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1917 A Khaki Academy

Visitors to the 1917 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, the third to take place during the First World War, were greeted with an “omnipresence” of war paintings throughout the galleries.1 The war had created an uncertain and unpredictable market for the country’s artists and in a bid to interest the public and secure sales and future commissions, many artists had turned to the most topical event of the day for inspiration: the war itself.

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Portraits of politicians, generals, commanders, colonels, and lieutenants were featured throughout the exhibition. The Welsh artist Christopher Williams painted a three-quarter length portrait of the newly appointed Prime Minister David Lloyd George—the first of five which he would paint during his career (Fig. 1). The Royal Academician Sir Luke Fildes contributed a portrait of one of his sons, Geoffrey Fildes, who was on active service on the Western Front with the Coldstream Guards. William Orpen, in contrast, chose men with distinguished military careers as his subject matter. His offerings to the Exhibition included a portrait of Sir John Cowans, who had acted as the Quartermaster-General to the Forces, one of the most senior positions in the British Army, and a portrait of Colonel Elkington, who had been awarded the Distinguished Service Award in the previous year.

The focus on famous men and famous incidents may have attracted the public’s attention, but it did not guarantee a warm reception from the press. According to The Times, the war paintings on display were “tawdry” and “vulgar”.2 They were artistically “of no account” and, more damningly, had “the same relation to the art of painting that Madame Tussaud’s waxworks have to the art of sculpture.”3 Furthermore, other examples failed to rise above the status of “uninspired newspaper illustrations” and were regarded as “trite and puerile”.4 Only one war painting seemed to be immune to the criticism.

The painting of Jack “The Boy” Cornwall, created by Frank Salisbury, who was well known in Britain for his portraiture and canvases of historical events, was hung in the chief position in Gallery III (Fig. 2). In expectation of its popularity, the painting was also selected as the frontispiece of the Royal Academy Illustrated. Salisbury had depicted a recent and well-documented event, with a hugely popular figure at its centre. Born in 1900, Jack “The Boy” Cornwall joined the Royal Navy aged just fifteen years and, after completing his basic training, was assigned to the HMS Chester. On 31 May 1916, Chester came under heavy gunfire during the Battle of Jutland, which killed all of its gun crew, all except one. Cornwall, despite his own wounds, managed to remain at his post for fifteen minutes until the Chester was directed to safety. He died two days later. He received a public funeral in London. He was posthumously awarded with the Victoria Cross, the highest award for gallantry in the face of the enemy, which his mother personally accepted from King George V at a ceremony, held at Buckingham Palace. Charitable funds were set up in his name. His face adorned stamps and 21 September 1916 was renamed “Jack Cornwall Day”. For his deeds, Cornwall had earned the nation’s respect; he was, in the truest sense of the word, a war hero. And like any other war hero, he was quickly immortalised on canvas.

Salisbury, of course, was not present on the burning deck. In order to secure a likeness of the boy hero, it is believed that he used one of Jack’s older brothers as a model during the painting process and although there is a degree of accuracy in the details of the painting, such as the naval gun, the rest is based on the artist’s imagination. This is peculiar, because since the first Summer Exhibition of the war, the critics had blasted artists who did not rely on fact to depict the events of war in their work. Critics felt this resulted in representations with “little evidence of sincerity and of reliance upon personal observation.”5 With this critique in mind, Salisbury’s work should have been an easy target. Yet, despite the artwork having a chief position in the Exhibition, the same cannot be said of its place in the newspaper reviews.

In their reviews, the critics expressed a feeling of inadequacy when presented with the painting. The Times simply said of the work that, “we can say nothing, except that it was painted for the Admiralty.”6 The Globe merely commented that the picture of “heroic action” was “given an important position”.7 Noticeable by its absence is any reference to the painting’s aesthetic qualities or artistic contribution. The painting was not discussed, critiqued, or reviewed—it was merely mentioned. Ultimately, the critics pondered how pictures of such raw and emotive events could be “regarded critically, [when] so tremendous is the pressure of the wonderful facts of their subject matter.”8 The image of the boy hero, honoured throughout the nation, had rendered the critics impotent. 

The Summer E xhibition of 1917 can be defined as a news show, rather than an art show. Artistic merit had been sidelined by the topical subject matter depicted. For the public, the interest in art may have lessened, but The Manchester Guardian concluded that during the war years, the “interest in news is stronger than ever, and so the Academy will continue to prosper.”9

  1. “A Khaki Academy”, The Pall Mall Gazette, 5 May 1917, 8.↩︎

  2. “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 5 May 1917, 9.↩︎

  3. P.G. Konody, “Art & Artists: The Royal Academy”, The Observer, 6 May 1917, 5.↩︎

  4. “A Khaki Academy”, The Pall Mall Gazette, 5 May 1917, 8.↩︎

  5. P.G. Konody, “The Royal Academy: War Pictures at Burlington House”, The Observer, 2 May 1915, 13.↩︎

  6. “The Royal Academy”, The Times, 5 May 1917, 9.↩︎

  7. “Round the Galleries: Pictures and People of Celebrity at the Royal Academy Exhibition”, The Globe, 5 May 1917, 6.↩︎

  8. J.B. “The Third War Academy”, The Manchester Guardian, 7 May 1917, 6.↩︎

  9. J.B. “The Third War Academy”, The Manchester Guardian, 7 May 1917, 6.↩︎

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