I visit New York I always take time to walk across this bridge and never fail to be enthralled by the views on offer when crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  What first strikes you about this work is how the bridge is the central “character” as it dwarfs the people we see walking across it.  In the background, through the mist, we see the colossal skyscrapers of Manhattan looming before us.  In the evening light they lack colour and are just presented as grey giants.  It is a cold depiction.  There is no warmth about it.  It is an inhospitable scene and the mist which gives a haziness to the skyscrapers also gives a feeling that the air may also be polluted.  The people are wrapped up in warm clothes and the wooden walk way looks wet as if the rain has been beating down on the massive structure.  The man in the foreground holds an umbrella but probably due to the strong winds, dare not open it to protect himself. Nevinson has managed to convey the massive structure as a monument to the permanence of the new Industrial time and it contrasts with the temporary nature of the people, who appear on it as mere shadows as they hurry from one side to the other.

Like a lot of artists, Nevinson did not take criticism and rejection well and his love for New York and America disappeared.  Not only were his paintings attracting criticism, he himself was also becoming disliked for his ill-conceived outbursts.  He often suffered periods of depression and would often be volatile.  He had an unfortunate habit of bragging and publicly aired embellished claims of his war experiences, which people found hard to accept and together with his depressive and temperamental personality, he became an unpopular figure on the New York art scene.   Whether it was because of the poor reviews or his growing dislike for the people around him, he decided to leave America.

So who was to blame for Nevinson’s falling out of love with America and the Americans.  Maybe the answer lies in the 1920 catalogue introduction to an exhibition of Nevinson’s work by the art critic Lewis Hind.  Of Nevinson he wrote:

“…It is something, at the age of thirty one, to be among the most discussed, most successful, most promising, most admired and most hated British artists…”

In Julian Freeman’s biography on Nevinson he talked about the artist’s mental state during the last couple of decades of his life:

“…From 1920 until 1940 they carried his strident, maverick diatribes, aimed at society at large, and at the establishment in all its forms… and the variety, salacity, and often uncompromising savagery of his egocentric articles remains enormously entertaining. However, his autobiography is marked and marred by a strong undercurrent of confrontational right-wing xenophobia, and some of his private correspondence in the Imperial War Museum in London is explicitly racist: true signs of the times to which he was such a conspicuous contributor…”

I will leave the last word to the artist himself who, in his 1937 autobiography,  Paint and Prejudice,  wrote:

“…My prices have always been humble, but it has been possible up to the present to lead the life of a millionaire. Far from being a starving artist, a great deal of my time has been taken up in refusing food and drink, affairs with exquisite women, and wonderful offers of travel or hospitality. But I have always been driven mad by the itch to paint. Painting has caused me unspeakable sorrows and humiliations, and I frankly loathe the professional side of my life. I am indifferent to fame, as it only causes envy or downright insult. I know the necessity of publicity in order to sell pictures, because the public would never hear of you or know what you were doing unless you told them of it. But publicity is a dangerous weapon, double-edged, often causing unnecessary hostility and capable of putting you into the most undignified positions. Until of late I have had to fight an entirely lone hand. When I exhibited at the Royal Academy it was a revelation to me how well the publicity was done through the dignity of an institution rather than through the wits of an individual. But I suppose that now I shall always remain the lone wolf. I have been misrepresented so much by those who write on art that the pack will never accept me. Incidentally, because I painted I have earned something like thirty thousand pounds for the critics, curators, or parasites of art. Ninety per cent of their writings has consisted of telling the public not to buy my pictures and of charging me with every form of charlatanism, incompetency, ignorance, madness, degeneracy, and decadence. It is useless to deny that this has had its effect..”

A Winter Landscape by C R W Nevinson (1926)
A Winter Landscape by C R W Nevinson (1926)

His post-war career was not so distinguished.  He never achieved the adulation that was bestowed on him due to his war paintings.  Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson died in October 1946 aged 57.

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson the war artist

     Self Portrait  by C.R.W Nevinson
Self Portrait
by C.R.W Nevinson

The newspapers and television are awash with articles and documentaries with regards the First World War and so, over the next two blogs, I thought I would take this opportunity to look at one of the best known British war artist, many of whose paintings featured the Great War. His name is Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, but is often referred to as C.R.W. Nevinson, and was known to his friends as Richard.

