Eric Henri Kennington, Part 2 – the Second World War Artist

Eric Kennington (1926)
Eric Kennington (1926)

At the end of Part 1 of this blog about Eric Henri Kennington we had reached a point in his life when he had travelled to Arabia to prepare sketches which would later be used in his friend, T. E. Lawrence’s 1922 book entitled Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

In 1922, Eric Kennington first met Edith Cecil when he received a commission to paint a portrait of her husband, William Charles Frederick Hanbury-Tracy, 5th Baron Sudeley, whom she married in August 1905.  They had no children.  Kennington and Edith fell in love and in 1922 she and her husband divorced and in September 1922 she married Eric Kennington.  The couple went on to have a son, Christopher, in March 1925 and a daughter, Catherine in February 1927.  It is said that both Eric and Edith remained on friendly terms with Edith’s ex-husband.

The 1922 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence
The 1922 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence

Eric Henri Kennington, as well as having been a war artist during the Great War, was also a revered portrait painter.   During his time in Arabia sketching and working on paintings for T E Lawrence’s autobiographical book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he met Field Marshal Allenby.  Allenby, at that time, was the High Commissioner for Egypt and was based in Cairo.

Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby, 1st Viscount Allenby by Eric Kennington (1926)
Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby, 1st Viscount Allenby by Eric Kennington (1926)

In March 1921 Kennington met Allenby at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo and produced a pastel portrait of Allenby.   It is remarkable to think that this pastel work was completed by Kennington in less than an hour.

Effigy of T.E. Lawrence - 'Lawrence of Arabia' in St. Martin's Church, Dorset by eric Kennington (1926)
Effigy of T.E. Lawrence – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in St. Martin’s Church, Dorset by eric Kennington (1926)

Kennington and T.E.Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) had an enduring friendship up until the day Lawrence was killed in a motorcycle accident in May 1935.  After his friend’s death, Kennington spent years completing a full-length reclining stone effigy of his friend dressed as an Arab sheikh.  This beautiful tomb effigy which was completed in 1939, and can now be found in the church of St Martin’s in Wareham in Dorset

Head of T. E. Lawrence by Eric Kennington (1926)
Head of T. E. Lawrence by Eric Kennington (1926)

Kennington also completed a bronze sculpture of the head of T.E.Lawrence in 1926 and the intrepid British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat was delighted with the work.  He said:

“…Magnificent; there is no other word for it. It represents not me but my top moments, those few seconds when I succeed in thinking myself right out of things…”

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the War Artists Advisory Committee was formed as part of the Ministry of Information.  The chairman of the new committee was Sir Kenneth Clark.  Clark who had been a fine art curator at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum,  had, in 1933 at age 30, become the director of the National Gallery and as such was, and still is, the youngest person ever to hold the post.   One of the artists he chose was Eric Kennington, as by this time, he had built up a reputation as a leading portrait artist.    Kennington became a war artist for the second time in December 1939.   His contract with the War Artists Advisory Committee was to produce pastel or charcoal portraits and for each one he would be paid 25 guineas.  Kennington agreed but said he would need a minimum of three hours per sitter.

General Sir Edmund Ironside, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Home Forces, May-July, 1940. by Eric Kennington (1940)
General Sir Edmund Ironside, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Home Forces, May-July, 1940. by Eric Kennington (1940)

One of his first sitters was the Chief of the Imperial Staff, General Sir Edmund Ironside.  He completed the portrait in January 1940

Portrait of Stoker A.Martin of HMS Exeter by Eric Kennington
Portrait of Stoker A.Martin of HMS Exeter by Eric Kennington

In 1940 Kennington was sent to Plymouth to sketch portraits some of the seaman who had served in the great 1939 sea battle of the River Plate.  One such portrait, which he completed in the April of that year, was of Andrew Martin, a senior stoker aboard HMS Exeter during the River Plate battle.  Kennington wrote a small piece to accompany the portrait.  He wrote:

“…Man of Action: instantaneous: 100 per cent reliable: expert technician. Much humour under thorough camouflage. Very gentle, sensitive, and great physical strength…”

The painting found favour with the art critic, Herbert Granville-Fell who wrote:

“…Kennington’s harsh iron technique has a force admirably suited to conveying unflinching and dauntless resolution in the faces of his seamen and soldiers. I know of no other artist who can so convincingly depict the salt of the earth, and evoke palpably, in a portrait, the very essence and savour of courage…”

Kennington, as was the case during the First World War,  soon clashing with his “employer” the War Artists Advisory Committee principally because of his personal dislike of Colin Coote, a journalist, who was the War Office representative on the committee.  In May 1940 the Home Guard, the Local Defence Volunteers was formed and Kennington decided to leave his role as a war artist for the War Artists Advisory Committee and join the Home Guard.

In July 1940, shortly after Kennington left the War Artists Advisory Committee the Committee held an exhibition of official war art at the National Gallery.  The art critics and public were both pleased with what they saw and in particular the works of Eric Kennington which were said to have been the most popular.  In particular his works depicting the generals and the sailors received the most praise.

Eric Kennington in his Home Gurad uniform
Eric Kennington in his Home Gurad uniform

Kennington rose in its ranks and in July 1940 he was put in charge of a section of six countrymen in the south Oxfordshire countryside, defending an observation post he had set up to the north of his home in Ipsden.   We are so use to thinking of the Home Guard as the people we see on the very popular TV comedy series, Dad’s Army or maybe we have a romantic view of the brave men who protected our homes.  Apparently Kennington did not view the Home Guard or his fellow Home Guardsmen in such an idealised and romantic manner.  Kennington was very vociferous in his criticism of the equipment they were given and was also critical with regards the senior officers, of whom he said were tied up in bureaucracy.   He wrote to his older brother William:

“…The men, if not suitably motivated, did not report for duty in the evenings, but sloped off after roll call to go poaching, fishing, or playing cards in the pub…”

Sergeant Bluett, Cornwall Home Guard by Eric Kennington
Sergeant Bluett, Cornwall Home Guard by Eric Kennington

For all his criticism of some of his fellow volunteers he completed some wonderful portraits of them, such as Sergeant Bluett of the Cornwall Home Guard which he completed in 1943.

Corporal Robertson, City of Edinburgh Home Guard by Eric Kennington (1943)
Corporal Robertson, City of Edinburgh Home Guard by Eric Kennington (1943)

….and Corporal Robertson of the City of Edinburgh Home Guard which he also completed in 1943.  Both these paintings are housed in the Imperial War Museum.

The War Artists Advisory Committee in August 1940 not wanting to have lost such a great artist approached Kennington and asked him to return to the fold as a war artist.  The War committee was delighted that Kennington agreed to return.  The secretary of the Committee, Edmund Montgomery O’Rourke Dickey, wrote to Kenneth Clark about how Kennington’s work instilled hope in those who saw his portraits.  He wrote:

“…The best of this artist’s [Kennington] portraits of sailors in the exhibition at the National Gallery have, in the eyes of the public, a nobility not shared by any other work that’s on display at the National Gallery. These portraits typify the fighting man who’s going to win the war for us…”

Pilot Officer M J Herrick, DFC, by Eric Kennington (1941)
Pilot Officer M J Herrick, DFC, by Eric Kennington (1941)

Kennington agreed to return as a war artist and the Committee offered him a commission to draw portraits of RAF personnel at a time when the Battle of Britain was at its fiercest and these men were often referred to as “fighting aces”.

Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Watt Coleman, DFC, by Eric Kennington (1940)
Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Watt Coleman, DFC, by Eric Kennington (1940)

The pastel portraits were sensitive depictions of the air force heroes and many were used as illustrations in Kennington’s 1942 book Drawing the RAF.  There is a simplicity about these portraits but the underlying thought that these were some of the men who would fight for and save our country, was unmistakeable.

Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Frederick Algernon Portal DSO & Bar by Eric Kenningtonn(1941)
Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Frederick Algernon Portal DSO & Barn by Eric Kennington (1941)

One must remember that the War Arts Committee would give Kennington a list of people who were to appear in his portraits.  This caused a rift between Kennington and the Committee as Kennington believed that all the Committee wanted was portraits of senior officers and Kennington wanted to highlight some of the fighting men from the lower ranks.  Once again Kennington threatened to walk away from his position as a war artist but he was such a great portraitist that he was talked out of his impending resignation by none other than the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal.

Wing Commander Geoffrey William Tuttle OBE DFC by Eric Kennington (September 1941)
Wing Commander Geoffrey William Tuttle OBE DFC by Eric Kennington (September 1941)

As he carried on with his portraiture commissions they were often exhibited at the National Gallery.  Previously they had been lauded as great works of art but occasionally they received some adverse criticism, such as piece written by the art critic of the Sunday Times, Eric Newton, who wrote:

“…Eric Kennington goes on and on with his over-life-size portraits of supermen. They are strident things whose assertiveness almost hurts the eyes.’ But then he did concede: ‘They do look like men who are going to win the war. Some are positively frightening. Dropped as leaflets over enemy country, I can imagine them being as effective as a bomb…”

Cover of Eric Kennington's book Tanks and Tank Folk
Cover of Eric Kennington’s book Tanks and Tank Folk

In November 1941, Eric Kennington was invited to Ripon, Yorkshire by Sir Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart, the General Officer Commanding of the 11th Armoured Division to sketch portraits of some of his men.  Whilst there Kennington completed over twenty portraits of the men and also this small (29 x 38cms) oil on board portrait of his host.  Many of the portraits Kennington did whilst at the Ripon barracks appeared in his 1942 book Tanks and Tank Folk and many featured in his solo exhibition held at the Leicester Galleries, London in September 1943

Seeing It Through, by Eric Kennington, (1944)
Seeing It Through, by Eric Kennington, (1944)

My final offering is a painting by Kennington which was used as one of the war posters in the series Seeing it Through.  It was not of  a fighting man or woman, but commemorated everyday heroism of normal people going about job in difficult and dangerous times.  Kennington preferred not to use models for this type of work and in this work he used the woman herself as the model.  It is of a young twenty year old woman, Mrs M.J. Morgan, who was a conductor on one London buses.  She had become one of the first generation of female bus conductors employed by London Transport in November 1940. She’d only just started her job as a “clippie” when the bus she was assigned to was caught in the blitz.  She became an instant heroine when she shielded with her own body two young children, and then helped passengers who’d been injured when the bus was riddled with shrapnel from a bomb exploding nearby.

Kennington remembered her well describing her:

 “…like a Rubens Venus’ and she had a complexion that was ‘edible as a peach…”

Beneath the portrait of the bus conductor was a short verse by the novelist and humorist, Alan Patrick Herbert:

“…How proud upon your quaterdeck you stand

Conductor- Captain  of the mighty bus!

Like some Columbus you survey the Strand

A calm newcomer in a sea of fuss

You may be tired – how cheerfully you clip

Clip in the dark with one eye on the street –

Two decks – one pair of legs – a rolling ship

Much on your mind and fat men on your feet !

The sirens blow, and death is in the air

Still at her post the trusty Captain stands

And counts her change, and scampers up the stair

As brave a sailor as the King commands.



Eric Henri Kennington died in April 1960 aged 72.  He is buried in the churchyard in Checkendon, Oxfordshire, where he was once the churchwarden and he is commemorated on a memorial in Brompton Cemetery, London..

Eric Henri Kennington. Part 1 – World War I and T.E.Lawrence

Photo of Eric Kennington by Howard Coster (1936)
Photo of Eric Kennington by Howard Coster (1936)

In my last blog I looked at the life and some of the paintings of Thomas Benjamin Kennington, the Victorian painter.  Today, in the first of two instalments, I want to look at the life and art of his son Eric Henri Kennington, who was an early twentieth century sculptor and artist.

Eric was born in Fulham in March 1888.  He was the second of two sons. His father was the Victorian artist Thomas Kennington and his mother, Elise Nilla Lindahl Steveni, was of Swedish origin.  His mother died when Eric was just seven years of age.

Eric was born into a middle-class professional household and received the best education possible, attending St Paul’s School, London, one of the original nine British public schools and from there he enrolled at the Lambeth School of Art.  He started exhibiting his works of art at the Royal Academy in 1908 and by the start of the Great War in 1914 he had gained a reputation as a skilful painter.

Costermongers (La Cuisine ambulante) by Eric Kennington (1914)
Costermongers (La Cuisine ambulante) by Eric Kennington (1914)

One of his pre-War paintings was entitled Costermongers (La cuisine ambulante) which was exhibited at the International Society in April 1914, and the work itself was actually bought by the then very famous society portraitist William Nicholson.  It is now owned by the Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.  It is the depiction of street life in London and is a fascinating capture of the individual characters.  The art critic of the Daily Mail wrote in the August 24th 1914 edition of the newspaper describing the scene as:

 “…‘huge staring groups of life-size people, represented in a brutal airless way, though with a great deal of technical cleverness…”

 and went on to acknowledge that they were protests against the “namby-pambiness’ of the usual group compositions..”

 With the sale of the painting Kennington was able to set himself up in a studio in Kensington High Street.

The Great War broke out in Europe in July 1914 and in the next month, Kennington took himself down to the recruiting office which was close to his studio, off Kensington High Street, and enlisted with the 13th Battalion, The London Regiment, Princess Louise’s Own Kensingtons.    He was sent to the Hertfordshire village of Abbot’s Langley where he did his three months of basic training before being sent to France in November 1914.  His days fighting on the front line were numbered as in mid-January 1915 he suffered a wound to his left foot which resulted in the amputation of his middle toe and he was extremely lucky not to have lost the whole of his left foot through infection.  He was discharged from the army as being unfit for duty.

The Kensingtons at Laventie by Eric Kennington (1915)
The Kensingtons at Laventie by Eric Kennington (1915)

It was during his time convalescing throughout the latter part of 1915, firstly in London, then Liverpool, that he painted one of his most famous works of art.  It was a portrait of some infantrymen entitled The Kensingtons at Laventie, Winter 1914, which is now housed in the Imperial War Museum, London.  The painting is extremely large measuring 140 x 152cms.  The picture is a complex reverse painting on glass, where exterior layers of paint are applied first, giving the oils a particular clarity.

In the painting, Kennington depicts part of his platoon standing around in a deserted street in Laventie, a small French village in the Pas-de-Calais region, close to the Belgium border.  The village had been almost destroyed by shell fire.  It is set in the winter of 1914 with snow on the ground.  The soldiers in this painting were comrades from his unit, Platoon no. 7, C Company of the Kensingtons, and he has even included a portrait of himself in the scene.  He is in the top left-hand corner wearing the balaclava.  The men have arrived at the village after a long and tiring four days and four sleepless nights of duty in the trenches having had to endure continuous snowfall and temperatures at night which fell to twenty below freezing.  It is a loose grouping of men, all but one standing.  What is strange about their depiction is that no two men look in the same direction.  The men seem disorientated and are awaiting their corporal to find out their next orders.  Soon they were going to have to set off and endure a five-mile march to reserve billets, which were out of range of the German artillery.

