Monday, 29 September 2014

Artists at War

Two articles in the latest edition of the Western Front Association's Stand To! magazine caught my eye, both on different aspects of what might be loosely labelled "war art".  This comes in a huge variety of shapes and sizes - art that was created in a war environment, art that was created about the war, art that was created by those who had been influenced by their war experience.  Siegfried Sassoon himself was something of an artist, and created both cartoons and more "serious" work, as can be seen from items found among his papers in various collections around the UK and USA - you can see examples here:

The articles in the magazine to which I referred represent two quite distinct categories of war art. Eric Henri Kennington, RA, a friend of Robert Graves, was a trained artist who served on the Western Front in 1914-1915, until wounded and discharged.  He subsequently became a war artist and found himself back at the Front in 1917-1918.  His work was being exhibited before the end of the war, and concentrated on everyday scenes of Tommies going about their business, mostly without either glorifying their efforts or trying to convey the horrors they faced in battle.  Nevertheless, his work of reporting the war must at times have made uncomfortable viewing (as in the case of "A Gas Patient"), even though it was intended to inform and encourage.

Private Edward Cole was quite a different kind of artist.  Relatively little is known about Cole's life, but he certainly produced a wide range of work, including programme designs taken from watercolour originals, and Christmas cards for official use by the battalion.  Most remarkable, however, is the collection of fourteen caricatures that turned up at the museum of the East Surrey Regiment.  All are of officers, including medical officers and a chaplain, and it is highly possible that the drawings were commissioned, for purposes lost in the mists of time.  Checking the caricature of Captain G S Pirie against a contemporary photograph shows them to have been very accurate in terms of both appearance and mannerism.

Not really by coincidence, the BBC has just launched Andrew Graham-Dixon's new series on war artists.  The first programme, focusing on the tormented Paul Nash, was illuminating; the second, on Walter Sickert, who "understood that the theatre of war was not confined to the trenches", was less inspiring.  As one reviewer commented, only five minutes of the programme covered Sickert's work between 1914 and 1918,  "hardly what you'd expect of a series titled British Art at War".

The third and final programme in the series focuses on David Bomberg, bringing us neatly to the subject of Isaac Rosenberg, who has surely been at the back of your mind while you’ve been reading the rest of this post.  Why Bomberg?  Why not Rosenberg himself?  Is it because one is better known than the other (which one?) or because Rosenberg’s career as an artist is complicated by the fact that he wrote poetry?  I surmise that it is actually because Rosenberg didn’t produce much of what one might call “war art”.  There was not much opportunity for more than quick sketches for a soldier involved in trench warfare, and Rosenberg’s final flourish was cut tragically short by his death in 1918.  Perhaps the manner of his death would have been too obvious a device to ram home the impact of the war on British art.  The purpose of the series is, I assume, to explore the various effects of war experience on artists of different backgrounds and styles (albeit all of them painters).

The fine arts are not my field and I can’t go much further with this short overview.   Suffice it to say that, like music, art was – at least for the soldier - both a way to forget about the war and way to express one’s feelings about it.  Whether you sketched a rat or wrote a poem about it depended entirely on the nature of your talent and what your mood was at the time.  Rosenberg remains the only First World War combatant who showed equal talent in both fields, and we will never know what he might have become if he had survived.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Digging the Great War

Having been an enthusiast for archaeology for most of my life and having many happy memories of excavations on Roman and other sites in the UK, I find the reports of Martin Brown’s “Plugstreet project” very interesting. I thought that others might like to have a look at the embryonic website: which includes a blog (not very up-to-date, but I can understand that, if anyone can) and photographs of some of the artefacts discovered during the excavations that took place in July this year – a time when I was very preoccupied with planning our centenary programme.

I haven’t done any digging for a couple of years now, mainly for lack of time.  It’s a sad fact that many of us have to reach retirement age before we get the opportunity to take up hobbies in earnest, which sometimes means we are slowing down physically and unable to put as much “welly” into it as we once could have.  Fortunately there are still a lot of archaeology students around, and how I envy them!  It’s a terrific pastime, simultaneously relaxing, exciting and fulfilling.  Although, as far as I’m aware, Siegfried Sassoon never did any excavating, he certainly had an interest in the subject.  You only have to read “On Scratchbury Camp” to realise that.

