“Pulsating with Life”: Young British
Artists and the Great War
- David Boyd Haycock
Nevinson spent a month back at the Front in the summer of 1917, but his official war works were disappointing in comparison to his earlier paintings. When Thomas Derrick visited Nevinson in October he was concerned that the artist had self-censored in both style and subject matter. As Derrick explained in a report to Masterman, Nevinson had “avoided the more revolting aspects of the business”, and had “restrained himself – almost to the point of dullness”. He added that when he next visited Nevinson, he would advise him that his “unrestrained, savage self, can appear in subsequent work, without giving offence in official quarters” . At least one of Nevinson’s official paintings did cause offence: Paths of Glory (1917, Imperial War Museum, London) depicted the corpses of two Tommies lying beneath an entanglement of barbed-wire. The War Office artist informed the artist that he was not permitted to depict dead Allied soldiers. In the face of such appalling death and destruction, such a constraint was absurd. Nevinson was enraged; rather than withdraw the offending picture from his exhibition, Nevinson obscured the bodies with a strip of brown paper, writing the word “CENSORED” across it. Controversies such as the one this did nothing for Nevinson’s declining mental health, and his father feared that Richard was “almost insane with anxiety”. Diagnosed by a neurologist as suffering from “nerves and acute insomnia”, Richard headed to Cornwall with his wife for a holiday. But he could not cope with what he called “endless leisure for brooding”, and they returned to London. Painting could not excise the ghosts of what he had witnessed in France, and Henry Nevinson would soon be writing privately of his son’s “haunted mind” . The artist would never really fully recover from his experiences in the War, and over the following two decades his reputation slowly declined, from that of one of the greatest recorders of warfare in the twentieth century, to that of a bitter and rather mediocre painter.
It was Nevinson’s Slade contemporary, Paul Nash, who would prove to be the other great young British recorder of the War. Nash came relatively late to the art world, and trained initially as a graphic artist, before spending just over a year at the Slade. When the War broke out he was establishing a reputation as a minor painter of subtle watercolours of trees, gardens and landscapes; an understated modernist who retained links with the English Romantic tradition, he had shown no particular interest in either the Futurist or Vorticist movements. As his wife later recalled, Nash was
[…] an ardent believer in both the uselessness and utter impossibility of so barbaric a solution of world problems. To Paul, it was more simple, for he immediately felt that as an Englishman it was his duty to fight for his country. He had a very clear and simple conception of his duty towards his country, which he passionately loved, and although he was the last human being in the world to tolerate the horror and cruelty of war, he had an immediate and firm conviction that he must fight for England.
As I remember him now, there comes back to me an Elizabethan atmosphere about his few remarks on the necessity of fighting for a country which meant poetry and beauty to him as an artist, and freedom of thought and action to him as an Englishman. And so I dumbly accepted his decision to enlist at once in the Artists Rifles… 
I have just returned (last night) from a visit … up the line & I shall not forget it as long as I live. I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country ever conceived by Dante or Poe – unspeakable utterly indescribable. In the 15 drawings I made I may give you some vague idea of its horror, but only being in and of it can ever make you sensible of its dreadful nature & what men in France have to face. We all have a vague notion of the terrors of a battle ... but no pen or drawing can convey this country – the normal setting of the battles taking place day and night, month after month. Evil and the incarnate fiend alone can be master of the ceremonies in this war: no glimmer of God’s hand is seen. Sunset & sunrise are blasphemous mockeries to man; only the black rain out of the bruised & swollen clouds or through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land. The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow, the shell holes fill up with green white water, the roads & tracks are covered in inches of slime. The black dying trees ooze & sweat and the shells never cease. They whine & plunge over head, tearing away the rotting tree stumps, breaking the plank roads, striking down horses & mules ; annihilating, maiming, maddening : they plunge into the grave which is this land, one huge grave and cast up the poor dead. O it is unspeakable, Godless, hopeless. I am no longer an artist interested & curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from men fighting to those who want the war to last for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls .
According to his wife, during the few weeks Nash spent working in the Ypres Salient, he
[…] was in far greater danger than he had ever been while engaged in trench warfare… This determination to see the war, combined with an astonishing outburst of energy, enabled him to do anything up to 60 to 70 drawings in the actual front line within a week. Some of these water colours… actually had mud spattered upon them from nearby exploding shells, which he at times worked in to help with the colour of the drawing .