 The painting was first exhibited at the Goupil Gallery in 1916 and caused a sensation.  The exhibition was in aid of the Star and Garter Building Fund charity.  Kennington’s accompanying notes detailed the individual soldiers and their experiences. The notes about  “Who is who” stated:

“…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…”  . 

Kennington did not complete the painting until December 1915 and sadly by this time, ninety per cent of the once 700-strong battalion, which he had arrived with in France twelve months earlier, had become causalities.  Many had died or had been severely wounded  during the battles of Neuve-Chapelle in March 1915, and particularly Aubers Ridge in May 1915..

The painting, when exhibited at the Goupil Gallery between April and June 1916, received glowing revues.  Kennington was described by The Times art critic: :

 “…the painter who knew how to properly portray the stoically enduring British Tommy’. For example,………: ‘He [Kennington] has painted the real war for us in all its squalor and glory…”

So impressed with the unemotional depiction of the hardships and endurance of the British soldiers whilst fighting on the Front, the War Propaganda Bureau, in June 1917, offered Kennington the chance to become an official war artist.   He was sent off to France in August 1917, where he spent about seven months.  In fact he was only supposed to be visiting the battlefields for one month  but after the first month had expired, he didn’t want to return to England and simply refused to come back home.  He would continually write to his employers stating that he needed to be on the battlefield so that he could “learn the war

Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington (1917)
Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington (1917)

One of his first paintings as an official War artist was entitled  Gassed and Wounded which he completed in 1918 and can now also be found in the Imperial War Museum.  The setting is the interior of a field hospital.  Eric Kennington made many sketches when he was at Casualty Clearing Station at Tincourt, a village in the Picardy region, some thirty miles east of Amiens.  This point in time when Kennington made these sketches was at the time the German air force was bombarding the English lines, prior to their last big offensive.  In the painting we see wounded soldiers, who have been gassed, lying on stretchers.  Look at the way Kennington has depicted the agony of the man in the foreground.  He lies on the stretcher.  His head is bound with bandages.  His eyes which have been damaged by the gas are covered.  His face is contorted and his mouth is open as he cries out in pain.

Eventually Kennington was persuaded to return to England in March 1918 Four months later a large selection of his pastel and charcoal drawings and watercolours were exhibited in an exhibition at the Leicester Galleries.  The art critics and public alike were astounded by the quality of his work

The art critic and poet, Laurence Binyon wrote in the New Statesman:

“…Mr Kennington has a genius for reality. He has not only the gift of exact and faithful record, but the power of giving expression to the latent vehemence, energy and passion that make up the controlled strength of a man. If a foreigner wished to see the British soldier, he could not do better than see him with Mr Kennington’s eyes…”

Kennington, had his differences with the Ministry of Information and parted company in September 1918.  He was not unemployed for long as in November 1918, he signed up with the Canadian War Memorial Scheme.  This scheme was established by the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook in 1916.  His aim was to commission official war artists to paint the Canadian war effort. The official war art programme would eventually employ close to 120 artists, most of them British or Canadian, who created nearly 1,000 works of art. Eric Kennington went back to France in November 1918 as a temporary first lieutenant attached to the Canadian Army and he attached himself to the 16th Battalion Highlanders of Canada, part of the 3rd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Canadian Division.

The Conquerors by Eric Kennington (1918) (Originally known as "The Victims")
The Conquerors by Eric Kennington (1918)
(Originally known as “The Victims”)

Kennington remained in France between November 1918 and March 1919, during which time he made a series of over 40 studies of individual soldiers from the battalion who fought their last major battle of the war in October 1918.  The next painting I am showing you is one entitled The Conquerors and featured men from the battalion of soldiers Kennington was assigned to as a war artist.  This was not the original title of the work as when the painting was shown in an exhibition in Canada, it was entitled The Victims but there was an objection to that title from the battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Cy Peck, Kennington who wanted it to be changed and be renamed The Conquerors.   Cyrus Wesley Peck objected to the title “The Victims” as it was a somewhat defeatist title for the work of art and so it was changed to a more acceptable title, The Conquerors. The painting depicts kilted Canadians of the 16th Battalion, marching through a battlefield littered with debris and informal graves.  Look at the faces of the soldiers.  Some have normal skin tones whilst others look much paler and these may represent the deceased.  The painting is housed in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

The Conquerors was exhibited in Ottawa during the summer of 1920 and it was later returned to London where, in October and November of that year, it appeared at Kennington’s solo exhibition at the Alpine Club gallery in London.  Whilst Kennington was present at the exhibition he met and was befriended by T.E.Lawrence the British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat.  Lawrence bought two of Kennington’s sketches depicting soldiers.  The intrepid Lawrence was a great influence on Kennington’s art and he even persuaded Kennington to come out to the Middle East to draw personalities who appeared in his account of the war with the Ottoman Turks that he was writing at the time, and which was eventually published as The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  The book was the autobiographical account of the experiences T.E. Lawrence  had, while serving as a liaison officer with rebel forces during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks which lasted two years from 1916 to 1918.  T E Lawrence soon became known as Lawrence of Arabia.

Muttar il Hamoud min Beni Hassan by Eric Kennington (1920)
Muttar il Hamoud min Beni Hassan by Eric Kennington (1920)

One such portrait was completed by Kennington in 1920 entitled Muttar il Hamoud min Beni Hassan who was one of Lawrence’s s chosen bodyguards.  This pastel on brown paper was painted by Kennington whilst he was at a war camp in Western Arabia.  Lawrence had wanted Kennington to go out to Arabia and come back with some portraits which could be used as illustrations for his autobiography but strangely he would not let Kennington read the book before he set off on his Arabian journey.  On returning back to London Kennington gave Lawrence his sketches and paintings.  Lawrence was delighted saying:

“…I first saw one and then another of the men whom I had known and at once I learned to know them better. This may point indirectly to the power of the drawings and it points without contest to their literary completeness. There is quite admirable character here…”

Abd-el Rahman by Eric Kennington (1921)
Abd-el Rahman by Eric Kennington (1921)

Another portrait by Kennington used in Lawrence’s autobiography was Abd-el-Rahman, a pastel on green-toned paper, which he completed in 1921.   Abd-el-Rahman was mentioned in Chapter LXXI of the book as Lawrence recalls:

“…I enrolled Showakh and Salem, two Sherari camel-herds, and Abd el Rahman, a runaway slave from Riadh, now freedman of Mohammed el Dheilan, the Toweihi…”

On Kennington’s return home he exhibited the sketches and paintings from his Arabian trip at the Leicester Galleries in London and the portraits of Arabs became known as the ‘Kennington Arabs’.   The illustrations which Kennington worked on for Lawrence did not appear in the first edition of the book published in 1922 but four years later in 1926, in the next edition of the autobiography Kennington’s illustrations appeared along with those done by other well-known artists of the time such as Augustus John, Paul Nash and John Singer Sargent

Head of T.E. Lawrence by Eric Kennington (1926)
Head of T.E. Lawrence by Eric Kennington (1926)

Kennington also produced a bust of Lawrence  in 1926.  It was modelled partly from life and partly from drawings he made in December 1926.  It was also chosen by Lawrence’s mother and brother for the Crypt of St Paul’s. Kennington made three further casts of this head in bronze or brass, one of which can be found in the music room at Lawrence’s cottage, Clouds Hill, Moreton, Dorset.  Clouds Hill is an isolated cottage near Wareham, Dorset which Lawrence initially rented in 1923 but then bought it in 1925.  Lawrence himself loved the bust saying that it was:

“…magnificent; there is no other word for it. It represents not me but my top moments, those few seconds when I succeed in thinking myself right out of things…”

Sir William Rothenstein, an English painter, printmaker, draughtsman and writer on art. who was best known for his work as a war artist in both world wars and as a portrait artist wrote about Kennington’s relationship with T E Lawrence.  He wrote:

“…‘Kennington was devoting himself to Lawrence’s glorification – for him Lawrence was the perfect man who could do no wrong…”

Battersea Park Memorial. by Eric Kennington
Battersea Park Memorial.
by Eric Kennington

In 1924, Eric Kennington designed the War Memorial which can be seen in Battersea Park to commemorate the 24th London Division.

