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1916 Altered States

A very misty morning. German attack at dawn preceded by heavy artillery bombardment … the casualties during the afternoon were heavy, bringing the total for the day to eight officers killed, four wounded, and nearly two hundred and fifty rank & file killed and wounded.1

This impersonal record of the fighting in France on 12 March 1915 from the diary of the 1st Battalion the Highland Light Infantry does little to capture the tragic consequences for families back home. One of the soldiers killed that day was the fiancé of Sir George Clausen’s daughter, Katherine. In response to this heartbreaking event, Clausen exhibited his moving testament, Youth Mourning not only to commemorate the young men that had died but also to acknowledge the grief of those at home (Fig. 1). 

Contemporary reviewers were mostly complimentary and responded to the painting’s pathos, describing the “maiden kneeling in sorrow in a field sown with thin, white crosses. She is more than a child, less than a mother.” The reviewer also notes that among the crosses, flowers are beginning to grow, but finds little consolation in the coming of spring. The “memories of brief young love” are “slender white crosses! Youth is mourning youth. Spring is in the field, but has no lover.”2

In the same Exhibition, hung another artist’s most intensely personal responses to the war and his own loss: Charles Sims’ Clio and the Children was not obviously about grief and in fact one reviewer felt that: “the picture which would be better without Clio” (Fig. 2).3 Sims had painted this work in 1913, when he was living at Fittleworth, West Sussex and the painting depicts Clio, the Greek Muse of History, reading to a group of children in a still Sussex landscape. Initially designed as a serene and idyllic image, Sims returned to the painting in 1915, after the death in service of his eldest son, and grief-stricken, he added bloody red stains to Clio’s scroll. Sims had come to believe that the war had forever violated the innocence of youth and that History’s lessons were brutal rather than noble ones. The reviewer in The Times, however, did not find this a telling addition and thought that: “the stain of blood on her robe is merely irrelevant … as if the artist felt that he ought not now to be expressing his own natural enjoyment of pleasant things.”4 With our knowledge of the artist’s grief, this seems a harsh judgement, particularly as Sims suffered a nervous breakdown after the war and eventually took his own life in 1928.

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It is interesting, however, that in the painting, the desolate figure of Clio, hopelessly bowed over her scroll, is somewhat subsumed into the depiction of an idyllic summer afternoon, the vast expanse of almost cloudless sky and the group of entranced children. It is only when armed with specific knowledge that the pathos of the picture can be truly appreciated. For Sims, the daubing of the scroll with blood red was a profound act but in the busy exhibition space of the Royal Academy, the meaning was obscured.

While Sims’ picture was altered less than two years after it was painted, Clausen’s work, and in some ways its meaning, were also altered twelve years after it was painted. Youth Mourning was presented to the Imperial War Museum in 1929 but by then the painting had been altered.5 It was thought to have been repainted in 1928, possibly at the request of C.N. Luxmoore, before Clausen gave the picture to the Museum. Today the painting has only one, slightly larger, brown cross. All the white crosses have been painted out, so that the forest of “slender white crosses” and the three crosses immediately behind the figure have disappeared. In their place, the effects of war are indicated in the landscape only by bomb craters filled with water.

The removal of the crosses significantly changes the painting. The impact of the sheer number of crosses present in the original version must have resounded with many people by this stage in the war. On 1 July 1916, the Battle of the Somme commenced and in that first day almost 20,000 died. The representation of just one cross gives a more religious, elegiac feel to the painting and perhaps hints at a degree of acceptance in the light of ten years of peace. The vulnerability of the naked prostrate figure in the blighted landscape, however, still retains its power to be affecting.

Contemporary reviewers were sensitive to issues surrounding the representation of the conflict. The Times thought that: “the question is whether an effort ought not to be made to bring Art into contact with Reality when the reality is so great and noble as it is at the present moment”  and that this “mighty war … these great events and emotions in the midst of which we are living ought not to be left without being recorded in the best possible way.”6 Certainly reports of attendances on the First Shilling Day on 1 May were of “a good deal of khaki, mostly officers bringing ladies … and there were also Navy men, but in smaller numbers.” However, there was also an acknowledgement that it was difficult to really represent “the huddled, unexpected rough-and-tumble” of the war.7 

There were other artists who exhibited more symbolic paintings in reaction to the conflict, including Frank Brangwyn’s Mater Dolorosa Belgica, but the simplicity of both Sims’ and Clausen’s paintings have a continued resonance today. As one reviewer explained, it “makes one feel that perhaps the war has intensified the emotions of our landscape painters.”8

  1. WO 95/3929/1, 1 Battalion Highland Light Infantry, August 1914–December 1915, The National Archives, Kew, quoted in↩︎

  2. The Illustrated London News, 13 May 1916, 630.↩︎

  3. The Times, 29 April 1916, 6.↩︎

  4. The Times, 29 April 1916, 6.↩︎

  5. Imperial War Museum, IWM ART 4655,↩︎

  6. The Times, 5 May 1916, 9.↩︎

  7. The Illustrated London News, 13 May 1916, 630.↩︎

  8. The Illustrated London News, 13 May 1916, 630.↩︎

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Explore the 1916 catalogue