The formation of Britain's mass army in 1914 drew men from all professions into the ranks. Artists and illustrators were no exception and enlisted with the same patriotic zeal, spirit of adventure and sense duty as their fellow countrymen.
For many of these 'soldier-artists' the first taste of combat would be during the Somme campaign in 1916. The battle remains central to Britain’s understanding of the First World War. Yet its visual representation by artists on both sides can be surprising, and reveal unfamiliar aspects of the campaign. Incorporating every artistic style practiced in Britain and Europe at the time, including Impresionism, Post-Impressionism, Expressionism, 'Vorticist' cubism and Naturalism, the art inspired by the battle demonstrates the vast reach and impact of this defining event of the First World War.
Our BC Post, Copse B, near Maricourt, Somme, August 1916
E H Shepard was the artist behind the enduringly popular illustrations for A A Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and countless cartoons for the satirical magazine, Punch.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Shepard was 34 and had a family, so was under no pressure to enlist. However, by early 1915 and with no end to the war in sight, Shepard decided to join up. Shepard’s application for a commission was accepted in December 1915 and he joined the 105th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery a month later. In July 1916, Shepard's howitzer battery joined the Somme campaign taking up positions near Bronfay Farm, near Bray. Distanced from the front lines he could write home almost daily and made several drawings of his surroundings. Our BC Post, Copse B, near Maricourt, Somme, August 1916, is one example. A delicate pencil and wash (using brush and water as well as pencil) drawing, it captured the basic but orderly conditions of Shepard’s command post. This and the sunlight flooding into his dugout conveyed a mood of ordered calm and offered no hint of the brutal business in which Shepard was engaged.
Despite his duties, Shephard was still expected deliver cartoons for Punch and other publications. These satirised the hardships of trench life, so it is just through Shephard's private impressions of the Western Front, like this painting and later ones of the Italian Front, that we see a more sensitive response to the war.
Like Shepard, the First World War intervened mid-career for the Devon-born painter, Robert Borlase Smart. In 1913, Smart settled in St Ives in Cornwall joining its famous art colony. There, he was mentored by the Anglo-Swedish painter, Julius Olsson and acquired an Impressionist technique, a taste for seascapes and an interest in atmospheric conditions. At the outbreak of the First World War Smart immediately joined the Artist's Rifles, but was gazetted with the 2/24th (County of London) Battalion (The Queen's), The London Regiment and stationed on the Somme in July 1916.
It was a brief posting and Smart was recalled to Britain in September to join the Machine Gun Corps. Even so, the experience of the Western Front was profound and he produced almost 40 war drawings. Thirteen of these featured devastated flashpoints of the Somme campaign, such as this drawing of the bombarded village of Fricourt. It combines Smart's vigorous technique with clever use of a coloured ground, which invests the scene with a subtle luminosity. Smart's short time at the front meant he had to work mostly from memory, aided by photographs. This drawing, for example, was taken from an official photograph of the village in July 1916.
An Artillery Barrage on the Somme Battlefield
Muirhead Bone was a Glasgow-born printmaker and Britain’s first official war artist. Commissioned in May 1916, he was dispatched to the Western Front in August to create images of the Somme campaign for use by Britain’s propaganda agency, Wellington House.
Renowned for his ability to work quickly outdoors, Bone toured the battlefields of Fricourt, Mametz Wood, High Wood, Delville Wood and Pozieres completing over 150 drawings in pencil, pen, charcoal and chalk by October 1916. An Artillery Barrage on the Somme Battlefield is typical of his work, created with pencil and wash, its sketchy, on-the-spot vitality has the look of an authentic and impartial record. Bone even pictured himself drawing in the foreground.
To some though, Bone's drawings seemed remote and uninvolved. One newspaper, for example, quipped that his war drawings were 'like a peep down the wrong end of telescope' and the reception of his work on the whole was mixed from the British public.