In the second part of my story of Eric Kennington I will look at his life between the world wars and also the paintings he completed as a war artist during the Second World War.

Sir George Clausen. Part 2 – More rural works and the War artist

Sir George Clausen       1852 - 1944
Sir George Clausen
1852 – 1944

In this concluding part looking at the life and works of George Clausen, later Sir George Clausen, I will focus on his love of depicting workers labouring in the fields in a genre of art which was often referred to as rustic naturalism and have a look at a couple of works he completed whilst he was employed as a war artist.

Agnes Mary Webster by George Clausen (1882)
Agnes Mary Webster by George Clausen (1882)

In 1881 George Clausen married Agnes Mary Webster of Kings Lynn and they went on to have three sons and a daughter.  Clausen had met her brother, Alfred, at South Kensington Art School where he was also studying art.  The following year Clausen painted his wife’s portrait.

Henry La Thangue, an English landscape painter, who had visited Brittany to paint and was a friend of Stanhope Forbes, another landscape artist, persuaded Clausen to take a trip there to discover the countryside and light the French area had to offer.  And so, in 1882, Clausen sett off for Brittany with his wife and visited the artist colony at Quimperlé, a small town, fifteen kilometres east of the other popular haven for artist, Pont Aven.   Here they met up with the Dublin-born artist, Stanhope Forbes who, two years later, moved to Newlyn in Cornwall and became a leading figure in that growing colony of artists.  Stanhope Forbes was excited that Clausen was to join him at Quimperlé writing to his mother in September 1882:

“…Thangue tells me he is sending G.Clausen the painter and his wife.  Very glad as he is a really good painter in fact belongs to the sacred band whom even I admire…”

 It was whilst here that Clausen produced a number of wonderful paintings depicting local peasant farm workers and their families.

Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé by George Clausen (1882)
Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé by George Clausen (1882)

One such work was entitled Peasant Girl Carrying a Jar, Quimperlé which he completed in 1882.  This is a portrait of a young girl seen standing in a field, hand on hip, holding an earthenware pot.  She is dressed in a peasant costume, the quality of which indicates that she is from a family of limited means.  She is surrounded by tall spherical flowering onion plants. It is interesting to look closely at the way Clausen has depicted the pose of the young girl.   This is not the pose of a professional model.  This is a peasant girl displaying the uncomfortable pose of a young child, which makes the image of her appear so realistic.  There is no harshness about the way Clausen has depicted her facial expression.  It is a face that exudes gentleness.  What must be going through the child’s mind as she poses for this foreigner, the artist?

The Return to the Fields by George Clausen (1882)
The Return to the Fields by George Clausen (1882)

The next featured work of Clausen is a small watercolour (35 x 26 cms) which he again completed in 1882.   The painting, entitled The Return from the Fields depicts two young workers carrying bundles of brushwood which had been obtained by thinning out the copses.  This brushwood was used for hedging, or as beating implements used for fire fighting or sometimes used to construct sheep hurdles.  That year, the painting was exhibited at Institute of Painters in Watercolours, in London, under the title of Boy and Man and the art reviewer of the Magazine of Art commented favourably on the work:

“… the most artistic work on the walls……a small drawing, but it is so strong, and at the same time so tender and full of feeling, that it arrests attention more powerfully than the other pictures together.  It is evidently inspired by Millet…….he has struck the right road…”

Head of a Peasant Woman by George Clausen (1882)
Head of a Peasant Woman by George Clausen (1882)

Clausen painted two close-up portraits of peasant labourers.  The first was entitled Head of a Peasant Woman which he completed in 1882.   This is a wonderful portrait.  It is a triumph of realism as Clausen has depicted the woman, “warts and all”.  We see her weather beaten face caused by the many days and weeks of working the fields and her wrinkled bow is testament that she has endured a hard and worrisome life.  She doesn’t look directly at us as she rests her hands on a long stick.  The ring on her wedding finger glints in the sunlight.

Labourers after Dinner by George Clausen (c.1882)
Labourers after Dinner by George Clausen (c.1882)

The second portrait was an oil and canvas study of a young boy who was to figure in a work entitled Labourers after Dinner.  This painting is held in a private collection in Australia and I have not been able to find a colour copy of it so have just scanned a black and white version which I found in a magazine.   The painting was the first indication that Clausen was moving away from the emotional depiction of peasant pictures which had been popularised in England and France by Jules Bastien-Lepage.  Clausen veered towards more naturalistic, if brutal, genre subjects. This work was one of the most studied of Clausen’s early compositions.   It is a depiction of a boy sitting between his mother and father who were taking a rest from their work in the fields.  The controversial Irish novelist and art critic, George Moore, on seeing the painting, wrote scathingly about the group depicted in the painting in his 1893 book entitled Modern Painting. In it he commented on the depiction of the boy’s mother and father:

“…the middle aged man and woman who live in mute stupidity – they have known nothing but the daily hardship of living and the vacuous face of their son tells how completely the life of his forefathers has descended upon him…”

Head of a Peasant Boy by George Clausen (1884)
Head of a Peasant Boy by George Clausen (1884)

A “vacuous face” wrote Moore.  I will let you decide as the oil sketch Clausen made prior to the large scale painting, entitled Head of a Peasant Boy is awash with detail.  George Moore was not a lover of realism in art as in the same book he condemned it saying:

“…Realism, that is to say the desire to compete with nature, to be nature, is the disease from which art has suffered most in the last twenty years.  The disease is now at wane, and when we happen upon a canvas of the period like Labourers after Dinner, we cry out, ‘What madness! Were we ever as mad as that?”…”

Harsh words indeed and yet I like this painting.

The Shepherdess by George Clausen (1885)
The Shepherdess by George Clausen (1885)

Clausen was a founder member of the New English Art Club (NEAC) of London which was set up in 1885 in competition with the Royal Academy.  It was a club which attracted many young inspiring artists who were returning to England after their artistic studies in Paris.  One of Clausen’s first paintings to be exhibited at an NEAC exhibition was The Shepherdess which he completed in the Spring of 1885 and which is now art of the National Museums, Liverpool collection.   Clausen had sold the painting to John Maddocks an artist and art collector, and borrowed it back to show at the exhibition.  The orchard in which the young girl stands was to feature in a number of Clausen’s works.  In 1891, the art critic of The Magazine of Art, Butler Wood, commented on the work:

“…admirable specimen of Mr Clausen’s best manner, and displays feeling and atmosphere.  His colour scheme is simple, yet satisfactory and skilfully elaborated.  The girl’s figure is modelled with almost sculpturesque strength and the face painted with that ruddy glow of health which he is so clever at rendering…”

In 1891 Clausen moved from the Berkshire village of Cookham Dean and went to live in Widdington, a small picturesque village in the county of Essex.  He had been exhibiting most of his works at the New Gallery and the NEAC but as his paintings became larger in size they were not easily accommodated at these venues and so he had to once again look at exhibiting his larger works at the Royal Academy in London.  Clausen had fallen out with the Royal Academy years earlier over their teaching methods and their strict and antiquated rules but now, with an ever expanding family, he needed the support of the Academy if he was to sell his larger works.  In 1895, Clausen was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy.  The art world noted his election to an establishment he had once roundly criticised but many saw Clausen as an excellent addition to the RA.  The scholar and prolific art critic of the time, often referred to as “one of the most powerful figures in the late Victorian art world”, Marion Spielmann, wrote about Clausen’s appointment in the February 1895 edition of weekly illustrated newspaper, The Graphic:

“…Mr Clausen was…… a signatory of the open letter which years ago set fire to the inflammable material which we young hot-bloods had….pile up  against the door of the Academy…. much amelioration has been brought since then;  the girls may now study from the semi-nude; then standard of probationership has been raised….”