Nevinson was the son of Henry Nevinson, who was a British war correspondent during the Second Boer War and the First World War. His father was a fierce and radical campaigning journalist who, through the might of his pen, fought to end slavery in Western Africa. He was also a suffragist, and along with the left-wing writers, Henry Brailsford, Max Eastman and Lawrence Housman founded the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage society in 1907. In 1884 he had married Margaret Nevinson an activist in the campaign for women’s rights and in Hampstead, London in August 1889 she gave birth to their only child, Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson. An insight into his early childhood can be gleaned from a book written by Frank Rutter in 1935 entitled Art in my time and in it he talks about Nevinson and his parents. He wrote:

“…Nevinson was the child of parents who had singularly noble ideas, who were markedly progressive and humane in their habit of thought… Nevinson started life with a pre-natal tendency to revolt against injustice, cruelty and oppression…”

He also commented on how tied up Nevinson’s parents were in their campaigning and quotes young Nevinson as being somewhat critical of his mother’s lack of time for him. Later, Nevinson wrote of his mother:

“…If my mother does happen to be in for a meal she is so engrossed in other things that she hardly hears and certainly never takes in a word I say.”

Nevinson’s parents were so wrapped up in their own agendas it was bound to affect the early life of their son and for young Nevinson, who after a period in kindergarten, at the age of seven, worse was to come as his parents decided to send him away from home to a boarding school. For a child who just wanted his parents to spend time with him it was the worst possible outcome and he hated the school and was soon in trouble. In his 1935 autobiography, Paint and Prejudice, he wrote about his time as a boarder:

“…In due time I went to a large school, a ghastly place from which I was rapidly removed as I had some sort of breakdown owing to being publicly flogged, at the age of seven, for giving away some stamps which I believed to be my own. I was not only described as a thief but as a fence. From this moment I developed a shyness which later on became almost a disease. During my sufferings under injustice a conflict was born in me, and my secret life began…”

If school life was bad enough, life at home did not improve. His father’s strong pro-Boer utterances during the Second Boer War became well known and disliked and his son was tarred by this same brush of loathing and would be treated like an outcast by his young contemporaries.

In 1903, Nevinson was sent to Uppingham School. The school was strong in its teaching of engineering and art. However he described the time at Uppingham as a débâcle. At first the school seemed acceptable to the fourteen year old but things deteriorated for the teenager as probably due to his earlier school experiences he did not make friends easily and was singled out by both staff and fellow pupils and he wrote of his horrific experiences at the hands of older students:

“…”I had no wish to go to any such school at all, but nevertheless Uppingham did seem to be the best. Since then I have often wondered what the worst was like. No qualms of mine gave me an inkling of the horrors I was to undergo. Bad feeding, adolescence – always a dangerous period for the male – and the brutality and bestiality in the dormitories, made life a hell on earth. An apathy settled on me. I withered. I learned nothing. I did nothing. I was kicked, hounded, canned, flogged, hairbrushed, morning, noon and night. The more I suffered the less I cared…”

Normality finally came into his life when he left Uppingham School and enrolled at St John’s Wood School of Art where he would train to pass the exams required for entry to the Royal Academy Schools. Nevinson summed up this move in his autobiography in a simple sentence:

“…From Uppingham I went straight to heaven…”

Life at the art school was so different in comparison to his previous schools and Nevinson began to come out of his shell and this could well have been helped by the fact that he was now in the company of female students. He recalled the happy days of socialising with the girls and acknowledged that he himself was changing:

“…My shyness went, and I spent a good deal of my time with Philippa Preston, a lovely creature who was later to marry Maurice Elvey. There were others, blondes and brunettes. There were wild dances, student rags as they were called… and various excursions with exquisite students, young girls and earnest boys; shouting too much, laughing too often…”

However it was not the Royal Academy Schools for Nevinson as he had been influenced by the works of Augustus John who, along with his sister, Gwen, had been students at the Slade School and so, in 1909, aged twenty, Nevinson entered the Slade School. Most of his friends from St John’s Wood School of Art progressed on to the Royal Academy School and so Nevinson arrived at the Slade knowing nobody. After an initial nervousness and an uncertainty about his choice of artistic direction he settled in and made a number of friends. In his class were aspiring artists such as Mark Gertler, Adrian Allinson, Edward Wadsworth, Rudolf Ihlee and Stanley Spencer. This group of young artistic friends were known as the Coster Gang because they dressed in black jerseys with scarlet mufflers and atop their heads they would wear a black cap or hat similar to those worn by costermongers, the street sellers of fruit and vegetables.

