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Assistant Curator, Victoria Howarth, explores the role of British artists during the First World War and the impact this had on their lives and work.

The First World War had a profound impact on the lives of many artists represented in the Jerwood Collection. The upheavals and dislocations of war had many consequences, disrupting and altering not only the lives of the young men that served, but to some extent all British artists working in this period. Art school training was often put on hold or terminated; artistic careers took unexpected turns with commissions from the British War Memorial Committee and appointments of Official War Artists; artistic movements such as Vorticism (a modernist movement in British art and poetry of the early 20th century) were stopped in their tracks; and the style and subject matter of many artists living between 1914 and 1918 were coloured by the events of this period.

Artists from the Jerwood Collection who served during the war included Percy Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg, William Roberts, Henry Moore, Stanley Spencer, David Jones, Frank Dobson, Bernard Meninsky, Jacob Epstein and Glyn Philpot. Cedric Morris and Matthew Smith were declared unfit for service, the former just before he was meant to sail to France with the Artists Rifles. Smith was given command of one hundred men tasked with clearing battlefields of the dead.

For some artists the war can be seen as crucial to the development of their artistic careers rather than an unfortunate interruption. One year after the end of the war Henry Moore was awarded an ex-serviceman’s grant and became the first student of sculpture at Leeds School of Art. Stanley Spencer was famously inspired by the conflict to create a series of redemptive, religious paintings for the Sandham Memorial Chapel, which are some of the most breath taking works of his career. As well as inspiring subject matter, Spencer’s desire to become an artist was heightened by his time with the 68th Field Ambulance. He wrote: ‘Apart from greed for life I felt I had got a lot up my sleeve that I wanted to produce before I died…As an infantryman, what would have been the use of this insignificant fragment of gun fodder that I was, if I had said to the sergeants, ‘I have a picture at home and I just want to finish it before going into this attack’?’

The war impacted on the lives of those artists not actively serving as well as those on the Western Front. In some cases their artistic talents were used to support the war effort: Augustus John was a war artist producing portraits of Canadian soldiers; Leon Underwood worked camouflaging observation posts; Frank Brangwyn produced artworks used for wartime propaganda posters; and Sybil Andrews worked as a welder in an aeroplane factory. The impact on artists personal lives have been well documented. Ben Nicholson lost both his brother Anthony (killed in action) and his beloved mother in the space of a few months in 1918. Pacifists and conscientious objectors who refused to serve, such as Duncan Grant and Mark Gertler, were required to attend tribunals, and there was often a stigma attached to the decision not to fight. Paule Vézelay and Cedric Morris had their artistic studies interrupted by the onset of war.

The painting in our collection that is most immediately associated with the First World War is Portrait of Norman Kohnstamm by Alfred Wolmark. This portrait is of a man in soldiers’ uniform, looking far too young to be on his way to the Western Front. The poignancy of this painting is heightened by the fact that, two years after posing for his portrait, Norman Kohnstamm was killed in action. Relatives of Norman Kohnstamm visited the Jerwood Gallery last year, and are very generously lending another painting of a World War One soldier whose portrait was painted by Alfred Wolmark before going to the Front. This portrait is of Norman’s brother, who was also killed in action, and will hang alongside the portrait of Norman Kohnstamm at the gallery later this year.

The more I have looked into links between the Jerwood Collection and the First World War, the more fascinating stories I have found. Beyond the obvious impact on the lives of those fighting, I have found it difficult to find artists working during this period that were unaffected by the wide ranging and wide reaching impact of this conflict. It has also turned my mind to the thousands of talented, visionary, intelligent people who lost their lives during the war, some of whom must have been wonderfully talented artists, and whose artistic potential was lost forever on the Western Front.

Images (top to bottom): Alfred Wolmark, Portrait of Norman Kohnstamm, 1916 © Mrs Diana S Hall, Sir Stanley Spencer RA; Daphne Spencer with a Green Scarf, 1953; Mark Gertler, The Irish Yew (Garsington Oxfordshire), 1921.

14 March, 2014
Written by Victoria Howarth