During his brief stint as an ambulance driver, ferrying wounded soldiers back from the front, Nevinson was struck by the sight of a dense column of French Territorial soldiers, still wearing their all-too-conspicuous bright red peacetime trousers, marching briskly in the direction of the front line, a memory he would syntheisize into his celebrated, dynamic Cubo-Futurist composition Returning To The Trenches (fig. 2). And one imagines that the source memory for Troops Resting was similarly glimpsed from the cab of his ambulance, even though the final rendition has an incredible complexity to its design, as the soldiers’ bodies, their kit bags, mess tins and helmets combine to produce a central column that simultaneously references Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa and the latest in Cubism’s radical disintegration of pictorial space. Indeed the composition conveys a powerful sense of a machine temporarily at rest, or ‘ticking over,' as bone-weary men take ten minutes to sleep, or stretch aching limbs and shift the weight of pack and helmet straps that are biting into the flesh of shoulders and necks. One man at least has taken the opportunity to relieve himself against a telephone pole – this is probably the first time such an act has been presented in British art and lends the image both humour and pathos.
Nevinson would often make an original pastel drawing, a worked-up oil painting and an etching or drypoint of the same composition. The choice of medium he noted on each occasion produced a subtle and slight alteration in the emotional impact of the composition. For much of the rest of his career he would follow this method with those compositions he deemed most deserving and suitable. The pastel of Troops Resting packs a little more punch than the final oil (now in the Imperial War Museum), the ‘poilus’ seem just a little more exhausted and worn down by their march – although in the drypoint they seem in an even more parlous state. There is a subtlety too in the use of colour and tone in the pastel that is perhaps not so clear in the oil. It’s as if the medium is drawing them closer to the earth on which they sit, on the mud that will inexorably draw them into its embrace.
Nevinson had first gone to the front within a few weeks of the outbreak of the war in August 1914, accompanying his father, the celebrated journalist and war correspondent Henry W. Nevinson in a brief visit to Boulogne to watch the landing of troops of the British Expeditionary Force. Early in October he joined the Friends Ambulance Unit [FAU] as a motor ambulance driver and mechanic. In mid-November he arrived in Dunkirk and helped to tend hundreds of terribly wounded French and German soldiers left abandoned without any medical attention in railway carriages parked in sidings of the railway station. The dreadful sights he witnessed there, of the evidence of what havoc modern weapons could inflict on the human body, stayed with him for the rest of his life.
He then drove a Mors Motor Ambulance, picking up wounded French and Belgian soldiers and civilians from an advanced dressing station the FAU had established on the outskirts of the heavily shelled Belgian city of Ypres, although this lasted no more than ten days when his ambulance was partially destroyed by a German heavy calibre shell falling in the yard of the FAU’s dressing station where it was parked. Nevinson also suffered a severe attack of rheumatism in his hands which prevented him from being able to turn the heavy driving wheel and he was reassigned to work at the FAU’s hospital at Malo-les-Bains as a nursing orderly and stretcher bearer. At the end of January 1915 he was allowed a few weeks leave in London and he was quick to seize the opportunity to exhibit works inspired by what he had seen in France. In May 1915, as he was planning to contribute to the one and only Vorticist exhibition held at the Dore Galleries the following month, Nevinson attempted to rejoin the FAU. However, he had significantly overstayed the leave he had been allotted and the unit would not have him back. Stung by this rebuff, he volunteered to join the Royal Army Medical Corps as a Private, serving at the Third London General Hospital (Territorial) in Wandsworth, south London. Nevinson got married in November 1915 and reputedly in the last two days of his leave he painted one of his most famous ever images of the war – which also happen to feature French soldiers – La Mitrailleuse (now at Tate, London). This sparked considerable critical discussion and comment when the oil was exhibited in London the following March.
Aware of this publicity, Ernest Brown of the prestigious Leicester Galleries offered the 27-year-old Nevinson a solo exhibition. The artist worked furiously from May to September 1916 to produce sufficient work for the show in his studio – an upstairs room on the second floor of the parental home in Belsize Park. The exhibition, which opened in late September, was a tremendous critical success (so much so it was extended by ten days), with many influential onlookers convinced that he was the British painter who had depicted the terrible essence of modern mass warfare. The true influence of the exhibition is perhaps best measured by how many of the works featured in it are now in major museums, both in the UK and abroad. Troops Resting is one of the very few, aside from the prints, that is still in private hands.