Clausen now worked within the Academy system, a system which he had once heavily criticised.   He gave up his time, a couple of months each year, to teach students at the Royal Academy Life School Between 1904 and 1906 and in that year he became Professor of Painting at the Academy and, because of the large number of students who attended his lectures, was regarded as one of the most popular professors since Joshua Reynolds.

Bird Scaring by George Clausen (1896)
Bird Scaring by George Clausen (1896)

One of the works Clausen completed in 1896 was entitled Bird Scaring: March, and which is housed in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.  In Victorian days bird scarers were employed by farmers to act as human scarecrows. Their task was simple; they just had to position themselves in the farmer’s field and scare off the birds which swoop down to eat the farmer’s crops.  This onerous job was for very young children who had to be working in the fields, dawn to dusk, no matter what the weather was like.  In the painting we can see the young boy who, despite the cold weather, wears only sack-cloth.  A small fire has been lit on the ground to keep him warm.  The blue/grey smoke from the fire wafts behind him giving us the sense that it is not only cold but also windy.  He is energetically swinging around, holding a wooden clapper in his right hand which made sufficient noise to deter birds from landing nearby.

Youth Mourning by George Clausen (1916)
Youth Mourning by George Clausen (1916)

For my next two featured works by Clausen you will notice a complete change of style.  The first one was completed in 1916 and entitled Youth Mourning.  The work you see is not the original version but one altered on the request of the purchaser.  Clausen, who was sixty-four when he painted this work was too old for military service in the First World War, however he was not untouched by the many tragedies of the Great War for his son-in-law, the husband of his daughter Kitty, was killed in battle in 1915 and it was that sad event which moved him to paint this work.  It was his personal expression of grief for the thousands who perished during the conflict.  This was an artistic departure of his favoured rustic naturalism style and more towards the French Symbolist genre.

In the original work there were three white crosses in the ground just behind the female and further in the background many more white crosses could be seen.  When the owner of the work, a Mr C.N.Luxmoore, who bought this and many other paintings from Clausen presented it to the Nation in 1929 the crosses had been painted out just leaving a barren shell-holed hillside.  We have no definitive reason why the owner got Clausen to re-paint part of the work.   The resulting work has a powerful symbolic aura of anguish and sorrow captured by the nude female figure hunched over in the foetal position.  The finality of death is depicted by the barrenness of the landscape where nothing lives.

In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918 by George Clausen (1918)
In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918 by George Clausen (1918)

George Clausen was later appointed an official war artist and took part in the ambitious British War Memorials Committee art scheme in 1918. He produced a large 183 x 318cms oil on canvas work in 1918 entitled In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal, 1918.  This urban scene once again is huge shift away from rustic idylls of the countryside we saw in his earlier works.  The painting was a commission Clausen received from The Ministry of Information who said they wanted a “Uccello” sized work of art which would be exhibited in the Hall of Remembrance.  Clausen visited the gun factory on a number of occasions and had originally intended that the painting would be in an upright format but eventually realised that it had to be of a horizontal format.  The work was finally completed in December 1918 and was first exhibited at the Royal Academy Winter Exhibition of 1919-20.  Critics believed it was one of the best works on display.  In 1926, due to his successful war commission he was commissioned to paint murals, notably Wycliffe’s English Bible for the Houses of Parliament and on completion of this task he was knighted.  He continued to regularly exhibit work at the Royal Academy during the 1930’s.

My Back Garden by George Clausen (1940)
My Back Garden by George Clausen (1940)

One of last paintings by Sir George Clausen was one he completed in 1940 entitled My Back Garden.  It was a depiction of the back garden of his house at 61 Carlton Hill, London.  He was eighty-eight years of age when he painted this picture.  It was almost a farewell painting as a year later; he had left his beloved house and garden because of the almost continuous bombing of London by the Nazis.  He decided that he and his wife should move to Cold Ash, a Berkshire village some two miles from the town of Newbury and seventy miles west of London.  Clausen continued to sketch and complete watercolours which he sent off for inclusion in the Royal Academy Summer Exhibitions of 1942 and 1943.   Clausen’s wife’s health had deteriorated in 1939 and she remained poorly until her death in March 1944.  Sir George Clausen died eight months later in November 1944, aged 92.   In June 1944, just five months before Clausen’s death, he was approached by Kenneth Clark, the Director of the National Gallery, proposing a retrospective exhibition of his work at the National Gallery.  Clausen was delighted with the proposal and wrote back to Clark:

“… I think such an exhibition as you suggest would be more appropriate when I am dead and indifferent to praise or censure !   However I will help you all I can…”

Sadly the exhibition never took place.

C R W Nevinson. Part 2 New York

Portrait of C R W Nevinson by  Ronald Ossory Dunlop
Portrait of C R W Nevinson by Ronald Ossory Dunlop

In my last blog I looked at the early life of Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson and featured some of his paintings which depicted the horrors of the First World War.  Today I want to conclude his life story and look at some of his other works of art which had nothing to do with war but which I find have their own beauty.

Nevinson had been taken ill in 1912 and was moved to Buxton to convalesce and it was whilst partaking of the healing waters at the Hydro that he met Kathleen Knowlman who had accompanied her father to the health resort.  With the outbreak of war in 1914, Nevinson, being a conscientious objector, had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in November 1915.  It was in this capacity that he had helped tend the wounded who had been brought home from the Front.  He was stationed at the Third General Hospital in London but was always aware that soon he would be called to leave the relative safety of England and travel to France.  Fully realising his possible death at the Front he decided that he should be married before he met his fate !  On November 1st 1915 he married Kathleen Knowlman.  It turned out that he was never sent to the front as he was invalided out of the army following bouts of pericarditis and rheumatic fever which he contracted in January 1916 which left him crippled and for a time he began to think he would never walk again.  He recalled the time in his 1935 autobiography, Paint and Prejudice:

“…I was now crippled completely. I began to think I should never walk again. Everything was tried on me while I lay helpless on my bed…”

Temples of New York by C R W Nevinson (1919) Drypoint. Trinity Church facade from the back, which faces Wall Street
Temples of New York by C R W Nevinson (1919)
Drypoint. Trinity Church facade from the back, which faces Wall Street

With the ending of the First World War in 1918, the public’s desire for his war paintings and their harrowing depictions of the suffering of the troops waned. Maybe people just wanted to forget about the previous four years and did not want to be reminded of the brutality of war.   For Nevinson, his favoured and once much appreciated subject matter had dried up and he had to make a decision as what to do next.   Paul Nash, a contemporary of Nevinson and also a war artist, summed up the war artists’ dilemma when he talked about the ‘struggles of a war artist without a war’.   At the end of the war, Nevinson went to Paris looking for new inspiration but soon tired of the French capital, a place he had visited as a child with his mother.  In the spring of 1919, he decided to visit America and in particular New York.  He had received an invitation from David Keppel to visit the American city to stage an exhibition of his War prints.  David Keppel who with his father, Frederick Keppel, were print publishers and owned a four-storey gallery on 4 East 39th Street in Manhattan.  They had exhibited many of Nevinson’s war prints which proved very popular with the American public.

