Dr. Caroline Palmer assistant at the Ashmolean Oxford’s Western Art Print Room gave a thought-provoking talk on 11 November 2015 looking more closely at the works in the Artists under Fire Exhibition which was held at the museum before Christmas.
The works are on paper so they cannot be displayed for long periods of time so have rarely been on public view. With the centenary years of the First World War now underway Dr Palmer was interested in what was in her collection from this time and thanks to the hard work of volunteers more and more works were found.
Dr Palmer introduced the talk by looking at the portrayal of war over time – generally the depiction is of the grandeur and bravery – and at the artistic styles that were prevalent around the time of the First World War.
“I was struck by the mixture of styles,” she said. There is the post-impressionism from France, futurism from Italy, abstract and futuristic styles.
The exhibition contrasts the propaganda pieces and works of the official war artists and those artists simply either caught up accidentally in the war or who independently wish to capture the war.
In 1917, towards the end of the war, the Efforts and Ideals series was commissioned by the Propaganda Bureau of the Ministry of Information. Public morale, after the Battle of the Somme was very low, Dr Palmer explained and so 18 artists were invited to contribute.
Palmer said the Ideals pieces were not critically well-received. There is much more symbolic imagery than we would expect to see today, such as the personification of countries as shown in the illustrations of showing France and Italy.
She said that the Efforts series of illustrations were well received. They were grouped into nine sets of six illustrations following a particular theme. One of the themes was ‘Making Soldiers’– she believes they were, “so successful because he uses the light and the dark of the lithograph so well.”
Palmer showed us two of the illustrations produced by Eric Kennington, ‘Into the Trenches,’ and ‘Over the Top’ and noted that soldiers faces were rarely seen but the very anonymity of them made them striking. Viewers are left with the horror over what is likely happen in the time after that caught by the image. Another striking image is that produced by Martin Hardie, Crossing the Piare (a river in Italy) – showing the soldiers in transit.
Another set is entitled ‘Tending the Wounded’ – which made the wounded soldiers part of the propaganda by showing how well they were being looked after.
Other sets looked at the wider war effort such as ‘Building Ships’ featuring the work of Muirhead Bone, George Clausen’s ‘Making Guns’ and Charles Pear’s ‘Transport at Sea’.
There is also a set by Archiband Standish Hartrick ‘Women’s Work’ showing how they had taken over the work of men in factories and on the land. It was noted that unlike some of the anonymous soldiers featured the faces of the women were very much in view.
Looking back at the work at the beginning of the war Palmer said, “Most of the work produced was low-key and realistic”.
She showed the image of Stanley Anderson’s “Mobilisation Day in Paris” which took a second glance to understand that those people on the bridge were going off to war. Palmer said that Anderson just happened to be in Paris studying art. Palmer also showed us work by Gerald Spenser Pryse who took a job as a dispatch driver so he could record views of the War. There are 10 pieces of his work in the Ashmolean collection.
Among the official war artists there are examples of artists painting artists, who were now also soldiers. Palmer showed us Captain Martin Hardie by James McBey and Henry Rushbury by Francis Dodd.
There was also an interest in the uniforms of the soldiers, for example in the work of Augustus John, commissioned by Canadian War Memorials. A costume designer, Claude Lovat Fraser showed in his illustrations how there was no real organisation in styles of the army uniform at the beginning of the war.
Palmer said that despite the horror of the War there were also elements of its power that must have excited the artists – she showed works by Sydney Carline and Christopher Nevinson of the views of the ground from aircraft in an age when flying was very new.
She said that these illustrations were an important record of the First World War and stood as a testimony to the soldiers that had fought in it.
A more detailed look at the works of Muirhead Bone will take place at the museum on 28th April 2016 at 5pm when Dr Harry Dickson will give a talk on the artist accompanied by drawing and prints from the Ashmolean Museum print room archive. Contact the museum if you wish to attend. The event costs £10, which includes a drink.
Although the the Artists under Fire exhibition has now ended there is an online exhibition which can be found at www.ashmolean.org/exhibitions/artistsunderfire/
You can also contact Print Room staff and view the works themselves at the Ashmolean Oxford. To arrange this go to www.ashmolean.org/departments/westernart/printroom/.