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The war painters

Yesterday I attended a lecture on a course on early twentieth century British modernism which covered the World War One painters.

In her introduction the lecturer made the point that one of the reasons why British art tends to be underestimated globally is that is hard to label our national artists. Sir Stanley Spencer and Sir Howard Hodgkin are difficult to catalogue under any ‘ism’. If anything British artists  are associated topographically: the Camden, Fitzrovia, Newlyn , East Anglia schools or the Glasgow Boys

We then considered the work of Paul Nash often described as Britain’s greatest surrealist artist but one whose basic work, the landscape, was changed significantly by his wartime experience on the Ypres Salient where he was gassed. Those pre-war colourful pastoral landscapes and trees were replaced by much darker pictures of broken tree stumps (sympolising the dead) in The Menin Road. Water pools are often used in landscapes to create stasis, a feeling of calm, but here the various pools only contribute to the picture’s apocalyptic quality.

Stanley Spencer was a medical orderly first in a Bristol hospital and then in Salonika. His pictures to be found in his chapel at Sandham depict the nuts and bolts of warfare, the laundry , bed-making not the grime of the trenches of Nash.

War painting and painters have always interested me. To what extent is the war painter given a free rein? In World War One it was forbidden to paint a dead English soldier.

For many artists it is their first chance, their break. Ted Seago, already well established by then, painted alongside Harold Alexander in the Italian campaign of 1944 in the foothills of Chianti before battle.

Ken Howard was appointed official artist by the Imperial War Museum in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles.

He likes to paint in the open air and being a sociable fellow will chat with bystanders. Once whilst he was painting a curious pedestrian asked him a few questions then, satisfied he was not a Brit spy, thoughtfully blew up the car he was painting to make it more interesting.

To be fair, and to answer those critics who say he is little more than an illustrator, his triptych of Northern Ireland is amongst his best works.

Another friend Jason Bowyer was officially artist in Afghanistan and said there was no censorship.

In conclusion, works like The Menin Road  are as moving for me as any of the best war poets in evoking not just the horror of war but exposing the aspiration of conscription that you were making a better world .

About Alice Mansfield

A graduate of the Slade, Alice has painted and written about art all her life. With her children now having now grown up and departed the nest, she recently took up sculpture. More Posts