Nevinson was made very welcome on his arrival and according to David Boyd Haycock in his 2009 book about the artist, A Crisis of Brilliance, relates how Nevinson was welcomed as a ‘war hero and victimised genius of modern European art, come to discover the USA and reveal it to itself ‘   Nevinson, on his arrival in New York, was taken aback by the city’s architecture, so much so when questioned by a local journalist of how he liked the city he commented that he loved the buildings so much he believed the city had been built for him.  Nevinson would roam around the city constantly sketching and after a month long stay in America, he returned to London and converted his sketches into paintings.   On his return to London he was to receive sad family news.  Whilst he was in America his wife had given birth to a son, Anthony Christopher Wynne on 21st May 1919. His mother, Margaret, recorded that the child only lived for fifteen days, which, as she put it, had been “just enough time to get fond of him.”   Nevinson later wrote in his autobiography:

“…On my arrival in London I was met by my mother, who told me my son was dead…”

 And he later added in a somewhat morbid fashion:

“…I am glad I have not been responsible for bringing any human life into this world…”

The Soul of the Soulless City (New York - an Abstraction) by C R W Nevinson (1920)
The Soul of the Soulless City (New York – an Abstraction) by C R W Nevinson (1920)

One of Nevinson’s depictions of  New York, which he completed back in London in 1920 before he returned to America that October to set up his second exhibition of work at Frederick Keppel & Co, New York gallery, was entitled The Soul of the Soulless City (‘New York – an Abstraction’).  The painting depicts an idealised view of a section of the elevated railway which ran through Manhattan. It was an unusual work with a narrow chromatic range reliant mainly on shades of greys and browns with just merest hint of blue for the skies between the tops of the skyscrapers.  The way he has depicted the skyscrapers with their complex faceting harks back to Picasso and Braque’s cubism of a decade earlier.  There is something very powerful and impressive about the way Nevinson has depicted the railway line receding dramatically into a cluster skyscraper blocks.  There is a sense of speed about the disappearing railway track.  Nevinson, was associated with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti  and his concept of futurism, who wanted  to revolutionize culture including art and make it more modern. The new ideology of Futurism was an art form which stressed modernity, and the virtues of technology, machinery, and speed and we can see in this work that Nevinson was a great believer of the ideals of futurism.

When the work was first exhibited at the Bourgeois Galleries in New York it was entitled New York – an Abstraction.  It was not received well.  According to David Cohen in his 1999 The Rising City Urban Themes in the Art and Writings of C.R.W.Nevinson’, C.R.W.Nevinson The Twentieth Century, one critic went as far as to dub the painting  “inhuman, metallic and hard”.  Later when he exhibited the work in London in 1925 at the Faculty of Arts Exhibition, Grosvenor House, London, it was given the title of The Soul of the Soulless City and this change was almost certainly made by Nevinson himself and although it has been likened to Karl Marx’s comment on religion being the “heart of the heartless world”, it could also be because Nevinson had fallen out of love with the American city.

New York, Night by C R W Nevinson (c.1920)
New York, Night by C R W Nevinson (c.1920)

Another work by Nevinson with New York as its subject is New York, Night which he completed somewhere between 1919 and 1920.  This work which was completed around the same time as the previous work and was painted at the time when Nevinson was still in love with New York.   There can be no doubt about his initial love affair with New York for Nevinson was quoted by David Cohen in his 1999 book, C.R.W. Nevinson, The Twentieth Century:

 “…New York, being the Venice of this epoch, has triumphed, thanks to its engineers and architects, as successfully as the Venetians did in their time..Where the Venetian drove stakes into his sandbanks to overcome nature, the American has pegged his city to the sky. No sight can be more exhilarating and beautiful than this triumph of man…”

 The painting depicts the busy harbour of New York at night.  It is a view I have witnessed many times from the bridge of a ship as the city’s skyscrapers loom large ahead as we enter the port.   In the painting we see the giant buildings through the smoke and steam emanating from the funnels of the small tugs and ferries which ply their way up and down the Hudson River.  It is a mystical and atmospheric scene.  It is a scene depicting industry.  This is a scene of modernity, loved by the futurists.  In the foreground we see jibs of cranes busily working on the loading and unloading of cargo vessels berthed at Brooklyn, across the river from Manhattan.

Looking through Brooklyn Bridge by C R W Nevinson (1920)
Looking through Brooklyn Bridge by C R W Nevinson (1920)

Nevinson built up a collection of prints of Manhattan, another of which is the drypoint print entitled Looking through Brooklyn Bridge.  This work and another entitled Under Brooklyn Bridge are housed in the British Museum and were part of a set of ten drypoints of the city of New York which were commissioned by Frederick Keppel.  Whenever I visit New York I always take time to walk across this bridge and never fail to be enthralled by the views on offer when crossing from Brooklyn to Manhattan.  What first strikes you about this work is how the bridge is the central “character” as it dwarfs the people we see walking across it.  In the background, through the mist, we see the colossal skyscrapers of Manhattan looming before us.  In the evening light they lack colour and are just presented as grey giants.  It is a cold depiction.  There is no warmth about it.  It is an inhospitable scene and the mist which gives a haziness to the skyscrapers also gives a feeling that the air may also be polluted.  The people are wrapped up in warm clothes and the wooden walk way looks wet as if the rain has been beating down on the massive structure.  The man in the foreground holds an umbrella but probably due to the strong winds, dare not open it to protect himself. Nevinson has managed to convey the massive structure as a monument to the permanence of the new Industrial time and it contrasts with the temporary nature of the people, who appear on it as mere shadows as they hurry from one side to the other.

Like a lot of artists, Nevinson did not take criticism and rejection well and his love for New York and America disappeared.  Not only were his paintings attracting criticism, he himself was also becoming disliked for his ill-conceived outbursts.  He often suffered periods of depression and would often be volatile.  He had an unfortunate habit of bragging and publicly aired embellished claims of his war experiences, which people found hard to accept and together with his depressive and temperamental personality, he became an unpopular figure on the New York art scene.   Whether it was because of the poor reviews or his growing dislike for the people around him, he decided to leave America.

So who was to blame for Nevinson’s falling out of love with America and the Americans.  Maybe the answer lies in the 1920 catalogue introduction to an exhibition of Nevinson’s work by the art critic Lewis Hind.  Of Nevinson he wrote:

“…It is something, at the age of thirty one, to be among the most discussed, most successful, most promising, most admired and most hated British artists…”

In Julian Freeman’s biography on Nevinson he talked about the artist’s mental state during the last couple of decades of his life:

“…From 1920 until 1940 they carried his strident, maverick diatribes, aimed at society at large, and at the establishment in all its forms… and the variety, salacity, and often uncompromising savagery of his egocentric articles remains enormously entertaining. However, his autobiography is marked and marred by a strong undercurrent of confrontational right-wing xenophobia, and some of his private correspondence in the Imperial War Museum in London is explicitly racist: true signs of the times to which he was such a conspicuous contributor…”

I will leave the last word to the artist himself who, in his 1937 autobiography,  Paint and Prejudice,  wrote:

“…My prices have always been humble, but it has been possible up to the present to lead the life of a millionaire. Far from being a starving artist, a great deal of my time has been taken up in refusing food and drink, affairs with exquisite women, and wonderful offers of travel or hospitality. But I have always been driven mad by the itch to paint. Painting has caused me unspeakable sorrows and humiliations, and I frankly loathe the professional side of my life. I am indifferent to fame, as it only causes envy or downright insult. I know the necessity of publicity in order to sell pictures, because the public would never hear of you or know what you were doing unless you told them of it. But publicity is a dangerous weapon, double-edged, often causing unnecessary hostility and capable of putting you into the most undignified positions. Until of late I have had to fight an entirely lone hand. When I exhibited at the Royal Academy it was a revelation to me how well the publicity was done through the dignity of an institution rather than through the wits of an individual. But I suppose that now I shall always remain the lone wolf. I have been misrepresented so much by those who write on art that the pack will never accept me. Incidentally, because I painted I have earned something like thirty thousand pounds for the critics, curators, or parasites of art. Ninety per cent of their writings has consisted of telling the public not to buy my pictures and of charging me with every form of charlatanism, incompetency, ignorance, madness, degeneracy, and decadence. It is useless to deny that this has had its effect..”