Dora CarringtonIn 1910 a new student joined the Slade. She was Dora Carrington. In Michael Walsh’s 2002 biography on Nevinson which looked at his energetic early career he wrote of Nevinson and Carrington’s relationship:

“…Nevinson’s infatuation with Dora Carrington became progressively more acute. In Carrington he had met his match, not only in intellect and in personality, but also in that she could be as obtuse as he could… The friendship was always confused, faltering between brotherly affection and unfulfilled love affair, rooted in Nevinson’s reluctance to trust strangers and her notorious desire to remain unattached…”

Dora Carrington, CRW Nevinson and Mark Gertler during their time at the Slade School
Dora Carrington, CRW Nevinson and Mark Gertler during their time at the Slade School

With this fascination with Dora came a major problem. Dora had another great admirer and he was Nevinson’s best friend, Mark Gertler. Gertler and Nevinson had spent much time together after classes and a bond between them ensued. Michael Walsh in his 2002 biography of Nevinson, C. R. W. Nevinson: The Cult of Violence, wrote about this close friendship:

“…Together they studied at the British Museum, met in the Café Royal, dined at the Nevinson household, went on short holidays and discussed art at length. Independently of each other too, they wrote of the value of their friendship and of the mutual respect they held for each other as artists…”

However they had both fallen in love with Dora Carrington and in a way she destroyed the friendship between the two men. Nevinson after some tentative efforts to move his relationship from a close platonic one to something more was spurned by Carrington and she began to distance herself from him.  Nevinson was devastated at this turn of events and wrote to her:

“…I am now without a friend in the whole world except you…. I cannot give you up, you have put a reason into my life and I am through you slowly winning back my self-respect. I did feel so useless so futile before I devoted my life to you.”

Nevinson also realised that his attempt to become Carrington’s lover ended his friendship with Gertler. Gertler was in love with Carrington and now Nevinson, once his closest friend, had now become a rival for Carrington’s affections. Something had to give and Gertler wrote to Nevinson:

“…I am writing here to tell you that our friendship must end from now, my sole reason being that I am in love with Carrington and I have reason to believe that you are so too. Therefore, much as I have tried to overlook it, I have come to the conclusion that rivals, and rivals in love, cannot be friends. You must know that ever since you brought Carrington to my studio my love for her has been steadily increasing. You might also remember that many times, when you asked me down to dinner. I refused to come. Jealously was the cause of it. Whenever you told me that you had been kissing her, you could have knocked me down with a feather, so faint was I. Whenever you saw me depressed of late, when we were all out together, it wasn’t boredom as I pretended but love…”

The romantic hopes of both Nevinson and Gertler were spurned by Carrington and the two men paid an enormous price because of their infatuation with their fellow student. The price was the ending of their own close and once fulfilling friendship.

Nevinson left the Slade School in the summer of 1912 and travelled to Paris, a place he had visited on a number of occasions with his mother. It was in the French capital that he met and became friends with Gino Severiniand Filippo Marinetti, an Italian poet and editor, the founder of the Futurist movement. Futurism was originally an Italian movement which was characterised by its belligerent celebration of modern technology and city life and energetically showed contempt for Western Art traditions. Nevinson was excited with these futurist ideas and he and Marinetti co-wrote the English Futurist manifesto Vital English Art, in June 1914 edition of English newspaper, The Observer.

Nevinson in his Red Cross uniform
Nevinson in his Red Cross uniform

On the outbreak of the First World War, Nevinson, who was a fervent pacifist, refused to become involved in combat duties, and volunteered instead to work for the Red Cross. Nevinson joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, which was a voluntary ambulance service founded by some young members of the Quakers. It was independent of the Quakers’ organisation and mainly run by registered conscientious objectors. Later, between November 1914 and January 2015, Nevinson served as a volunteer ambulance driver. However his time in the ambulance service as driver, stretcher bearer and hospital orderly ended in January 1915 when he had to return to home due to ill health.

