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1915 A New Type of War Painting

Explore the 1915 catalogue

In 1915, the first effects of the First World War were felt on the Summer Exhibition. In a wholly unprecedented move, the Annual Dinner usually held to celebrate the Exhibition’s opening was cancelled. The critics also noted that the visitors were different than normal. The Times described the crowd on the first day of the public opening as: “a subdued one, that came later and went away earlier than usual … smaller in number, with a strong element of khaki, ‘Tommies’ being as much in evidence as officers—and a sprinkling of naval men.”1 The Royal Academy, like other institutions throughout the war, had decided to allow free admission to service men in uniform, a policy which explains the reasonable visitor numbers maintained through the duration of the Exhibition. However, it was also the make-up of the artists themselves that proved interesting to contemporaries: in a nation now at war, many of these were amateur soldier-artists.2

The start of the war had unleashed a huge public appetite for visual images, reports, and other stories from the Front.3 This came across in reviews of the Exhibition that year, when the critics demanded that: “art should be doing its bit like all the other activities of the realm”.4 Critics seem to have unanimously wanted to be moved by the pictures they saw. Frank Rutter wrote in The Sunday Times:

In the stirring days in which we live, when every morning we are touched by the recital in the newspaper of some act of heroism, is it too much to expect our painters to rise to the occasion and to affect us profoundly by something they have seen or imagined?5 

At the Academy, however, this plea was not necessarily manifested in successful battle paintings.

Although artists’ images of the Front were widespread in popular journals like The Graphic and The Illustrated London News, there were only a handful at the Academy Exhibition in 1915, and those that were exhibited failed to meet the critics’ standards of veracity. The Illustrated London News complained that:

the war is held at rather more than arm’s length by the painters … In no case has the easel been set up within sight of the trenches, and only in one or two cases do you receive so much as an impression of actuality or come up against things that bear themselves as if they had been seen by the very eyes of the man who sets them down.6

The critics wanted to see the new technologies and the impact of modern warfare such as aeroplanes and tanks; instead, the Academy hung pictures like John Charlton’s Retreat from the Marne which—with its chaotic scene of fleeing horses and injured men but no hint of the changes of early twentieth-century combat—could have been painted thirty years previously.

At the other extreme, the walls of the Academy were littered not with battle paintings but with works that represented an escapist idyll, generally alluding to another time or period and invariably with some mention of peace in the title.7 These works represented an important visual counterpart to the battle paintings. They included Benjamin William Leader’s landscape Peace, a scene, accompanied by a quotation from William Morris, which made it clear that this was a recreation of the bucolic August harvest from the previous year: a very different setting and time from the events that had taken place subsequently. While Leader’s image was set in characteristic English countryside, others such as Thomas Edwin Mostyn’s The Garden of Peace took the viewer to a wholly imagined garden, although one whose classical urns and draped figures set the scene broadly within the context of seventeenth-century landscape painting (Fig. 1). Mostyn’s image of a setting sun over a verdant garden, replete with pond and overflowing fountain creates a visual serenity that was presented as a much needed contrast to the horrors taking place on the Western Front.

But there was another category of war picture that began to win praise at the 1915 Exhibition: the depiction of humanity and heroism on the home front. It was John Lavery’s large painting Wounded: London Hospital, which won universal acclaim from multiple critics (Fig. 2). Depicting the inhabitants of a hospital ward, the painting has all of the fashionable portrait painter’s attention to detail. Casting our eye down the sweep of the ward, little vignettes appear: a doctor and nurse attending to an injured soldier in a wheel chair; a one-legged soldier hobbling on crutches in the centre of the ward; and to the right, the sight of visitors attending to their loved ones, the small symbolic signs of fruit and flowers brightening up bedside tables. The main focus of the piece, however, is the central foreground pair of a nurse treating the arm of a wounded soldier; beside her, a whole trolley of glass receptacles, cotton wool, and bandages—the tools of her trade.

Lavery’s attention to detail fulfilled the need of the critics and public for a careful and authentic representation of the war, albeit on the home front. The Illustrated London News declared:

this canvas is the work of an eye witness. It is filled with the authentic air of the ward, and is extraordinarily well versed in all the arts of representation, from the painting of the nurse’s india rubber gloves, to the rendering of a prostrate sufferer’s face of pain.8

Yet it was not just authenticity which the critics admired: they also saw beauty in Lavery’s skilful depiction of a light-filled, long, spacious room and in the humanity of those caring for the sick. The Manchester Guardian critic wrote that the painting seemed to say: “Look what a hopeful world this is when beauty is everywhere present, even in a house of pain,”9 while Rutter wrote: “Although pain and suffering are there, the accent is not on them but on their alleviation.”10 The entire scene takes place under a billowing union jack flag, entwining national pride with the home front war effort. Lavery’s painting did not just entrance the critics, but also the public, acting as a “magnet” to many of the spectators and evoking a blend of compassion and patriotism that was lost both in traditional war and peace pictures.

  1. “Popular Academy Pictures”, The Times, 4 May 1915, 11.↩︎

  2. “Artists in Khaki”, The Times, 27 April 1915, 5.↩︎

  3. James Fox, British Art and the First World War, 1914–1924 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).↩︎

  4. “Art and the War”, The Manchester Guardian, 1 May 1915, 10.↩︎

  5. Frank Rutter, “The Academy”, The Sunday Times, 2 May 1915, 16.↩︎

  6. “The War and the Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 8 May 1915, 592.↩︎

  7. This point is made in Fox, British Art and the First World War, 1914–1924.↩︎

  8. “The War and the Academy”, The Illustrated London News, 8 May 1915, 592.↩︎

  9. “Art and the War”, The Manchester Guardian, 1 May 1915, 10.↩︎

  10. Frank Rutter, “The Academy”, The Sunday Times, 2 May 1915, 16.↩︎

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Explore the 1915 catalogue