A Winter Landscape by C R W Nevinson (1926)
A Winter Landscape by C R W Nevinson (1926)

His post-war career was not so distinguished.  He never achieved the adulation that was bestowed on him due to his war paintings.  Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson died in October 1946 aged 57.

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson the war artist

     Self Portrait  by C.R.W Nevinson
Self Portrait
by C.R.W Nevinson

The newspapers and television are awash with articles and documentaries with regards the First World War and so, over the next two blogs, I thought I would take this opportunity to look at one of the best known British war artist, many of whose paintings featured the Great War. His name is Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, but is often referred to as C.R.W. Nevinson, and was known to his friends as Richard.

Nevinson was the son of Henry Nevinson, who was a British war correspondent during the Second Boer War and the First World War. His father was a fierce and radical campaigning journalist who, through the might of his pen, fought to end slavery in Western Africa. He was also a suffragist, and along with the left-wing writers, Henry Brailsford, Max Eastman and Lawrence Housman founded the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage society in 1907. In 1884 he had married Margaret Nevinson an activist in the campaign for women’s rights and in Hampstead, London in August 1889 she gave birth to their only child, Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson. An insight into his early childhood can be gleaned from a book written by Frank Rutter in 1935 entitled Art in my time and in it he talks about Nevinson and his parents. He wrote:

“…Nevinson was the child of parents who had singularly noble ideas, who were markedly progressive and humane in their habit of thought… Nevinson started life with a pre-natal tendency to revolt against injustice, cruelty and oppression…”

He also commented on how tied up Nevinson’s parents were in their campaigning and quotes young Nevinson as being somewhat critical of his mother’s lack of time for him. Later, Nevinson wrote of his mother:

“…If my mother does happen to be in for a meal she is so engrossed in other things that she hardly hears and certainly never takes in a word I say.”

Nevinson’s parents were so wrapped up in their own agendas it was bound to affect the early life of their son and for young Nevinson, who after a period in kindergarten, at the age of seven, worse was to come as his parents decided to send him away from home to a boarding school. For a child who just wanted his parents to spend time with him it was the worst possible outcome and he hated the school and was soon in trouble. In his 1935 autobiography, Paint and Prejudice, he wrote about his time as a boarder:

“…In due time I went to a large school, a ghastly place from which I was rapidly removed as I had some sort of breakdown owing to being publicly flogged, at the age of seven, for giving away some stamps which I believed to be my own. I was not only described as a thief but as a fence. From this moment I developed a shyness which later on became almost a disease. During my sufferings under injustice a conflict was born in me, and my secret life began…”

If school life was bad enough, life at home did not improve. His father’s strong pro-Boer utterances during the Second Boer War became well known and disliked and his son was tarred by this same brush of loathing and would be treated like an outcast by his young contemporaries.

In 1903, Nevinson was sent to Uppingham School. The school was strong in its teaching of engineering and art. However he described the time at Uppingham as a débâcle. At first the school seemed acceptable to the fourteen year old but things deteriorated for the teenager as probably due to his earlier school experiences he did not make friends easily and was singled out by both staff and fellow pupils and he wrote of his horrific experiences at the hands of older students:

“…”I had no wish to go to any such school at all, but nevertheless Uppingham did seem to be the best. Since then I have often wondered what the worst was like. No qualms of mine gave me an inkling of the horrors I was to undergo. Bad feeding, adolescence – always a dangerous period for the male – and the brutality and bestiality in the dormitories, made life a hell on earth. An apathy settled on me. I withered. I learned nothing. I did nothing. I was kicked, hounded, canned, flogged, hairbrushed, morning, noon and night. The more I suffered the less I cared…”

Normality finally came into his life when he left Uppingham School and enrolled at St John’s Wood School of Art where he would train to pass the exams required for entry to the Royal Academy Schools. Nevinson summed up this move in his autobiography in a simple sentence:

“…From Uppingham I went straight to heaven…”

Life at the art school was so different in comparison to his previous schools and Nevinson began to come out of his shell and this could well have been helped by the fact that he was now in the company of female students. He recalled the happy days of socialising with the girls and acknowledged that he himself was changing:

“…My shyness went, and I spent a good deal of my time with Philippa Preston, a lovely creature who was later to marry Maurice Elvey. There were others, blondes and brunettes. There were wild dances, student rags as they were called… and various excursions with exquisite students, young girls and earnest boys; shouting too much, laughing too often…”

However it was not the Royal Academy Schools for Nevinson as he had been influenced by the works of Augustus John who, along with his sister, Gwen, had been students at the Slade School and so, in 1909, aged twenty, Nevinson entered the Slade School. Most of his friends from St John’s Wood School of Art progressed on to the Royal Academy School and so Nevinson arrived at the Slade knowing nobody. After an initial nervousness and an uncertainty about his choice of artistic direction he settled in and made a number of friends. In his class were aspiring artists such as Mark Gertler, Adrian Allinson, Edward Wadsworth, Rudolf Ihlee and Stanley Spencer. This group of young artistic friends were known as the Coster Gang because they dressed in black jerseys with scarlet mufflers and atop their heads they would wear a black cap or hat similar to those worn by costermongers, the street sellers of fruit and vegetables.

Dora CarringtonIn 1910 a new student joined the Slade. She was Dora Carrington. In Michael Walsh’s 2002 biography on Nevinson which looked at his energetic early career he wrote of Nevinson and Carrington’s relationship:

“…Nevinson’s infatuation with Dora Carrington became progressively more acute. In Carrington he had met his match, not only in intellect and in personality, but also in that she could be as obtuse as he could… The friendship was always confused, faltering between brotherly affection and unfulfilled love affair, rooted in Nevinson’s reluctance to trust strangers and her notorious desire to remain unattached…”

Dora Carrington, CRW Nevinson and Mark Gertler during their time at the Slade School
Dora Carrington, CRW Nevinson and Mark Gertler during their time at the Slade School

With this fascination with Dora came a major problem. Dora had another great admirer and he was Nevinson’s best friend, Mark Gertler. Gertler and Nevinson had spent much time together after classes and a bond between them ensued. Michael Walsh in his 2002 biography of Nevinson, C. R. W. Nevinson: The Cult of Violence, wrote about this close friendship:

“…Together they studied at the British Museum, met in the Café Royal, dined at the Nevinson household, went on short holidays and discussed art at length. Independently of each other too, they wrote of the value of their friendship and of the mutual respect they held for each other as artists…”

However they had both fallen in love with Dora Carrington and in a way she destroyed the friendship between the two men. Nevinson after some tentative efforts to move his relationship from a close platonic one to something more was spurned by Carrington and she began to distance herself from him.  Nevinson was devastated at this turn of events and wrote to her:

“…I am now without a friend in the whole world except you…. I cannot give you up, you have put a reason into my life and I am through you slowly winning back my self-respect. I did feel so useless so futile before I devoted my life to you.”