The brutality of the war stimulated him and on his return home in January 1915 he wrote an article for the Daily Express about this artistic stimulation:

“…All artists should go to the front to strengthen their art by a worship of physical and moral courage and a fearless desire of adventure, risk and daring and free themselves from the canker of professors, archaeologists, cicerones, antiquaries and beauty worshippers…”

I will leave Nevinson’s life story at this juncture and return to it in my next blog. I now want to feature three of his war paintings which were to make him famous and which depicted life and the brutality of the First World War. It was during his period convalescing that he started on a series of works based on his own experiences and incidents he witnessed whilst at the Western Front in France.

          La Mitrailleuse  by C.R.W. Nevinson (1915)
La Mitrailleuse
by C.R.W. Nevinson (1915)

One such work was entitled La Mitrailleuse (The machine gun), which he completed in 1915. The work is a depiction of a French machine-gunner and two of his comrades in a battle trench. It is amazing how Nevinson has portrayed the soldiers simply as a series of angular planes and has kept the colours to various tones of grey. There is something mechanical about the men. He has de-humanized them. The angularity of their facial expressions and the dark colouring around their eyes transforms them into fierce-looking individuals who seem to lack any trace of humanity. The machine gun, which is the title of the painting, is gripped by the gunner. The belt of bullets hangs from the machine ready to be spat out and mercilessly cut down the enemy. Of the painting Walter Sickert, the Camden Town Group painter described the painting as:

“…the most authoritative and concentrated utterance on the war in the history of painting…”

The Harvesting of the Battle by C R W Nevinson (1915)
Harvest of Battle by C R W Nevinson (1915)

The second painting I am featuring is entitled Harvest of Battle, which can be found at the Imperial War Museum, London. In this work we observe the deadly aftermath of battle. The battleground is sodden. Large pools of water formed by craters made by exploding shells abound making life that much worse, if that was possible. We see a long line of soldiers trudging from right to left across the wet ground. Many are wounded with bandaged limbs and some of the able-bodied are carrying or helping their wounded comrades to return to a place of safety at the rear of the battle lines. For many it was to be their last battle and they are now just corpses. In the central foreground we see a skeletal-like corpse lying on his back and even in death, his left arm is still raised in a claw-like fashion, a gesture of pleading for help, whether it be from his comrades or God himself, but it was to no avail.    In the right background we see flashes of artillery fire. The idea for this depiction came to Nevinson when he and another officer visited Passchendaele, close to the town of Ypres, the scene of many battles during the First World War. He wrote about his experience in his autobiography:

“…We arrived at Ypres, and while he went to the Officers’ Club I wandered on up towards the Salient and obtained notes and rough sketches for my painting, ‘Harvest of Battle…”

In a letter Nevinson wrote in 1919 to Alfred Yockney from the Ministry of Information he described what he saw:

“…A typical scene after an offensive at dawn. Walking wounded, prisoners and stretcher cases are making their way to the rear through the water- logged country of Flanders. By now the Infantry have advanced behind the creeping barrage on the right, only leaving the dead, mud, & wire; but their former positions are now occupied by the Artillery. The enemy is sending up SOS signals and once more these shattered men will be subjected to counter-battery fire. British aeroplanes are spotting hostile positions…”

           Gassed  by John Singer Sargent             (c.1919)
Gassed
by John Singer Sargent
(c.1919)

It is a sad and moving painting and reminds me of a work by James Singer Sargent, entitled Gassed, which I featured in My Daily Art Display on July 10th 2011. That work also depicted a line of wounded soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, trudging towards their field hospital.

Paths of Glory  by C.R.W. Nevinson (c.1917)
Paths of Glory
by C.R.W. Nevinson (c.1917)

My final offering is another war painting by Nevinson which depicts the horrors of war. It is entitled Paths of Glory and was completed by him around 1917. In the painting we see the corpses of two dead British soldiers lying face down in the mud among barbed wire. They have been left behind and their bodies are awaiting collection, identification and then their nearest and dearest will be informed of their fate. Besides them lie their helmets and rifles now no longer any use to them. Nevinson chose the title for his work, a quote from Thomas Gray’s famous poem Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

There is of course a  difference in the circumstances of death between Gray’s corpses who lay buried and at peace in a church graveyard and Nevinson’s corpses which lay abandoned on the battlefield.

