image: A platoon of British soldiers standing in a village street. There is an exterior whitewashed wall in the background, snow on the ground, debris scattered around to the right, and above, a calvary cross in the top corner of the composition. The figures are loosely grouped on the left, with one man lying sprawled on the ground below, and another standing off to the right. Each man stares off in a different direction. Metal objects, a helmet, a fork and a belt-buckle are picked out in gold metallic paint.
Eric Kennington served in the 13th Battalion, The London Regiment, popularly known as ‘The Kensingtons’, from 1914 until June 1915, experiencing front-line duties during the bitterly cold first winter of the war. The painting depicts men in his unit, Platoon no. 7, C Company, and includes a self-portrait. He shows a moment when his platoon, exhausted from four days and sleepless nights in the fire trench in twenty degrees of frost and almost continuous snow, have made their way through the deep mud of a communications trench to the comparative protection of the ruined village at Laventie. The men are waiting for their Corporal to give the order to ‘Fall in’ for the next part of the journey: a march of five miles to a billet outside the shelling area. The painting is a reverse painting on glass, with the exterior layers of paint applied first which gives the oils a particular clarity. The complexity of the composition and technique caused Kennington to claim he had ‘travelled some 500 miles while painting the picture on the back of the glass, dodging round to the front to see all was well’. Kennington painted this tribute to his comrades after he was invalided out of the army in 1915. It was first exhibited at the Goupil Gallery in 1916, in aid of the Star and Garter Building Fund and Kennington’s accompanying notes detailed the individual soldiers and their experiences. 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. The unemotional depiction of the hardships and endurance of the common soldier was praised by critics and Kennington was to develop these themes during subsequent visits to the Western Front as an artist. 'The Kensingtons at Laventie' is the artist's most exceptional and most famous work. It reflects the style of the then out-of-date Pre- Raphaelites, but also has qualities reminiscent of earlier art; from Pieter Breughel to Russian icon painting. There are also notable parallels to Uccello’s 'Battle of San Romano', 1438-40, in the perspectival layout, the high finish and liberal use of gold paint.
Kennington and members of his platoon rest in the village of Laventie after four days in the trenches in bitter weather. Exhausted and pensive, they await orders to 'Fall in' for the next part of their journey. The picture is a complex reverse painting on glass, where exterior layers of paint are applied first, giving the oils a particular clarity. Kennington painted this tribute to his comrades after he was invalided out of the army in 1915. He claimed he had 'travelled some 500 miles while painting the picture on the back of the glass, dodging round to the front to see all was well.'