Artists who offered a different perspective on the First World War

An image from the exhibition Spence: The Art of War at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. (Picture: Simon Hill).
An image from the exhibition Spence: The Art of War at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. (Picture: Simon Hill).
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As an exhibition of watercolours goes on display at the Royal Armouries, Chris Bond asks whether First World War art has the same impact as its poetry.

If you asked people to name well known poets from the First World War it’s a fair bet they would trot out some of the following names – Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sassoon, John McCrae and, most famous of all, Wilfred Owen.

To that list they might also add Robert Graves, Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney, and numerous others.

In Flanders Fields, McCrae’s memorable poem, sowed the seeds of the association of poppies – that blow “Between the crosses, row on row” – with the war itself in the public’s imagination.

For many people today the war also conjures pictures of weary soldiers “knock-kneed, coughing like hags” as they wade through “the sludge” of the trenches.

These vivid images taken from Owen’s Dulce et Decorum Est, along with those from the likes of Edward Thomas’s Lights Out and Sassoon’s Suicide in the Trenches, have come to shape the modern world’s perception of what Ted Hughes called that “huge, senseless war”.

But while the war poets and their work have captured the popular imagination and become ingrained in the memory of generations of schoolchildren, the war artists are arguably much less familiar to us.

This is despite the fact that they produced some undeniably brilliant work.

John Singer Sargent’s painting Gassed, which shows a procession of soldiers suffering the after effects of a mustard gas attack leading each other to a dressing station, is a powerful image.

So, too, is John Nash’s visceral Over the Top – inspired by a counter-attack made by his regiment, the 1st Artists’ Rifles, during the Battle of Cambrai – yet these works don’t spring to mind for most people when they think of the Great War.

Nevertheless, art (and those who made it) is an important part of its story and now one of the war artists, Colonel Gilbert Ormerod Spence, is the focus of an exhibition that has just opened at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds.

Spence: The Art of War contains a series of watercolours painted by the Stockton-born artist that depict his time spent in active service between 1915 and 1918.

He painted over 100 watercolours during his time at the Front, illustrating what life was like for ordinary soldiers in the trenches.

Spence led the 5th Durham Light Infantry Brigade through some of the worst battles of the war seeing action at Ypres, the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele, and finally at Estaires, where he was shot.

He survived and spent the remainder of the conflict convalescing only to be killed in a car accident in 1925.

Sadie Scott, Interpretation Officer at the Royal Armouries Museum, says Spence’s work gives us a visual glimpse into life on the Front. “He was a shipbuilder, he didn’t train as an artist like John Nash and Wyndham Lewis and his paintings are very personal. Nash looked at the bigger discussions around the war, while Spence shows where his little bit of the fight was going on.”

The exhibition, on tour from Preston Park Museum, includes 36 prints as well as seven original paintings.

Scott believes artists like Spence deserve greater recognition than they sometimes get. “Everything from the war is a record that we can learn from and these paintings give us an impression of what life was like.

“People hear the words ‘Ypres’ and ‘Passchendaele’ and think of big battles, but these artists show us what the landscapes were actually like and they give us a different perspective.”

Spence: The Art of War is on display at the Royal Armouries, Leeds, and runs until April 29, next year.