“I walk the fosse, once manned by bronze and flint-head spear;”

Don’t tell me he didn’t know his prehistory!  Indeed, there is more direct evidence of an interest in archaeology, since he donated prehistoric artefacts found on his estate to a local museum.  During the Second World War he commented, in a letter to Edmund Blunden, "I sometimes feel that I am living in a world that is as unreal to me as the Bronze Age", unwittingly revealing himself to have more of an interest in ancient history than he would have others believe.  It was the recent past he had a problem with.

What would Siegfried have thought of people a hundred years on, digging up the remains of his First World War experience?  I doubt that he would have approved.  In his mind, the past was buried and ought to stay that way.  He may have imagined that future generations would not want to understand the past in this hands-on manner.  After all, didn’t his poetry say it all?  It certainly did, for anyone who was actually involved in the war.  Yet those he took to task for not understanding are the same ones who can benefit from the exercise of excavating First World War battlefields and trenches.

If you saw my recent article on the WFA website (, about the July “Poets’ Tour” to Ypres, you may remember me mentioning the small museum at Pond Farm, where Stijn Butaye and his family have lovingly collected and researched a miscellany of artefacts, mostly everyday objects, found in the local fields.  The Plugstreet excavation, and its sister project the “Plugstreet Experience”, which opened in November 2013, give us the opportunity to get further acquainted with the day-to-day life of soldiers in the trenches.

The same team has been excavating in the UK, working with Staffordshire County Council on the site of the Messines Model on Cannock Chase.  Apparently, scale models of sectors of the Western Front were used in training and preparation for the Battles of Messines and Cambrai.   What can we learn from this?  Well, the mere fact that such models existed is not common knowledge, despite photographic evidence.  Getting close to the troops obviously takes more than familiarity with their everyday lives.  But it's a start, isn't it?

Monday, 15 September 2014

Siegfried's Garden

Last weekend I went to the small town of Saint-Venant in Nord Pas-de-Calais, France, to see the final realisation of Didier Rousseau’s two-year project to create an exhibition based on the poetry of Siegfried Sassoon.  Didier, an environmentalist and man of letters, is the owner of the Manoir de la Peylouse, a historic house built contemporaneously with the dismantling of the neighbouring Vauban fortress.  The remains of the original fortifications can still be seen in the town, and the 17th-century powder-store in the grounds was saved from demolition by Didier and his wife Luce, who have converted it into a small arts centre, now known as “La Poudrière”. 

Early in the war, the house itself was used during the war as the headquarters of Indian and other Commonwealth troops.  It subsequently passed through the hands of General Haig, who used it as a staff college, as evidenced by historic photographs that can be seen around the house. In 1916, Portugal entered the war, and the Portuguese army used the house as a headquarters in 1917-18.  

The Manoir was also for a time the home of the editor Daniel Halévy (1872-1962), who was responsible for the publication of one of the most notable French novels set during the First World War, Le diable au corps, a sensational work by a teenager, Raymond Radiguet (who would die of typhoid at the age of twenty).  The book became a best-seller, more for its scandalous nature than for its literary merit or its relatively few references to the war.

Right next to the gardens of the Manoir is the River Lys, now a haven for pleasure-boats.  Fierce fighting took place in this area in 1918, some of it involving the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who were back again in 1940 as recognised by a granite memorial that stands alongside the river.  A Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery, containing burials from both wars, is incorporated into the town cemetery, a short walk away from the Manoir. 

When Didier Rousseau read of the war poet Siegfried Sassoon, he became enchanted with his work.   Realising that Siegfried must have been stationed close by (“The Dug-out” is dated July 1918 and was written at Saint-Venant), he conceived the idea of an exhibition, centring on the Manoir’s beautiful gardens, that would draw the attention of the people of the region to Sassoon’s former presence in the area as well as spreading the word about his poetry.  Photographic evidence shows that the gardens are little changed since that time, and Siegfried would not have missed the chance to walk in them, even if he had no reason to enter the house.  However, Didier’s investigations suggest it is entirely possible that Sassoon was there as early as 1915, when the house was a training centre for military personnel in the use of the trench mortar, a new weapon developed by the French army.