A number of the works exhibited at the Leicester Galleries feature French soldiers such as The Doctor, Column on the March, as well as Troops Resting - the oil, pastel and drypoint versions of which attracted considerable admiring comment during the run of the exhibition.
The characterisation of the ‘poilus’ and the treatment of the sky in the present work also owe a considerable amount to some of the works featuring French troops he had exhibited earlier in the year such as A Dawn: 1914 which emphasises the bristly, unshaven faces of the 'poilus' while the jagged, abstract shapes in the sky in the background echo the sky of On The Road To Ypres, the oil of which was first exhibited in London late in May 1916.
As the Leicester Galleries exhibition closed Nevinson announced he was finished with war as a subject but the war was by no means finished with him and within six months he had been recruited as an official war artist by the new Department of Information. He would go on over the next 18 months to create a number of distinguished images of British troops on the Western Front but none really possessed the bite, the power and the resonance of the enduring, suffering, stoic French ‘poilus’ he had created in 1916.
Dr Jonathan Black, author of C.R.W Nevinson - The Complete Prints, Lund Humphries, 2014
Vera Waddington (1876 - 1954)
Nevinson's 1916 exhibition at the Leicester Galleries was a triumph, attended by the great and the good of London's literary, social and political set: from Galsworthy, Bernard Shaw and all the famous Sitwells, to Ramsay MacDonald and Winston Churchill.
Amongst this bohemian and influential crowd was a remarkable woman, Vera Waddington, who in many ways reflected the new modern era that was already beginning before the First World War to smash apart 'old World' certainties. Vera's upbringing, though, was as conventional as any upper-class childhood had been for the preceding hundred years: born in India, where her father was a Major-General in the Indian Army; educated in Europe and settled finally back in England at the age of sixteen with society's expectation of marriage and family life ahead.
Vera, though, was an independent spirit, determined to become an artist. She attended Reading Art School, and eventually persuaded her father in 1903 to let her study at the Slade School of Art in London, under the tutelage of the formidable Henry Tonks (with whom Nevinson was to have many a run-in when he too arrived at the Slade in 1908). As such, she joined a still relatively small band of women artists who had access to the highest level of art education - along with the likes of Jessica Dismorr, Dora Carrington (both Slade) and Vanessa Bell (Royal Academy). This was the era described by Tonks as the Slade’s ‘crisis of brilliance’ and its graduates went on to be at the forefront of contesting and developing notions of the modern. It was also the era of the Bloomsbury Group, the Friday Club and the New English Art Club – Vera was a friend of Duncan Grant and exhibited regularly with both clubs.
Her first solo show at the Carfax Gallery in 1910 was based on works inspired by a year-long journey with her father and sister that took her via the Trans-Siberian railway to Beijing and Shanghai and on to Japan and Korea. If this incredible journey in itself speaks volumes about Vera as a person, then her works from this show also signalled much of what would become her mature style: refined, well-designed, certainly traditional in feel, but with a strength and clarity of line that was also very modern (see fig. 4). In the decades that followed, Waddington worked in various media, but it seems that drawing, watercolour and the demanding, precise art of wood-engraving (beloved of many modernists of the 1920s and '30s) best suited her vision.
Unlike many women artists of her generation, Vera managed to maintain an impressive exhibiting career, despite the pressures of marriage and children, which in the end spanned nearly fifty years: at the New English Art Club, Vanessa Bell's Friday Club, the Royal Academy, the Paris Salon and the avant-garde Goupil Gallery amongst others. She knew Christopher Nevinson - he later wrote supporting her attempt to get elected to the New English Art Club Committee – and treasured this drawing from his finest hour as an artist (which cost her the princely sum of 8 guineas) until her death in 1954. It then passed to her daughter, Christina. Whilst she was always aware of its significance, it has remained out of sight to the wider public and art historians - until now.
To see more of Vera Waddington's work, please visit: http://verawaddington.com/
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