Nevinson’s depiction of the two dead soldiers lying abandoned in a foreign field was just too much for the British Board of Censors, for the war was still raging in France and scenes like this would have a terrible affect on the morale of English people and so they did not want the work exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in Leicester Square, London. Nevinson rebelled and included the painting in the exhibition but placed a wide brown strip of paper across the work with word “censored” written upon it. The establishment was very unhappy by Nevinson’s apparent disregard of their dictate and he was publicly reprimanded, firstly for exhibiting a “censored” work and for the audacity of writing the word “censored” across the brown strip. As always, there is no such thing as bad publicity and the notoriety he gained from his audacious behaviour brought him to the attention of the public. The painting was bought by the Leicester Galleries.

In my next blog I will conclude Nevinson’s life story and look at some of his non-war paintings which first attracted me to him.

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Most of the information and facts  for this blog came from books which I have mentioned as well as the excellent Spartacus Educational website.

Salon I by Otto Dix

The Salon I by Otto Dix (1921)

Today I am looking at a painting by an artist whose work has frequently shocked the public.  His art often focused on the First World War and the aftermath of it on the people of Germany.  It was not his intention to shock people with what was depicted in his paintings.  It was simply his intention to tell the truth through his art and ensure that people would not ever forget the price citizens had to pay when their governments took them to war.  Of his controversial paintings, he said:

“I’m not that obsessed with making representations of ugliness. Everything I’ve seen is beautiful.”

“I did not paint war pictures in order to prevent war. I would never have been so arrogant. I painted them to exorcise the experience of war.”

“People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people’s powers of resistance.”

My featured artist today is the German painter and printmaker Otto Dix.  Dix was born in December 1891 in Untermhaus, Germany, which is now a part of the city of Gera.  He was the eldest son of Franz Dix, an iron foundry worker and Louise Dix, who was a seamstress and amateur artist.  His mother had also written poetry in her youth.  Otto had a cousin, Fritz Amann, who was a portrait and genre painter and so, from an early age, Otto Dix was exposed to the world of art.  At the age of fifteen Dix started a four year apprenticeship with the landscape painter Carl Senff and it was whilst at Senff’s workshop that Dix started painting his first landscapes.   At the end of his apprenticeship in 1910 he enrolled at the Dresden School of Arts and Crafts and supported himself financially by painting portraits and selling them to local people.  Whilst there he studied under Richard Guhr, the painter and sculptor and Dix attended his figurative and decorative painting classes.

World War I broke out in 1914 and Otto Dix enthusiastically enrolled in the German army.    His first assignment, as a non-commissioned officer, was to join up with a field artillery regiment in Dresden.  In the autumn of 1915 he was assigned as a non-commissioned officer of a machine-gun unit in the Western front and took part of the Battle of the Somme. He was seriously wounded on a number of occasions. In 1917, his unit was transferred to the Eastern front where he remained until the end of hostilities with Russia. He then returned with his regiment to the western front and took part in the German Spring offensive. He earned the Iron Cross (second class) for valour and reached the rank of vice-sergeant-major.  By the end of the conflict, he had been wounded on five separate occasions.  Dix was horrified and very much affected by the horrific sights he had witnessed during the four years of the war and these visions caused him to have many persisting nightmares well after the end of hostilities.

It was these nightmares and his traumatic experiences during the fighting that comes through clearly in many of his subsequent works, including a portfolio of fifty etchings called War, published in 1924.  At the end of the war, Dix returned to Gera, but in 1919 he moved to Dresden, where he studied at the Dresden Art Academy.   It was whilst studying art in that city that he met the Expressionist painter, Conrad Felixmüller, who was one of the youngest members of the New Objectivity movement.   Felixmüller was also a member of the Communist Party of Germany and his paintings often dealt with the social realities of Germany’s Weimar Republic. He became a mentor to Otto Dix and managed to bring together Dix and a number of like-minded Expressionist artists to form the city’s most radical art group, the Dresden Secessionist Group.  A year later Dix met George Grosz and it was around this time that Dix began to integrate collage aspects into his work.

The Trench by Otto Dix (1923)

In 1922 Dix moved from Dresden to Dusseldorf where he found a more lucrative market for his works of art.  A year later, in 1923 he completed a painting which shocked the public and establishment alike.  It had been commissioned by the city of Cologne and was entitled The Trench.  It depicted dismembered and decomposed bodies of soldiers after an overnight battle in a German trench.  For many, it was a gruesome and offensive depiction of death in the trenches.  He began the painting it in 1920 whilst he was living in Dresden but did not complete it until three years later.  Such was the uproar that the Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, which had commissioned the work, had to hide it behind a curtain.  The mayor of Cologne at the time and the future German Chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, cancelled the city’s purchase of the work and the Museum director, Hans Secker, was sacked.