It was Didier’s vision to create a garden walk for his visitors; it has taken time and effort to obtain the necessary permission to reproduce Siegfried’s work for a temporary exhibition, as well as obtaining support from the local authorities and deciding the form of the exhibition – which poems to include and how to display them.  Some have been translated into French in order to attract French visitors to Sassoon’s work. The poems are printed on weatherproof canvases and attached to the ancient trees, of many varieties, that are to be found in the garden.  Other information has been printed on panels displayed on tree-"stumps" manufactured from non-endangered species.

Inside La Poudrière, visitors can see another exhibition entitled “Siegfried & Co”, which includes information about 12 “soldier-poets” who were stationed on the Artois-Lys front at one time or another.  The criteria for inclusion are somewhat relaxed, as can be seen from those numbered among the twelve: as well as Sassoon, Blunden, Gurney, Graves and David Jones, we have Osbert Sitwell, Frank Richards, “Bim” Tennant and C S Lewis!

The garden is open to the general public at weekends, free of charge, but La Poudrière is reserved for Didier’s invited guests, so don’t forget to let me know if you are thinking of calling in.  Didier and Luce are always delighted to welcome Sassoon enthusiasts from the UK.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Songs of War

A little while ago I wrote about the music of the First World War, and hinted that I would do so again at a future date.  What prompts me to choose this moment is the memory of the wonderful concert I attended last Friday night at  the Holywell Music Room.  It is perhaps a little ironic that an audience who were in Oxford specifically to attend a conference on the poetry of the war should have gone away from the concert full of superlatives about the music.

It is not such a strange phenomenon when you consider that the songs performed by Roderick Williams to the able piano accompaniment of Gary Matthewman were all poems set to music.  Not the ones you might expect, though, especially if you are unfamiliar with the work of Gerald Finzi, George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams and others of their generation. Butterworth’s musical settings of poems from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad give us a strangely prophetic vision of the devastating changes inflicted on the rural life of the Welsh Borders by war.  “The lads in their hundreds” is the most obvious example, but, having heard a longer extract from the cycle sung by Roderick Williams recently in a BBC Prom, I can testify to the general impression.  That the poems were set to music by a composer who would himself become one of those “lads who will never be old” simply adds to the pathos.

Several of the songs at the concert had previously been performed (and in one case, premiered) at the “Songs of War” concert organised by SSF stalwart Sam Gray at St James’s, Piccadilly, in 2009. Ian Venables, a composer whose work was featured in the programme and also at that earlier concert, gave an introduction to the programme Roderick Williams had devised for the centenary, including some detailed commentary on the individual poems and settings.  Another composer, Elaine Hugh-Jones, was also present in person to hear her interpretation of Owen's "Futility"; thus the settings covered a hundred years of music, showing that war poetry has not lost its ability to inspire.

It was of course disappointing that there was no Sassoon included in the programme.  We could perhaps have enjoyed one of the many settings by Siegfried’s friend Cyril Rootham. But Williams and Venables avoided the obvious, including few of the major war poets and poems - Charles Ives' setting of “In Flanders Fields” being a notable exception.   Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier", in a setting by John Ireland, was another no-brainer.   William Denis Browne’s "To Gratiana, singing and dancing", is almost an elegy for Brooke even though the words were written in the seventeenth century by Richard Lovelace.

Ivor Gurney cannot, of course, be excluded from any such programme, in view of his almost unique achievement in successfully straddling the worlds of poetry and music, both during and after the war; his setting of Wilfrid Gibson's "Black Stitchel" set the scene beautifully, and Gurney's own “Pain”, in a setting by Venables himself, was both agonising to hear and a particular highlight of the programme.  A lighter moment was the rousing rendition of "Captain Stratton's Fancy", Gurney's setting of a poem by Masefield (not, as the programme wrongly stated, by F W Harvey; Harvey was, however, represented in the form of his poem "In Flanders", again set by Gurney).

Roderick Williams himself, a charming and impressive figure dressed in black, perfectly conveyed the emotion of the songs in his rich, powerful baritone, holding the audience captivated throughout, and it was the eminent poet Michael Longley who was first to his feet for the well-deserved standing ovation.