Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War

Tin Hat
Jacob Epstein’s ‘The Tin Hat’.

The First World War, like many wars, inspired a plethora of artistic creativity. Books such as Robert Graves ‘Goodbye to All That’ and Erich Maria Remarque’s ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ are well-known, indeed often studied in schools. Likewise Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke and other war poets have, even today, a disproportionate influence in shaping our collective thinking about the First World War. To my mind the ‘Cinderella’ in these artistic influences is the field of painting and sculpture.  A whole raft of work of this genre of visual arts did appear during and after the War, some privately and some produced by official war artists, yet I suspect many people would struggle to name even one artist, although they would probably recognise their work.

A couple of weekends ago I visited an exhibition at the York Art Gallery which is playing its part in redressing this situation. Entitled ‘Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War’ it brings together a collection of more than sixty works of art, both paintings and sculptures, in order to celebrate and reflect on the artistic output the War produced. It includes works by Paul Nash, John Nash, Wyndham Lewis, Stanley Spencer, William Roberts, CRW Nevinson, William Orpen, Anna Airy, Dorothy Coke and sculptors Jacob Epstein and Charles Sargeant Jagger.  The exhibition is summarised in the accompanying blurb as follows:

‘Working either privately or as official war artists, they wanted to give a true sense of the horror, human sacrifice and tragic consequences of ‘total war’.

They reflected this in their fragmented depictions of soldiers, trenches, artillery, and in images of a torn and violated landscape. Modern artistic movements stressed the mechanised nature of the war and the new destruction this brought.

These artists searched for reason and meaning in the conflict, finding ways to capture and commemorate the events of the First World War both at home and on the front lines and helped form a collective memory that remains with us a century later.’

Advertised as the largest exhibition of First World War art for almost one hundred years, it was first shown in the Imperial War Museum in London, but is now on display in York in a revised form which includes pieces from York’s own collections to give it a unique flavour.

John Nash Over the Top
‘Over The Top’ by John Nash (the left hand of these two paintings.)

Arranged over three rooms on the ground floor of the gallery, the exhibition is beautifully presented and very engaging.  The mix of paintings and sculpture is well-balanced and is a superb showcase of the art of the period. There are some items with which even those with only a passing knowledge of the art of the period will be familiar, such as John Nash’s ‘Over The Top’ (seen above). Others will, I expect, be unknown to most visitors but the mix of familiar and new makes for a fascinating visit.

There are three pieces that I would highlight and which to me capture the spirit of this collection.  First, shown at the top of this blog post, is a bronze bust by Jacob Epstein entitled ‘The Tin Hat’ (1916).  It is a simple piece crafted in Epstein’s recognisable style. It depicts a British soldier of the First World War his face an encapsulation of the stoic determination displayed by those who served on the Western Front. His steel helmet is worn at a jaunty angle and to me he is the epitome of the British First World War ‘Tommy’, although in many respects he could represent the British soldier of almost any era. Displayed alone on a plinth in the centre of the central room of this exhibition, it is a powerful and evocative piece.

Nash Menin Road
‘The Menin Road’ by Paul Nash in situ at York Art Gallery.

The second item I would highlight is ‘The Menin Road’ (1919) by Paul Nash (older brother of John Nash mentioned above.) Paul Nash was an official war artist and in April 1918 was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to paint a picture for a proposed National Hall of Remembrance. He chose as his subject the Ypres Salient, and between June 1918 and February 1919 completed this large 60 foot square picture. He used striking imagery to create a vivid picture of the battlefield.  Water-filled shell holes, tree stumps and battlefield debris set against a dark brooding sky, capture for me the appalling conditions the soldiers on the Western Front had to endure.  The image is iconic and to see it ‘in the flesh’ is very moving.

Airy Pics
Two pictures by Anna Airy, an official war artist. The left hand picture is ‘A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London’ (1918).

The final work that I would highlight is one of a set by the artist Anna Airy and is entitled ‘A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London’ (1918).  Airy was an established painter before the War and was one of the first women to be officially commissioned as a war artist. She was given a number of commissions to capture the conditions in, and work of, the factories making war machinery and munitions.  The exhibition includes a number of her works but this one stood out. It very effectively pictures the working conditions inside a factory forging shell cases.  Her depiction of the red hot shells being forged is so lifelike one can almost feel the heat radiating from them as you stand before the painting.

In summary this is a tremendous exhibition. To get such a rich collection of First World War art together outside London is a great coup for York Art Gallery, for which they are to be commended, and has probably contributed to the gallery being shortlisted in the annual Art Fund Museum of the Year competition. As a collection it provides a fascinating and engaging insight, and as I alluded to at the start of this blog post, an interesting contrast to the books and poetry that we perhaps more commonly associate with the First World War.  The exhibition is currently running in the York Art Gallery until 4 September 2016, and I urge everyone to pay a visit. You will not be disappointed!

York Gallery General View
A general view of one of the three rooms housing ‘Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War’ exhibition at the York Art Gallery.