Otto Dix’s work, like that of his friend and contemporary George Grosz was extremely critical of the present-day German Weimar society.   His paintings would draw attention to the more miserable side of life and the hopelessness felt by the ordinary German people following on from their defeat in war.   The depictions seen in his paintings often graphically showed prostitution, violence, old age and death.  He also focused his attention on the German veterans of the war who would wander the streets of Berlin physically disfigured and mentally unable to cope with life.  These were the forgotten men who had served their purpose and who were now abandoned by society.   These paintings of his were somewhat sad and depressing and yet realistic.

The War Cripples by Otto Dix (1920)

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in the early 1930’s they regarded Dix as a degenerate artist and his depictions of the defeated German soldiers and his portrayal of the low-life of Berlin were considered unpatriotic and for this reason they had him sacked from his post as an art teacher at the Dresden Academy.  He later moved to live on the shores of Lake Constance.   In 1937, in Munich the Nazis held an art exhibition of what they called Entartete Kunst or Degenerate Art.  The purpose of the exhibition was to let the Germans know that some forms and pieces of art were not accepted by the “highest race”, and that this art was “degenerate”.  It was often termed Jewish or Bolshevistic art.  During the “Entartete Kunst” campaign over 20 thousand works by more than 200 artists of that time were confiscated. Dix’s 1923 painting The Trench and his 1920 work entitled, Kriegskrüppel (War Cripples) were shown at that exhibition.  They were later burned.  Dix was forced to join the Nazi-controlled Imperial chamber of Fine Arts in order to be able to work as an artist at all and had to promise to paint only landscapes. However, he still painted an occasional allegorical painting that criticized Nazi ideals. In 1939 he was arrested on a trumped-up charge of being involved in a plot against Hitler but was later released.  During World War II, Dix was conscripted into the Volkssturm. He was captured by French troops at the end of the war and released in February 1946. Dix eventually returned to Dresden. After the war most of his paintings were religious allegories or depictions of post-war suffering. Otto Dix died in Singen, Germany, in 1969, aged 77.

For My Daily Art Display featured painting today I have not chosen one of his gruesome but telling war paintings but a painting which looks at the fall-out from war for individuals, in this case females of the defeated nation.  The painting is entitled The Salon I and was completed in 1921, just three years after the end of World War I,  Dix had often examined the life of women in the aftermath of war, many of whom desperate for money to feed themselves and their family turned to prostitution.  In his painting we see four such women, garishly dressed, sat around a table which is covered with an expensive tablecloth, which evokes middle-class décor.  Except for one, they are all passed their prime.

These four scantily dressed prostitutes, decked out in bangles, necklaces and other cheap trinkets look bored.   They sit there in silent contemplation.  In the short term they wonder who their next client will be and how will they be treated.  In a longer term they wonder what will eventually happen to them and how was it possible that they have been reduced to this way of life.  The female to the left of the painting is overweight and was a character often seen in Dix’s works.  She gives us an inviting smile as she supports her breasts giving them an uplift which may make them more tempting to her next client.  The woman to the right of the painting is pitilessly depicted by Dix.  Her best years are far behind her and no amount of make-up can hide the wrinkles of old age.  Her diaphanous negligee does little to hide her sagging breasts.  Next to her wearing a red band and bow around her forehead is a young woman.  We ask ourselves why somebody with her looks and manner should end up in this brothel.  Her eyes and facial expression hide the truth from us.  We are left to decide for ourselves what necessitated her to sell her body.

All in all, it is a depressing work of art but before we condemn Otto Dix for choosing such a subject we need to remember why he did it.  At the very beginning of this blog I gave you his reasoning behind his often gruesome and shocking art.  He was horrified by what he experienced during his four years at war and he fervently hoped that it would never happen again and in his own way he needed to remind everybody about the horror of war or as is the case in today’s featured painting, he wanted to remind people about the terrible aftermath of war especially for the defeated.  Maybe we should consider again his reasoning for his art.  Dix wrote:

“People were already beginning to forget, what horrible suffering the war had brought them. I did not want to cause fear and panic, but to let people know how dreadful war is and so to stimulate people’s powers of resistance.”

