Following our spotlight on British war poets, we will now take a look at three great British war artists; Stanley Spencer, David Bomberg, and Paul Nash.
Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was a man of strong Christian faith and focused on recreating Biblical scenes through his paintings. But from 1927 to 1932 he created the most extraordinary commemoration of the Great War by painting the interior of the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere. It is a small rectangular chapel, but walking into it is like being transported through time and into the battlefields of France. There are nineteen paintings covering three walls. He spent four years planning the chapel before he started painting. He started each painting on the top left and worked his way down to the bottom left, a method that was both unorthodox and certainly would not have been taught to him at art school.
He did not want to portray the horrors of war. The paintings of the North wall (on the left as you enter the chapel) reflect his own experiences as a medical orderly at Beaufort Hospital, Bristol, and on the East wall he instilled his own beliefs with a resurrection scene that creates a marvellous illusion of depth through myriad crosses, somewhat similar to a Renaissance painting.
Spencer was short of stature at little more than 5 feet in height, which somehow makes the chapel an even grander achievement.
The Sandham Memorial Chapel is well worth visiting, it is like Britain’s own mini-version of the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo.
David Bomberg (1890-1957) was a contemporary of Spencer’s at the Slade School of Art, London. One of his most famous pieces is “Billet”, which showed the artist’s sense of foreboding as he painted it before he went to fight in 1915 when he enlisted in the Royal Engineers, transferring in 1916 to the King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
He certainly was not caught up in the nation’s jingoism and celebration of war. It was probably this that meant the British government refused to consider him an official war artist. However, he gained a commission from the Canadian War Memorial fund, which provided him with the finance to carry on painting. He was given the title “Sappers at Work”, Sappers were a Canadian tunnelling company.
He favoured paintings that were complex geometric patterns influenced by cubism and futurism, but later on he became opposed to abstraction and preferred to depict clear presentations of people and their actions. His work was admired by another war artist, Paul Nash.
Paul Nash (1889-1946) was a surrealist painter, who reluctantly enlisted for home service in the Second Battalion. But he did not become a war artist until he was invalided in 1917 and used his recovery time to work from sketches to create paintings that were well received in exhibitions at the Goupil Gallery and then in Birmingham.
He made strong emotional responses to the war in painting and poetic language, as demonstrated by this extract from a letter to his wife:
“Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of this war, and no glimmer of God’s hand is seen anywhere. Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green-white water, the roads and tracks are covered in inches of slime, the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease.”
This passage highlights an ongoing theme throughout Nash’s war art, that of rain and how he used it to depict the misery of war. He even named one of his paintings “Rain”, with the precipitation expressing the desolation of war within a broken, barren landscape.
Interestingly, the art created by these and other war painters during the actual conflict is of a much higher value than anything they created thereafter. The interest in the war generates demand in the pieces, thus driving up their value.