Christopher R.W. Nevinson

March 13, 2008 by Jennifer Morse
From the four-panel mural The Roads of France. [CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM: AN19710261-0519]

From the four-panel mural The Roads of France.
CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM: AN19710261-0519

Christopher R.W. Nevinson, one of the earliest war artists, created images of World War I that explored the personal and global consequences of war. While one early painting was censored for its unflinching portrayal of death, others portrayed close-ups of wounded and worn soldiers; still others were distant landscapes that spoke to the industrial growth of the period and how that changed the face of war.

The artist was born in 1889 in London, England. His parents were well-known journalists—his father an author and war correspondent, his mother a writer and suffragette. Unlike many of his peers, Nevinson’s family supported his career choice, and its prominence and contacts proved invaluable. In London he studied at the St. John’s Wood School of Art, the Slade School of Art, and later in Paris at the famed Académie Julian.

Early in WW I, from November 1914 until January 1915, he volunteered as an ambulance driver and mechanic, and also found time to paint some stark portrayals of warfare. Later he recalled the three months he spent transporting the injured, and dressing various wounds in the casualty clearing stations in France. “When a month had passed I felt I had been born in a nightmare. I had seen sights so revolting that man seldom conceives them in his mind and there was no shrinking seen among the more sensitive of us. We could only help, and ignore shrieks, pus, gangrene, and the disembowelled.”

Acetylene Welder. [CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM: AN19710261-0533]

Acetylene Welder.
CANADIAN WAR MUSEUM: AN19710261-0533

But even with those memories the artist returned to the front. He joined the Royal Army Medical Corps in June 1915, but within months he was paying the price. By January 1916 he had contracted rheumatic fever and was invalided out of the army. Not only was his health damaged, but he had lost the desire to paint. Back home—as his body healed—he found a new passion for his art. Nevinson sold more paintings in 1916 than ever before and since.

His parents used their connections to help him get his work published in the popular press. The public was used to the black and white photographs in newspapers and periodicals of the day, so the unique perspective of Nevinson’s colour paintings was well received. His celebrity and parental influence were instrumental in July 1917 when he was selected as one of the first official war artists. Canada would benefit because his works were purchased by the Canadian War Memorial Fund, the organization that administered Canada’s war art program.

He left for France a third time, and spent a month sketching before returning to England to work up the final canvases. Over the next seven months he had an astonishing output of over 75 official paintings and prints.

The four panels of his mural The Roads of France depict troops and trucks as they travel over a country road. As we move from canvas to canvas the consequence of war begins to unfold, and the landscape becomes increasingly devastated. The jagged edges and panoramic compositions add a mechanical aspect to his work. The viewer can almost hear the industrial whir and crunch of machines as they grind over the stretched and ragged landscape. This subtle impression is appropriate considering WW I marked a period of unprecedented increase in the output of the factories and plants that produced weapons of war.

He later wrote, “For me, Armistice Day will always remain the most remarkable day of emotion in my life. …Never did I imagine that I would live to see another generation come up and face a condition similar to 1914.” Nevinson died in London, England, in October 1946. He lived long enough to witness the end of WW II.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com

Many of the Canadian War Museum’s ­holdings are ­available in reproduction at affordable prices. For more information, contact Image Reproduction Services, Canadian War Museum, 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, ON K1R 0C2; tel: 1-819-776-8686; fax: 1-819-776-8623; e-mail: Imageservices@warmuseum.ca

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