Wednesday, February 26, 2014

"The Great War in Portraits" - a review

This morning I became a big fan of the Irish portrait painter and war artist William Orpen.  His work dominates "The Great War in Portraits" - the new exhibition which opens at the National Portrait Gallery tomorrow - with free admission. Below you will find a review of the exhibition - with more about Orpen tomorrow.

The aim of the exhibition is to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War and to show something of the human experience of war through the medium of portraiture. It features

  • 80 paintings, photographs, sculpture and drawings drawn from different perspectives and angles. It's benefited from some major loans - including significant ones from the Imperial War Museum. 
  • It also includes propaganda film about life at the frontline during the Battle of the Somme - from both British and German sources 
The exhibition runs until 15 June 2014. There is also a major programme of events for the public which explore the art, social and military histories of the First World War.

The NPG is also planning more events as part of the commemoration which will take place over the next four years.
Gallery view of the The Great War in Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery
The Curator of the exhibition is Paul Moorehouse, the Curator of 20th Century Portraits. He told me that all the portraits in the exhibition has been drawn or painted within the 1914-18 timeframe.

He started his presentation by blowing on a British Officer's Trench Whistle from the Battle of the Somme in 1916.  He went on to detail some of the staggering statistics associated with the war - such as the fact that

  • 70 million people were mobilised during the First World War. 
  • At the end of it, 9 million of them were dead.

The first room in the exhibition 'Royalty and the Assassin' focuses on the leaders of the main countries associated with the War. The prevailing tone is one of grandeur and pride - of the attitudes of leaders prior to the First World War.

It also includes a photographs of both Archduke Franz Ferdinand with his wife Sophie visiting Sarajevo on 28 June 2014 and their assassin, the Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip. (This is a link to film of Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo on the day the shot rang out...)

Leaders of the some of the countries involved in World War 1
(left to right) King George V, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Emperor Franz Josef I of Austria
The next room considers Leaders and Followers. It has a wall of very formal and traditional portraits of the military leaders. They are displaying their attitude of authority and the indicators of the medals they've won in previous campaigns. They are:
  • Britain (Extreme right) Sir Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig and (extreme left)  General Plumer of Messines Ridge fame - when he created the biggest bang in the First World War - audible in London, 
  • France (second from right) Foch - who was the Supreme Allied Comamnder)
  • Germany (second from left) Chief of General Staff - Paul von Hindenburg)
The portrait by Orpen of Plumer is outstanding. He also painted Haig.

Military Leaders of the WW1 - Left to right: Plumer, Hindenburg, Foch and Haig
in front are postcards of the time of leaders and ordinary soldiers
On the other walls, we see portraits of ordinary soldiers - in battle, at rest and waiting to be laid to rest.  The contrast is between the authority figures who are celebrated and the ordinary soldier who is invariably depersonalised and anonymous - portraits of the unknown soldier in the field if you like.
"The impression conveyed is one of depersonalised shared experience, in which duty is a central assumption"
Paintings of soldiers
"The integrity of Belgium" by Walter Sickert
which relates to the way Germany overran Belgium on its way to Paris
"La Mitrailleuse" by CRW Nevinson
"A Grenadier Guardsman" Orpen
Drawings of soldiers in the trenches by Orpen flank "The Dead Stretcher-Bearer" by Gilbert Rogers
The Valliant and the Damned room is about the different stories of war - at either end of the spectrum.

Thus we have a wall of Victoria Cross recipients who have been rewarded for specific acts of heroism.

Soldiers who won awards for heroism
Plus an installation of 40 photographs displays the faces of medal winners and heroes, the dead and the executed, interspersed with artists, poets, memoirists and images representing the roles played by women, the home front and, the Commonwealth.  They include Wilfred Owen, Edith Cavell, and Mata Hari.  Click on the link to see it for yourself - and then click on the photographs to see who's who.  

(Note: The national memorial to Edith Cavell is on the island directly opposite the front entrance to the NPG)

Then on the opposite wall are drawings and paintings associated with the personal suffering and destruction of individual soldiers.

Faces of the war
The exhibition also inclues pastel drawings by Henry Tonks - the Professor of Drawing at the Slade School of Art. These are of soldiers who had suffered very severe damage to their faces. They are being shown for the first time alongside the photographs which were also taken of the soldiers by the pioneering unit run by Harold Gillies at the Queen's Hospital in Sidcup in Kent.  Gillies invented plastic surgery while running this unit. (You can see the Tonks pastels on the Gillies Archive website)

Moorehouse made an important point about the Gillies/Tonks patients.  Elsewhere, injuries from the war were very much seen as a badge of courage. However attitudes at the time meant that if you suffered facial mutilation to in effect lost your identity.  What was worse was that there was a culture of aversion, men were hidden away and denied the benefit of interacting with fellow men through human gaze.

He suggested that the importance of the Tonks pastels was that Tonks returned to them something they had lost, of one person looking into the eyes of another. I guess that works as a thesis so long as Tonks also showed them some humanity rather than treating them as lab specimens.  Tonks had trained as a surgeon and worked at the Royal London Hospital prior to studying art and becoming the Slade Professor of Fine Art and surgeons can exhibit traits of clinical detachment. (For more about Tonks see Tonking and Henry Tonks on this blog).

The last parts of the exhibition include more international perspectives - includes portraits by those associated with German Expressionism

Portraits of (left) Siegfried Sassoon and (right) self-portrait of William Orpen
Plus two absolutely fabulous portraits - one a very rakish self-portrait by William Orpen and the other of a very handsome Siegfried Sassoon - on loan from Cambridge. This was the point at which I realised the NPG has multiple photographs of the poet but not a single portrait painting of Sassoon - which seemed very odd.

Those going to see this exhibition should not definitely leave the Gallery before they pay a visit to the First Floor of the NPG.  Here (and below) you can see two absolutely huge paintings of political and military leaders in what I think of as the very "brown" section of Early 20th Century Portrait Galleries. They're two set piece portraits by two artists of renown - but of course they are total fiction. These groups never assembled for a group portrait.

General Officers of World War 1 by John Singer Sargent

Other reviews of the exhibition

These are a couple of other reviews of the exhibition

National Portrait Gallery, St Martin’s Place WC2H 0HE
opening hours Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday: 10am – 6pm (Gallery closure commences at 5.50pm) 
Late Opening: Thursday, Friday: 10am – 9pm (Gallery closure commences at 8.50pm)
Nearest Underground: Leicester Square/Charing Cross General information: 0207 306 0055 
Recorded information: 020 7312 2463

First World War

Note: 2014 - 2018 marks the Centenary of the First World War, a landmark anniversary for Britain and the world.
The First World War Centenary Partnership, led by the Imperial War Museum is a growing network of more than 1,400 local, regional, national and international cultural and educational organisations who together will be presenting a vibrant programme of cultural events and activities, and digital platforms which will enable millions of people across the world to discover more about life in the First World War. 


  1. Sorry, but the link to the pastels by Tonks does not seem to work.
    Otherwise thanks again for an excellent blogpost. In Sweden we are not so much aware of the First World War as Sweden, thankfully, was a neutral country. But many swedish sailiours died at sea, and hardly any country in the world was unaffected by the war. Horrid and so terribly pointless!

  2. Thanks for the note about link to the Tonks Pastels

    Now sorted, tested and republished


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