Dead Germans in a Trench
Before the First World War, Dublin-born William Orpen was England’s most successful society portrait painter. At the outbreak of war influential contacts made through his portraiture helped Orpen secure a safe Army post in London. However, he grew frustrated by the attention that lesser-known artists were gaining for their war art and arranged a commission as an official war artist in April 1917.
On his arrival in France, Orpen's first destination was the Somme. The campaign had ended five months earlier but the area left an indelible impression on him, inducing feelings of fascination and revulsion. Orpen visited again in August 1917, and though now full of wildlife, the artist found the abandoned battlefield unsettling. Rotting German corpses and the debris of battle remained strewn throughout.
Dead Germans in a Trench was a typically grisly sight, heightened by the eerie combination of the chalky Picardy soil and the deep blue sky. When exhibited in 1918, the painting even disturbed critics accustomed to images of war. One newspaper wrote: 'Mr Orpen is certainly not a sentimentalist; he seems to paint [the corpses] with cold, serene skill, just as he might paint a bunch of flowers'.
Sommeschlact VIII – Die Erste Hilfe (Battle of the Somme VIII – First Aid)
The Battle of the Somme in 1916 gave rise to forceful art on both sides. Max Pechstein was a German artist and a leading exponent of Expressionism, a creative movement committed to exploring the deepest human thoughts and emotions. At the outbreak of the First World War Pechstein was living on Palau in the Pacific Ocean, captivated by its indigenous art and society. However, in November 1914, he was interned by occupying Japanese troops, who were Germany's enemy at the time.
Pechstein was eventually returned to Germany, only to be drafted into the Army and stationed on the Somme in 1916. Unable to cope with the horrors of trench warfare, Pechstein suffered a nervous breakdown in 1917, which exempted him from military service for the rest of the war. Unsurprisingly, his subsequent art sought to recreate his carefree existence on Palau, but in 1917 he confronted his bitter memories of the Battle of Somme.
This example is part of Sommeschlact, a suite of eight prints in which Pechstein powerfully applied the harsh linear forms and exaggerated gesture of Expressionism to evoke the trauma of his experiences.
An Attack - The Capture of Delville Wood, 1916
In 1914, William Roberts was a follower of 'Vorticism'; a British avant-garde movement which celebrated the dynamism of the 20th century. He enlisted with the Royal Field Artillery in April 1915 and arrived in France in August 1916.
While serving, Roberts found few opportunities to create art. However, his fortunes changed in 1918 when he was accepted as an official war artist, first for the Canadians and then for the British. For the latter commission Roberts was simply required to create a painting of 'an active service scene', which allowed him to consider a number of subjects. His red chalk drawing, The Battle of Delville Wood, shows one subject under consideration. Concerning a particularly bloody engagement during the Battle of the Somme, the drawing was inspired by the recollections of older members of Roberts's regiment. With the jagged angularity of the charging figures and the cratered landscape, the drawing conveyed the energy and confusion of battle and hinted at the expressive potential of modernist aesthetics when applied to war subjects.
Castor and Pollux (Maquette for the South African War Memorial at Delville Wood)
The engagement at Delville Wood during the Battle of the Somme was officially commemorated in 1924. Alfred Turner's bronze Castor and Pollux dominated the South African National Memorial, which was sited near the wood in recognition of the many South Africans who fell during its defence.
Turner had no personal connection with Delville Wood. He was 40 when war broke out and took no part in the fighting. Establishing his career at the beginning of the twentieth century, Turner practised a form of Naturalism popular in late-Victorian England called 'New Sculpture'.
His maquette (model) for the South African National Memorial reflects the preference for this Naturalism in British and Commonwealth commemorative sculpture and a reliance on classical symbolism to evoke the scale of the sacrifice. Castor and Pollux were heroic twins in Greco-Roman mythology and represent the South African union of British colonists and Boer settlers answering the call of King and Empire. Nevertheless, the mannered sentiment of this and many other memorials offered little sense of the horror and ferocity of the events that necessitated them and instead tended to emphasise their makers' distance from the conflict.