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.

The future of small military museums?

On a recent visit to the city of York I took the opportunity to visit the refurbished York Army Museum. The museum combines the collections and stories of the Yorkshire Regiment and the Royal Dragoon Guards. It is tucked away behind an unassuming frontage opposite Clifford’s Tower in the centre of the city. But despite its exterior this museum is, to my mind, an exemplar of where small military museums should be heading if they are survive and thrive in an increasingly challenging environment.

In the past the average regimental museum consisted of a series of glass cases full of old uniforms, weapons, dioramas and memorabilia. Supplemented in many instances by a medal room packed from floor to ceiling with the gongs of former members of the regiment.  Now don’t get me wrong, as a youngster these museums fascinated and inspired me. But the interpretation and display techniques used were a reflection of the wider world.  In those days, when video games were limited to the famous but very basic Pong, no one would have expected to see anything more advanced than a short film to enhance their museum visit.

The world has, of course, moved on since those days, and museum interpretation has kept pace. Today no self-respecting museum or heritage site is complete without audio-visual presentations, and hands-on and electronic interactive exhibits.  In a good museum these complement the original artefacts in cases, interpretive panels, timelines and other ways of allowing the visitor to access the museum’s story. Today it would be wrong not to have this blend of interpretation, or to provide it in a layered manner, allowing the visitor to approach the subject in a manner commensurate with their level of understanding or interest.  And here I return to the York Army Museum.

This gem amongst small military museums is a model for how they should be.  It reopened in May 2015 after an extensive £1million upgrade supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Employing a wide variety of interpretation techniques, it tells the story of the Yorkshire Regiment and the Royal Dragoon Guards, and their antecedent regiments.

The initial impression on entering the building is of a traditional small museum, where an enthusiastic and helpful volunteer mans the reception desk. But heading downstairs into the main gallery space the revelation begins. Here the recent upgrade is a very evident with a bright and airy feel, clean lines and a bold interpretive approach. The main exhibition space is organised into six zones. There is an Introduction and a Timeline to help orientation. A third section called The Sharp End looks at combat, whilst a fourth covers the sprit and community of the Regimental System. The Soldiering On zone examines aspects of military culture such as bravery and duty. The final zone called The Yorkshire Soldier brings the story to a conclusion and highlights what today’s Yorkshire soldiers are doing. These act as chapters in the museum, keeping the story telling tight and provide a helpful handrail for the visitor.

Throughout the content is thoughtfully displayed. There are some stunning large artefacts such as the ‘Warhorse’ style cavalry figure (pictured above) and a 95% life-size cutaway diagram of a Second World War M4A2 Sherman.  The timeline mentioned earlier snakes around the museum showing each of the regimental histories in parallel, a very useful device to help contextualise the exhibits.  Interspersed throughout the zones are films and interactive displays, both physical and electronic, to engage all audiences. There is of course the usual collection of military uniforms, weaponry and equipment, all beautifully and imaginatively presented. Somewhat alarmingly I discovered that the three generations of rifle that I had used in my military career (from CCF cadet to regular officer) are all now museum pieces, along with various generations of uniform and personal equipment!  Finally there is a good selection of personal stories and reflections that add that important ‘individual colour’ to such a place.

My opening premise was that this museum is an exemplar.  Ok it doesn’t have the impact or scale of the Imperial War Museum or the National Army Museum (both of which have or are going though their own upgrades, and perhaps more on them in future episodes). But the York Army Museum doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not. What it does, it does very well, and that is to be a modern and forward looking regimental museum.  I think this can be put down to the sensible and pragmatic approach that seems to have been taken. There can be few regimental museums, or other small military museums, that can remain viable on their own. The sort of partnership seen here between two different regimental associations allows economies of scale and has, I suspect, also aided financial stability. The combined regimental stories, delivered as they are using modern interpretive approaches make for an accessible, varied and entertaining offering. The effect is a product that other small military museums, and for that matter other smaller museums covering other subject areas, could learn a great deal from.