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Gassed and Wounded

Gassed and Wounded 1918

Eric Henri Kennington (1888–1960)

As 11th November 2018 marks the centenary of the Armistice we can take stock of the past four years of special commemorations of the First World War – remembrance of honour and sacrifice, and equally of the horror of huge losses and ghastly casualties on both sides. The range and scale of commemoration has been exceptional: with venues ranging from village halls to cathedrals, and from schools and local museums to railway termini, the Tower of London and national museums.

The 14-18 NOW cultural programme, using government and lottery funding, has itself commissioned over 325 artworks and performances. These have linked to commemorative events led or coordinated by the Imperial War Museum, including those focused importantly on the contributions of black and Asian troops. These works of art have brought important shifts in perception, understanding and engagement.

In the foreword to the National Portrait Gallery exhibition catalogue for 'The Great War in Portraits', which opened in February 2014, I asked (then as Director) the rhetorical question: ‘How can words, or works of art, represent a conflict widely regarded as indescribable because it is so appalling and extends so far beyond any previous experience?’

Paul Moorhouse curated this exhibition and explored the dissonance between official and sometimes ‘heroic’ portraits of senior officers (and winners of the Victoria Cross) and the depiction of individual soldiers, whether shown as courageous or pitiful. He included Eric Kennington’s 1918 painting, Gassed and Wounded, now in the Imperial War Museum. It is by no means a conventional portrait: faces of the key participants obscured by bandages or in deep shadow. Writing in 1934 Kennington described how, ‘The picture was painted at home from drawings made in 55 Casualty Clearing Station in Tincourt near Peronne during the bombardment that preceded the 1918 German offensive.’

The humanity of this painting mixes with its sheer despair. It asks how honour might be acknowledged in the everyday heroic work behind the Front, and is reminiscent of Stanley Spencer’s great masterpiece, the Sandham Memorial Chapel, which drew on the artist’s experience as a hospital orderly in Bristol and as a soldier in Salonika.

Although the work of Eric Kennington is not always considered alongside prominent artists like David Bomberg, Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash, John Singer Sargent or Spencer, yet I think of him as an outstanding artist of the First World War. He served first as a soldier in France in 1915, only in 1917 becoming an official British war artist, and then commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Scheme in November 1918. He also served as a war artist in the Second World War.

Gassed and Wounded replays elements of Kennington’s earlier, famous and brilliant painting in oil on glass, The Kensingtons at Laventie, also in the Imperial War Museum. Its unusual composition shows an exhausted group of soldiers – Kennington’s own Platoon No. 7, C Company, the 1/13th (County of London) Battalion, London Regiment (Kensington) – recuperating while away from the front line. When exhibited, its realism caused both admiration and consternation.

The Kensingtons at Laventie

The Kensingtons at Laventie 1915

Eric Henri Kennington (1888–1960)

The depiction of the suffering of ordinary soldiers was extended in Eric Kennington’s large-scale 1920 painting for the Canadian War Memorials Scheme, which he titled The Victims. But he had to accept it being retitled as The Conquerors, when the battalion’s commanding officer objected. It shows kilted Canadian soldiers of the 16th Battalion, some ghost-like, marching through a battlefield of smashed trees, skeletal remains, and open graves.

The Conquerors

The Conquerors

1920, oil on canvas by Eric Henri Kennington (1888–1960)

After the war, Eric Kennington was approached by the commander of the 9th Royal Sussex, Lt Col M. V. D. Hill – who I knew later as Victor Hill, a retired solicitor – who asked if he knew of any suitable sculptors to carve a memorial for the 24th East Surrey Division, to be installed in Battersea Park. Kennington responded by asking if he might carve it himself. The memorial was unveiled in 1924, though the Division had disbanded in 1919, having suffered the loss of over 35,000 men killed, wounded and missing.

The stone figures are carved as stylised modern portraits, but of particular soldiers: Trooper Morris Clifford Thomas of the Machine Gun Corps, Sergeant J. Woods of the 9th Battalion, Royal Sussex and (the writer) Robert Graves of the 3rd Battalion, Royal Welch Fusiliers. The memorial is a symbolic group yet is constructed from real soldiers.

Memorial to the 24th Division, Battersea Park, London

Memorial to the 24th Division, Battersea Park, London

1924, Portland stone by Eric Henri Kennington (1888–1960)

When I questioned Victor Hill about the symbolism of the large serpent entwined around the soldiers’ legs, he said the snake represented ‘Mud, blood and dud’. So I asked if the third term referred to dud shells? ‘No’, he said, ‘To dud officers’.

Eric Kennington came strongly to mind when I recently watched the extraordinary First World War documentary by Peter Jackson (of Hobbit films fame), titled They Shall Not Grow Old. It is based on original film footage from the Imperial War Museum archive, but now cleaned, coloured, and with sound added. As Peter Bradshaw writing in The Guardian on 16th October 2018 commented:

'Peter Jackson has created a visually staggering thought experiment; an immersive deep-dive into what it was like for ordinary British soldiers on the western front. This he has done using state-of-the-art digital technology...

'The effect is electrifying. The soldiers are returned to an eerie, hyperreal kind of life in front of our eyes, like ghosts or figures summoned up in a seance. The faces are unforgettable... the focus and intensity are overwhelming.'

As Peter Jackson intends, so Eric Kennington had desired – for viewers to be left contemplating the futility of war, as well as admiring the exceptional courage of ordinary soldiers, selflessly serving their country.

Sandy Nairne, curator, writer and former Director of the National Portrait Gallery