Nevinson also realised that his attempt to become Carrington’s lover ended his friendship with Gertler. Gertler was in love with Carrington and now Nevinson, once his closest friend, had now become a rival for Carrington’s affections. Something had to give and Gertler wrote to Nevinson:

“…I am writing here to tell you that our friendship must end from now, my sole reason being that I am in love with Carrington and I have reason to believe that you are so too. Therefore, much as I have tried to overlook it, I have come to the conclusion that rivals, and rivals in love, cannot be friends. You must know that ever since you brought Carrington to my studio my love for her has been steadily increasing. You might also remember that many times, when you asked me down to dinner. I refused to come. Jealously was the cause of it. Whenever you told me that you had been kissing her, you could have knocked me down with a feather, so faint was I. Whenever you saw me depressed of late, when we were all out together, it wasn’t boredom as I pretended but love…”

The romantic hopes of both Nevinson and Gertler were spurned by Carrington and the two men paid an enormous price because of their infatuation with their fellow student. The price was the ending of their own close and once fulfilling friendship.

Nevinson left the Slade School in the summer of 1912 and travelled to Paris, a place he had visited on a number of occasions with his mother. It was in the French capital that he met and became friends with Gino Severiniand Filippo Marinetti, an Italian poet and editor, the founder of the Futurist movement. Futurism was originally an Italian movement which was characterised by its belligerent celebration of modern technology and city life and energetically showed contempt for Western Art traditions. Nevinson was excited with these futurist ideas and he and Marinetti co-wrote the English Futurist manifesto Vital English Art, in June 1914 edition of English newspaper, The Observer.

Nevinson in his Red Cross uniform
Nevinson in his Red Cross uniform

On the outbreak of the First World War, Nevinson, who was a fervent pacifist, refused to become involved in combat duties, and volunteered instead to work for the Red Cross. Nevinson joined the Friends Ambulance Unit, which was a voluntary ambulance service founded by some young members of the Quakers. It was independent of the Quakers’ organisation and mainly run by registered conscientious objectors. Later, between November 1914 and January 2015, Nevinson served as a volunteer ambulance driver. However his time in the ambulance service as driver, stretcher bearer and hospital orderly ended in January 1915 when he had to return to home due to ill health.

The brutality of the war stimulated him and on his return home in January 1915 he wrote an article for the Daily Express about this artistic stimulation:

“…All artists should go to the front to strengthen their art by a worship of physical and moral courage and a fearless desire of adventure, risk and daring and free themselves from the canker of professors, archaeologists, cicerones, antiquaries and beauty worshippers…”

I will leave Nevinson’s life story at this juncture and return to it in my next blog. I now want to feature three of his war paintings which were to make him famous and which depicted life and the brutality of the First World War. It was during his period convalescing that he started on a series of works based on his own experiences and incidents he witnessed whilst at the Western Front in France.

          La Mitrailleuse  by C.R.W. Nevinson (1915)
La Mitrailleuse
by C.R.W. Nevinson (1915)

One such work was entitled La Mitrailleuse (The machine gun), which he completed in 1915. The work is a depiction of a French machine-gunner and two of his comrades in a battle trench. It is amazing how Nevinson has portrayed the soldiers simply as a series of angular planes and has kept the colours to various tones of grey. There is something mechanical about the men. He has de-humanized them. The angularity of their facial expressions and the dark colouring around their eyes transforms them into fierce-looking individuals who seem to lack any trace of humanity. The machine gun, which is the title of the painting, is gripped by the gunner. The belt of bullets hangs from the machine ready to be spat out and mercilessly cut down the enemy. Of the painting Walter Sickert, the Camden Town Group painter described the painting as:

“…the most authoritative and concentrated utterance on the war in the history of painting…”

The Harvesting of the Battle by C R W Nevinson (1915)
Harvest of Battle by C R W Nevinson (1915)

The second painting I am featuring is entitled Harvest of Battle, which can be found at the Imperial War Museum, London. In this work we observe the deadly aftermath of battle. The battleground is sodden. Large pools of water formed by craters made by exploding shells abound making life that much worse, if that was possible. We see a long line of soldiers trudging from right to left across the wet ground. Many are wounded with bandaged limbs and some of the able-bodied are carrying or helping their wounded comrades to return to a place of safety at the rear of the battle lines. For many it was to be their last battle and they are now just corpses. In the central foreground we see a skeletal-like corpse lying on his back and even in death, his left arm is still raised in a claw-like fashion, a gesture of pleading for help, whether it be from his comrades or God himself, but it was to no avail.    In the right background we see flashes of artillery fire. The idea for this depiction came to Nevinson when he and another officer visited Passchendaele, close to the town of Ypres, the scene of many battles during the First World War. He wrote about his experience in his autobiography:

“…We arrived at Ypres, and while he went to the Officers’ Club I wandered on up towards the Salient and obtained notes and rough sketches for my painting, ‘Harvest of Battle…”

In a letter Nevinson wrote in 1919 to Alfred Yockney from the Ministry of Information he described what he saw:

“…A typical scene after an offensive at dawn. Walking wounded, prisoners and stretcher cases are making their way to the rear through the water- logged country of Flanders. By now the Infantry have advanced behind the creeping barrage on the right, only leaving the dead, mud, & wire; but their former positions are now occupied by the Artillery. The enemy is sending up SOS signals and once more these shattered men will be subjected to counter-battery fire. British aeroplanes are spotting hostile positions…”

           Gassed  by John Singer Sargent             (c.1919)
by John Singer Sargent

It is a sad and moving painting and reminds me of a work by James Singer Sargent, entitled Gassed, which I featured in My Daily Art Display on July 10th 2011. That work also depicted a line of wounded soldiers, blinded by mustard gas, trudging towards their field hospital.

Paths of Glory  by C.R.W. Nevinson (c.1917)
Paths of Glory
by C.R.W. Nevinson (c.1917)

My final offering is another war painting by Nevinson which depicts the horrors of war. It is entitled Paths of Glory and was completed by him around 1917. In the painting we see the corpses of two dead British soldiers lying face down in the mud among barbed wire. They have been left behind and their bodies are awaiting collection, identification and then their nearest and dearest will be informed of their fate. Besides them lie their helmets and rifles now no longer any use to them. Nevinson chose the title for his work, a quote from Thomas Gray’s famous poem Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour:-
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

There is of course a  difference in the circumstances of death between Gray’s corpses who lay buried and at peace in a church graveyard and Nevinson’s corpses which lay abandoned on the battlefield.

Nevinson’s depiction of the two dead soldiers lying abandoned in a foreign field was just too much for the British Board of Censors, for the war was still raging in France and scenes like this would have a terrible affect on the morale of English people and so they did not want the work exhibited at the Leicester Galleries in Leicester Square, London. Nevinson rebelled and included the painting in the exhibition but placed a wide brown strip of paper across the work with word “censored” written upon it. The establishment was very unhappy by Nevinson’s apparent disregard of their dictate and he was publicly reprimanded, firstly for exhibiting a “censored” work and for the audacity of writing the word “censored” across the brown strip. As always, there is no such thing as bad publicity and the notoriety he gained from his audacious behaviour brought him to the attention of the public. The painting was bought by the Leicester Galleries.

In my next blog I will conclude Nevinson’s life story and look at some of his non-war paintings which first attracted me to him.


Most of the information and facts  for this blog came from books which I have mentioned as well as the excellent Spartacus Educational website.