First World War - War in the Air

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916

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Catalogue number
  • Art.IWM ART 2268
Production date
1919
Subject period
Materials
  • medium: oil
  • support: canvas
Dimensions
  • Support: Height 1828 mm
  • Support: Width 2184 mm
  • Frame: Height 2160 mm
  • Frame: Width 2530 mm
  • Frame: Depth 70 mm
Alternative Names
  • object category: painting
Creator
Category
art
IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM

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Object description

image: A dressing station seen from an elevated position. Four travoys pulled by mules wait in line outside the dressing station. Each holds a wounded soldier covered in a blanket and they are attended by medical orderlies. In the background is the bright glow of an operating theatre, where surgery is taking place. In the lower right corner a man with his arm in a sling walks away from the scene, looking back over his shoulder.

Label

In April 1918, while serving in Macedonia, Spencer was approached by the British War Memorials Committee to complete a commission. This offer was made on the recommendation of fellow artist, Muirhead Bone. Alfred Yockney, Secretary to the Committee, suggested the subject of a religious service at the front but Spencer wanted to show 'God in the bare real things, in a limber wagon, in ravines, in fouling mule lines'. This work is based on his experiences with the 68th Field Ambulance. In August 1919, Spencer included a description of this work in a letter to Alfred Yockney: 'About the middle of September 1916 the 22nd Division made an attack on Machine Gun Hill on the Doiran Vardar Sector and held it for a few nights. During these nights the wounded passed through the dressing stations in a never ending stream. This picture is not in any material or practical sense a truthful representation of the scene it is supposed to depict.' An old Greek church was used as the dressing station and operating theatre. The wounded were brought down by means of the mule-drawn stretchers shown in the painting. In 1923, Spencer wrote to his wife Hilda about the scene for this painting, 'I was standing a little way from the old Greek church and coming there were rows of travoys and limbers crammed full of wounded men. One would have thought that the scene was a sordid one... but I felt there was grandeur... all those wounded men were calm and at peace with everything, so the pain seemed a small thing with them.' Spencer saw the wounded in religious terms: the dead and injured figures on the stretchers like Christs on the Cross and the Resurrection through the lifesaving efforts of the surgeons operating in the makeshift theatre. In 1938, Spencer wrote of the work, 'I meant it not a scene of horror but a scene of redemption'. This is one of a series of paintings commissioned by the by the Ministry of Information early in 1918. The Committee developed a scheme to build a Hall of Remembrance devoted to ‘fighting subjects, home subjects and the war at sea and in the air’. The centre of the scheme was to be a coherent series of paintings based on the dimensions of Uccello’s ‘Battle of San Romano’ in the National Gallery (72 x 125 inches), this size being considered suitable for a commemorative battle painting. While the commissions included some of the most avant-garde British artists of the time, the advisors saw the scheme placed within the tradition of artistic patronage, influenced by models from the Renaissance. It was intended that both the art and the setting would celebrate national ideals of heroism and sacrifice. The Hall of Remembrance was never completed and the collection was given to the Imperial War Museum.

History note

Ministry of Information Commission, Scheme 2. Commission administration transferred to Imperial War Museum

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