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At the Imperial War Museum

There is no possibility of anyone escaping the centenary commemorations of the First World War. Events marking its start on 4th August 1914 were already underway earlier this year and many more are planned to mark the years leading to the centenary of the Armistice of 1918. Although the focus of these events is on the countries closely involved in the War from its beginning, the commemorations are worldwide.1 They range from the all-encompassing sweep of the Imperial War Museum’s new First World War Galleries to concentrated examinations of particular aspects of the War and its aftermath. American recruitment posters are on view in San Marino CA; films inspired by the War are being screened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Musée de la Grande Guerre in Meaux is in full flood after its opening two years ago; the British Museum displays medals made in Germany; voices from the Gallipoli Campaign can be heard in Australia and New Zealand; almost every regional museum in Britain has its special display such as one on the considerable impact of the conflict on life in the small town of Beverley in Yorkshire. Related poetry, prose and music are filling the airwaves – from a private’s letters home (salad in a food parcel, not to be repeated) to the ‘bitter truth’ of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon and the music-hall songs of ‘the men who march away’. Even though there is no one now alive who saw active service in the War, the testimony of many, recorded in later years, brings to documentary programmes a vividness and power to move, partly through the self-restraint of another age, that are unavailable from any previous conflict. Some of these words have found their way into an avalanche of books on the origins and history of the War: the Times Literary Supplement noted that centenary publications sent in for review had reached treble figures (8th August, p.32).2

Appropriately, the centrepiece of commemorative exhibitions in Britain is the Imperial War Museum’s account of the War, from the gunshot in Sarajevo to the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. It is a crowded, absorbing and often affecting display, drawing on the unsurpassed resources of the Museum’s collections and curatorial expertise, the exhibition ingeniously designed by Casson Mann. Its innumerable discrete yet continuous sections, each with its own particular subject, wind through the allotted space like thickening vertebrae to form the massive backbone of the exhibition’s concept. Its eloquence is enhanced by up-to-date digital technology, archival film and the ever-present but not overwhelming sound of bombardment. The deteriorating landscape of the battlefields and the physical conditions of the trenches is strikingly conveyed through a reconstructed trench, as well as text and photographs. A film clip of artillerymen loading shells is extraordinarily arresting in its mix of know-how, nonchalance and anxiety. Every section tells a story: the response of the British Empire; the intervention of America in 1917; war poets and painters; the development of weapons and the effects of gas and shell-shock; and, of course, life on the Home Front, taking in food and supplies; munitions factories (Fig.I); the role of women; the introduction of conscription in 1916; and the Zeppelin raids on London and elsewhere. All these topics are brilliantly choreographed down to the smallest detail. There may be reservations here and there about what is and is not encapsulated, particularly perhaps about the internal political ramifications of each country involved, but no one could disagree with the centrality of the experiences of the serving soldiers, shown neither as heroes nor victims, but as individuals ensnared in catastrophic events.

Works by some of Britain’s Official War Artists such as William Orpen, C.R.W. Nevinson and Paul Nash are included at strategic moments in the First World War Galleries, but a separate exhibition at the Museum, Truth and Memory (to 8th March), surveys all aspects of war art during and immediately after the conflict. Selected from the Museum’s permanent collection, and joined by several loans, it is a varied and sometimes surprising display. Much of the work did its job very competently as reportage and information, especially on the Home Front: we have a good idea of what the interiors of hospitals and factories looked like. Making images from the battlefield was obviously more complex and commissioned art was subject to vigilant censorship. Drawings and sketches were made on the spot or in base headquarters but paintings on a larger scale were invariably made on leave or shortly after the War (Fig.IV). Paul Nash made studies for his celebrated Menin Road  at the Front but painted it in the English countryside in 1919. Nash’s swift maturity from poetic English watercolourist to confident painter in oils of the lacerated landscape of No Man’s Land constitutes one of the great imaginative leaps of war art, recognised by commentators at the time. It is comparable to the rapid evolution of Wilfred Owen from purveyor of Keatsian pastoral to the greatest English poet of the War (and still virtually unpublished before his death just a few days before the Armistice). Nash and Nevinson are finely represented at the Museum, even if the latter’s achievement fares less well, for all its cubo-journalistic immediacy. Several artists maintained a thoughtful line between private feelings and public statement.

When the assembled works by Official War Artists destined for the Imperial War Museum were shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1919–20, a reviewer in this Magazine gave an account of the show which holds up well to present-day assessments. The writer (the article is signed only ‘X.’) commends the lack of ‘bombast and sentiment’, praises useful and ‘honest observation’ and remarks that ‘moral outrage’ rarely ousts aesthetic concerns.3 There are particular recommendations for the works of Wilson Steer, Henry Tonks, Stanley Spencer (see Fig.29 on p.594 below), the Nash brothers (John Nash’s Over the Top and Oppy Wood, 1917,evening, Fig.II, are in the current exhibition), Eric Kennington (Fig.III), William Roberts and Wyndham Lewis, the last two representing the ‘progressive’ end of the commissions.

Many British artists in that exhibition were also engaged to paint records, alongside their Canadian contemporaries, for the Canadian War Memorials scheme. This materialised in 1916 through the efforts of the Canadian press baron Lord Beaverbrook, in partnership with Lord Rothermere, both contributing the initial funding. Familiar names from a range of British artists painted often very large canvases: William Nicholson, for example, had to use an enormous temporary studio to accommodate his masterly Headquarters Staff of the Canadian Forces(1918); Orpen and Augustus John were especially commissioned into the Canadian Forces in Europe; and the non-combatant Harold Gilman was dispatched to Canada to paint Halifax Harbour, his largest painting, undertaken only on his return to London.4 Highly impressive paintings were produced by David Bomberg, Edward Wadsworth, Lewis, Nash and Roberts (The first German gas attack at Ypres is his masterpiece). These works are now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, but as far as can be ascertained there are no plans for any special display of them. If two or three of these canvases had been borrowed for Truth and Memorythey would have made an already rich exhibition an even more remarkable testament to the inspiration afforded by such terrible events.


1    Selected exhibitions on the First World War are listed within the Calendar (see pp.631–36 below) and marked with an asterisk*.

2    Invidious though it may seem, we single out one example, an astonishing anthology of aerial photographs taken over Flanders: The Great War Seen from the Air. Edited by Birger Stichelbaut and Piet Chielens. (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2014), £40. ISBN 978–0–300–1965–8–0.

3    X.: ‘A Monthly Chronicle’, The Burlington Magazine 36 (1920), pp.94–95.

4    See J. Rolfe: ‘Harold Gilman’s “Halifax Harbour” (1918): a wartime Canadian episode’, The Burlington Magazine 154 (2012), pp.689–93. Gilman’s work (later revised by the artist) was among many Canadian commissions shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1919; the exhibition was reviewed by Randolph Schwabe in this Magazine, 34 (1919), pp.79–80.