It is something of a glib truism to say that war has always been full of carnage, pain and brutality. This was recorded in art from the earliest times – from ancient Egyptian battles to Goya’s print series The Disasters of War.
But the First World War was to unleash new levels of death and destruction through the advent of mechanised warfare. New horrors that soldiers faced included gas attacks, shell shock, and trench fever. Here we take a look at works by some of the artists affected by these inhumane experiences, and some of the art that records how people dealt with the trauma.
Matthew Arnold Bracy Smith is perhaps best known today for his bold colourful works which echo the Fauves, and his many nudes. He also studied with Matisse. This 1920 work is from a series of Cornish landscapes he made after a difficult few years during the First World War. Initially deemed unfit to fight due to poor eyesight, he later joined the army when the restrictions were lifted. He served at the front, and was wounded at the Battle of Passchendaele in September 1917. He was hospitalised in England but spent the final year of the war suffering from acute shell shock. This peaceful scene is a far cry from the nightmarish scenes he would have encountered in battle. As a tragic postscript to his own experiences, both his sons died fighting in the Second World War.
Rupert Lee studied at the Royal Academy Schools and the Slade. He served in the Machine Gun Corps of the Queen’s Westminster Rifles, and suffered shell shock in 1918. He produced Vorticist artworks in the trenches that show the influence of the Futurists. After the war, he worked with Paul and John Nash producing wood engravings. Around this time, he began to specialise in animal subjects – as of 2018, this painting of polar bears is the sole example on Art UK of his work.
Philip Connard was nearly 40 when the First World War broke out, but he volunteered as a private and fought in France in the Royal Field Artillery. He reached the rank of Captain before being invalided out because of severe shell shock. He was later appointed an official war artist to the Royal Navy and painted various subjects including the Zeebrugge raid. He also painted murals at Windsor Castle and a large panel for the RMS Queen Mary. He was later the principal tutor at the Royal Academy school from 1945 to 1949.
Colin Gill was born in Kent and studied at the Slade School of Art. At the start of the First World War, he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery and served on the Western Front until 1916, when he was seconded to the Royal Engineers to work as a camouflage officer. He was invalided with gas poisoning in March 1918, and spent some months recovering on the Isle of Wight. From May to November 1918, he continued to work as a camouflage instructor and then four days before the Armistice, returned to France to make sketches for what was ultimately to be an unrealised commission. Gill later exhibited at the Royal Academy and taught painting at the Royal College of Art from 1922 until 1925. His large murals can be seen in the Palace of Westminster, the Bank of England, and Essex County Hall in Chelmsford. He died in South Africa in 1940.
Eric Henri Kennington enlisted in August 1914, right at the start of the war. He was injured in 1915 when cleaning a friend's rifle – he lost a toe and was lucky to keep his foot. He spent his convalescence painting the widely praised The Kensingtons at Laventie, a group portrait of his own platoon. He later produced six lithographs for the Ministry of Information's print series Britain's Efforts and Ideals, and from May 1917 spent nearly eight months on the Western Front where he often came under shell fire. In 1918 he contracted trench fever, and it was when he was being treated at a Casualty Clearing Station he made sketches for his deeply affecting painting Gassed and Wounded. After the war he had a long and distinguished career in painting and sculpture, also working as an artist in the Second World War.
As well as artists who were directly affected by these experiences, others made paintings of convalescence. Here, paintings by Charles Burleigh and Douglas Fox-Pitt show the Royal Pavilion in Brighton as a hospital for Indian soldiers.
C. R. W. Nevinson joined the Red Cross in 1914 working with the Quaker Friends Ambulance Unit in France. This poignant work is titled La Patrie (meaning 'the country' or 'the fatherland'). It shows an incident when Nevinson's unit found many dead and dying French and German soldiers who had remained untreated – there were not enough medical facilities to cope with the carnage. It was Nevinson's first job to tend these dying men.
Ultimately the artists who suffered greatly from the war's effects continued to create. Perhaps this may have helped them to work through their experiences, and is a testament to the healing power of art.