Long read

Percy Delf Smith: Making Art as a Soldier on the Western Front

Artist-soldier is the term used to describe professionally trained artists who abandoned their artistic careers to serve on the frontlines when war was declared. Working independently of official commissions, many artist-soldiers found inspiration at the front and began to create artworks based on their experiences. Working with the simplest available materials and sometimes at risk of arrest, these artists managed to produce enduring images of conflict.

The likes of ink, watercolour, pencil, charcoal, pastel and chalk were thematerials most commonly used by the artists at the front. When observing his fellow comrades, Eric Kennington relied on chalk and charcoal to capture the details he would later use for the composition of his iconic oil painting on glass, The Kensingtons at Laventie. During his time on the Ypres Salient in the spring of 1917, Paul Nash worked with watercolour and ink to capture life in the trenches.

These practical material choices were determined by a range of factors. Firstly, the artists had preexisting duties to attend to whilst at the front; they were soldiers, and they were there to fight. Sketching or drawing without authorisation was a prohibited act and artists could be arrested on the charge of spying if caught.  Artists’ materials therefore needed to be compact and lightweight enough to be slipped into a soldier’s kit bag so as to avoid suspicion.

Secondly, being exposed to the elements meant that artists did not have the luxury of waiting for desirable weather in order to capture their subject matter. If inspiration struck and the circumstances allowed it, they needed to persevere regardless of the conditions, rather than miss a rare opportunity to sketch or draw. For this reason, materials that allowed artists to work quickly and on a small scale were desirable

  • The Long and Winding Way

    However, one artist-soldier was able to overcome all of these restrictions. Percy Delf Smith (1882- 1948) arrived on the Western Front in late 1916 where he was posted to the Somme with the Royal Marines as a gunner. Shortly after his arrival he began sketching without authorisation. This activity was quickly noticed. Nevertheless, Captain High Boffey, who was Smith’s superior, allowed him to continue.

    Smith however, seemingly unsatisfied with only producing rough sketches, changed his tactics in early 1917. On Wednesday 7 February, Smith wrote in his diary, ‘Up at 4am today. Watch 4 – 8am. Wood and water this morning. Choosing sizes for copper plate this aft. Watch 4 – 8 this eve.’ Then a week later he wrote, ‘Parcel from home arrived Sunday. Tres bon.’ The contents of that parcel were made up of the usual, letters and magazines from home. But within the magazine pages, his parents had managed to smuggle copper etching plates to their son. And so Smith began what he referred to as his ‘Thiepval etchings’.

  • The Site of Thiepval Village

    In fact, it is more likely that Smith was producing drypoints, rather than etchings. Both are intaglio forms of printmaking whereby a design is cut, scratched, or etched into (usually) a copper plate.

    Firstly, it is highly, if not completely impossible that Smith would have been able to obtain the means needed for the etching process whilst stationed in France. In etching, a level wax ground is applied to the plate, the design is then etched into this wax ground and then the plate is submerged in an acid bath, whereby the acid bites into the exposed metal, leaving incised lines in the plate. Drypoint on the other hand is a much more straightforward process. All that is needed is a copper plate and a steel needle in order to score and scratch the desired marks directly into the plate. So we know that Smith had the copper plates, but how did he acquire steel needles?

    Gramophones were a common feature in the trenches as it was felt that patriotic music would improve morale. It is believed that Smith used steel gramophone needles to mark his plates. Fortunately, gramophone needles have all the same characteristics as drypoint needles; they are both made of steel and have round tipped points.

    The 14 drypoint prints which survive demonstrate the type of work Smith was able to achieve after fixing these needles into wooden holders, sealed with wax. The skill shown in these drypoints, for example in The Site of Thiepval Church, lends itself to Smith’s schooling prior to the war. Smith’s work at Camberwell College of Arts and Crafts covered illuminated lettering, typography, book design, inscriptional lettering and calligraphy and so he would have been expertly trained in all the aspects involved in precise and at times complex line making.

  • Dugout Fires

    The second characteristic which tells us that he was executing drypoints is revealed through an examination of the prints themselves. In drypoint, when the needle scores the copper it throws up on both sides of the line a ridge of metal. This ridge, which is known as the burr, is the main identifiable characteristic in drypoints. When ink is applied to the plate, the incised lines and the burr hold the ink during the printing process. The burr is visible where the lines appear smudged, soft and clotted, as if the ink has bled, which is particularly evident in rendering of the roof and terrain outside the entrance in Dugout Fires.

    Smith may have been able to prepare his drypoint plates whilst at the front, but in order to print his plates he needed to wait until he was home on leave in June 1917. During this time he was stationed at Eastney Barracks and was able to visit the Southampton Art Club, where he made his prints. It is also understood that Smith owned a printing press at the home he shared with his parents, so he may have also carried out printing there.

    Today, Smith is better known for his daring Dance of Death series which he created and published in 1919. Nevertheless, his ability to conceive and execute drypoints whilst in the warzone and to a high degree, was not attempted by any other artist-soldier during the war. The works which survive are an exceptional example of what could be achieved in the harshest of environments. They are also an example that debunks the myth that all artist-soldiers at the front used only the simplest of materials.

With thanks to the Percy Smith Foundation for their assistance with the research for this article.