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1918 At War with the Bayes Brothers

Reviewers of the 1918 Summer Exhibition tended to agree on one thing: that the majority of the art which tackled the subject of the war failed to do it justice. “Art, however, so far as it is represented here, has done nothing at all to give these great realities a permanent vehement expression which will tell future ages how the nation felt in these terrible, apocalyptic years”, noted one critic,1 while another grumbled “about war pictures, either realistic, sentimental, or allegorical, it is useless to speak. They all fail.”2 Alfred Priest’s simply titled Got’im was singled out for particular criticism, as being indicative of “the old illustrated weekly school of battle-drawing […] showing Germans stuffed with sawdust fighting British wire dolls.”3 Frank Salisbury’s King George and Queen Mary Visiting the Battle Districts of France, meanwhile, was criticised for making the king look like “a musical comedy girl in khaki”.4 Other exhibits were written off as being either dull, unconvincing, or overly melodramatic. The fact that the war was still raging ensured that nuance had little part to play when it came to political statements. David Jagger’s striking painting The Bolshevik, depicting a tousled and fanatical Russian screeching in front of a tattered red flag, was clearly calculated to scare viewers out of their wits.

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Two men seem to have risen victorious from the critical battlefield: a sculptor and a painter, who also happened to be brothers. The Bayes family had long-standing connections with the Royal Academy. Their father, Alfred Walter, had exhibited there in the 1860s and 1870s—and though he encouraged his four children not to follow him into the arts, all but one of them did.5 The elder brother, Walter, trained at Westminster School of Art and at the Académie Julian in Paris, first sending work to the Academy in the 1890s. In the 1900s, Walter took to teaching and art criticism, developing a style and aesthetic standpoint that drew him away from the Academy and into more self-consciously progressive circles. Clearly inspired by the examples of Augustus John and Walter Sickert—many of his paintings from this period are indistinguishable from those of his contemporaries—Walter Bayes exhibited with the Camden Town Group and the Allied Artists Association before the First World War, and was appointed Principal of the Westminster School of Art in 1918. His brother Gilbert had, meanwhile, become an accomplished sculptor, training at the Royal Academy Schools in the late 1890s and producing a versatile portfolio of work—from busts to medals to cabinets—before the war, drawing on his interest in the New Sculpture and arts and crafts ideals.6

The two brothers clearly moved in slightly different worlds. In 1918, nevertheless, they both created large works on the subject of war for the Academy Summer Exhibition. Gilbert’s offering, War Equestrian Statue, was the first object seen by most visitors, installed as it was in the courtyard of Burlington House (Fig. 1). The subject—an equestrian statue—was something of a specialty of Gilbert’s, and was the result of a commission from the Art Gallery of New South Wales (where it was joined by a second horse and rider, signifying peace). It has recently been argued that: “Bayes’s equestrian statuettes can be interpreted as a reaffirmation of a strong and vigorous military masculine ideal, cast in a chivalric mode”: an odd theme, it might seem, for a sculptor who spent his childhood at the Quaker school in Saffron Waldon.7 Gilbert, nevertheless, seems to have embraced the chivalric mode, drawing widely on art historical tradition (the horse’s resemblance to the Parthenon marbles was noted) to fashion this statement of “heroic strength and valour”.8 The sculpture was especially admired by the critic of The British Architect, who appreciated its virility, “broad simplicity” and “architectural value”.9 A critic at The Saturday Review, however, was less convinced, condemning its “pseudo-heroic” spirit, suggestive of “stage romanticism”.10

The same reviewer thought there was something stagey about Walter Bayes’ offering also, perhaps even a “reluctance to take his subject seriously”. Others would disagree; what couldn’t be doubted, however, was Walter’s ambition. The Underworld, a representation of the interior of Elephant and Castle Tube Station during an air raid, was over two metres tall and almost five and a half metres wide (Fig. 2). It must have seemed to some as though a section of the station platform had been removed and deposited in the galleries. This may have come as a shock to some; after all, the figures in Walter Bayes’ paintings were not exactly heroic. Instead, the painting depicts the pain and boredom of being trapped below ground. The cast of characters, as one critic put it, was “a crowd of frightened, tired, half-dressed refugees”.11 These included a weary young girl in a straw hat, a woman resting a crying baby on her knee, a fashionably dressed lady with a blank expression, several bedraggled soldiers, and various figures sleeping sprawled across the floor, or sitting in a state of partial undress. On the station wall behind can be seen posters for Christopher Nevinson’s exhibition of war work at the Leicester Galleries.

The Underworld was very much a contemporary subject, albeit one that clearly made concessions to design: “bound together”, as another critic put it, “by a strong rhythmic sense and by something engineering in the design and colour which makes it so essentially an expression of the overpowering mechanical warfare of the time, in which the human element seems impotent and unessential”.12 This may be a reference, partly, to the flatness of Bayes’ painting, which speaks to his interest in Post-Impressionist art and decorative wall-painting (for which purpose this was probably been intended). But it may also reflect Walter Bayes’ somewhat different reaction to the realities of the war, as being far removed from the chivalric ideal expressed by Gilbert, and existing on a rather less valiant plain.

  1. J.B. “The Royal Academy”, The Manchester Guardian, 4 May 1918, 7.↩︎

  2. Anon, “The Academy”, The Spectator, 10 May 1918, 12.↩︎

  3. J.B. “The Royal Academy”, The Manchester Guardian, 4 May 1918, 7. The whereabouts of the painting is unknown.↩︎

  4. J.B. “The Royal Academy”, The Manchester Guardian, 4 May 1918, 7.↩︎

  5. Alfred had four children. Of his two daughters, Jessie was also an artist.↩︎

  6. For more on Gilbert Bayes, see Mark Stocker, “Bayes, Gilbert (1872–1953)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, online edn (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).↩︎

  7. Katie Faulkner, “The Good Soldier: Gilbert Bayes and the Chivalric Statuette”, Nineteenth-Century Contexts 36, no. 4 (2014): 307–321.↩︎

  8. Anon, “Notes”, The British Architect, May 1918, 43; J.B. “The Royal Academy”, The Manchester Guardian, 4 May 1918, 7.↩︎

  9. Anon, “Notes”, The British Architect, May 1918, 43.↩︎

  10. Anon, “The Royal Academy”, The Saturday Review, 11 May 1918, 407.↩︎

  11. P.G. Konody, “The Royal Academy”, The Observer, 5 May 1918, 3.↩︎

  12. J.B. “The Royal Academy”, The Manchester Guardian, 4 May 1918, 7.↩︎

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