Sadly nobody really paid attention to the horrors of the First World War as twenty years later we stumbled blindly into yet another major conflict.

Gassed by John Singer Sargent

Gassed by John Singer Sargent (1918)

My Daily Art Display painting for today follows the theme of yesterday’s offering.  Once again I am featuring a painting which highlights the savagery of war.  This is another realistic depiction of the horrors of war which are often badly received by people who prefer to just see depictions of glorious victories, heroic acts and the happy return of our fighting men.  Sadly these kinds of pictures give one a false impression of the reality of war and it is sad to think that some of us want to close our eyes to what a war really is about and the terrifying effect it has on those who have to fight for somebody’s cause.   My painting today is entitled Gassed and is by the American artist John Singer Sargent which depicts the horrors of the trench fighting in the First World War.  It is a massive painting measuring 231cms high and 611 cms wide (91 inches x 240 inches) and can be seen in the Imperial War Museum in London.

John Singer Sargent was an American painter.  His parents were Americans but he was actually born in Florence where the family had moved to as an aid to his mother’s health.   The family travelled extensively throughout Europe.   Sargent loved his country yet he spent most of his life in Europe.   He became one of the most celebrated portraitists of his time but at the very height of his fame as a portrait painter he decided to devote full time to landscape painting, water colours and public art.

In the early days he was schooled as a French artist, and was greatly influenced by the Impressionist movement, the Spanish master Velazquez, the Dutch master Frans Hals, and his art tutor, the French painter, Carolus-Duran.   He was the toast of Paris until the scandal of his Madame X painting at the 1884 Salon.    Sargent painted the portrait of Madame Pierre Gautreau, entitled Madame X, wearing a very risqué off the shoulder gown. It was also shockingly low-cut. Her mother asked him to withdraw the painting but he refused. Although, now it is acclaimed as his best work of art, it scandalised Paris society and he was widely criticised in Paris art circles for being improper. Sargent found the criticism unjustified and at the age of 28 he left Paris disillusioned by the incident and the fall off of sales of his paintings and moved to London where he remained for the rest of his life.  It was here that he reached the pinnacle of his fame.  It was thought that to have one’s portrait painted by Sargent was to have it painted by the best portraitist of the time.

In some ways it is disappointing to realise that as an artist he has sometimes been dismissed as he was never looked upon as being radical or a trend setter.  He was an artist who worked within known and accepted styles. He was a prolific painter, painting over 2000 watercolours. He was a very successful portraitist but labelled portraiture as “a pimp’s profession” and in 1907 he announced that he would paint “no more mugs” and with a few exceptions kept to his word. His new love was to paint landscape watercolours.

So today’s featured painting was very different to his normal works.  It is a scene Sargent witnessed in August 1918 at Le Bac du Sud on the road between the French towns of Arras and Doullens in the Somme area of Northern France.  We see a line of nine soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, being helped along a boarded path by two orderlies towards a medical station.  The medical post is out of sight to the right of the scene but we can make out the guy ropes which support the tent-like structure.   The line of men who struggle to make their way towards the tent are silhouetted against the golden sunset sky.  In the left background we can just make out some bivouacs and to the right we see another line of wounded men being led towards the medical facility.  The foreground of the painting is littered with the wounded lying at rest, many with their heads bandaged.

The setting of the painting reminds me of the war poem dealing with the horrors of mustard gas in the World War 1 trenches.  It was entitled Dulce et Decorum Est and was composed by the Great War poet Wilfred Owen:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in.
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Dulce et Decorum est, the title of the poem, are the first words of a Latin saying taken from an ode by Horace:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
nec parcit inbellis iuventae
poplitibus timidove tergo.

“How sweet and fitting it is to die for one’s country:
Death pursues the man who flees,
spares not the hamstrings or cowardly backs
Of battle-shy youths.”

 The full saying ends the poem:

Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori

(It is sweet and right to die for your country).

In other words, it is a wonderful and great honour to fight and die for your country.    Sadly as the young men sang joyfully as they marched towards the trenches in Northern France, little did they know of their impending fate.  Ironically, for many people of the time who supported Britain and France’s war against the Germans the words had specific relevance.  The first line of Owen’s poem is inscribed on the wall of the chapel of the Royal Military Academy of Sandhurst.