LONDON - First shown at the 1916 Leicester Galleries exhibition alongside the painting and pastel of the same subject (National Gallery of Canada and Imperial War Museum respectively), Returning to the Trenches is one of Christopher Nevinson's most immediately recognisable images of the Great War.

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, A.R.A., Returning to the Trenches (B. 9). Estimate £60,000–80,000.

The impelling sweep of the column of French soldiers is perhaps the image which most clearly carries on the language of Futurism that the artist had espoused prior to 1914, and the repeating pattern of the marching legs and the extended force lines which exaggerate and animate their movement are reminiscent of much contemporary Italian work, especially paintings such as Giacomo Balla's Dynamism of a Dog on a Leash, 1912 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo). However, Nevinson's use of such a manner, which becomes even more powerful in the monochrome of the etching, combines such experimental techniques for expressing movement with a hugely evocative subject. 

This combination, which manages to simultaneously suggest the grim determination of this group of men moving forward at some speed, immediately struck a chord with the public, and the perception that Nevinson had forged a style, which brought together the truth of a subject via an avant-garde manner, is much commented on in contemporary reviews. In fact, Returning to the Trenches was to remain perhaps Nevinson's most abstracted Great War image. Based on his own observations during his first stint on the Western Front in late 1914, this image captures all the apparently conflicting elements that Nevinson brings together so deftly. Whilst there is a good deal of characterization of the troops, indeed rather more so than in the painted version, one is left in no doubt that this is a single body of troops. This melding of the individual into the military whole was not a new strand of imagery for artists, but Nevinson's ability to render it without any extraneous glamour, or hint of heroism, but without losing a sense of common nobility in his subject, is notable. By choosing French soldiers, as indeed we also find in some of the other early war images, Nevinson deftly sidestepped the suggestion of patriotism.


Yessica Marks is a specialist in the Prints department, Sotheby’s London.