Art review: Remembering the Great War

HJ Dobson's painting of James Keir Hardie, who was passionately opposed to the war. Picture: Contributed
HJ Dobson's painting of James Keir Hardie, who was passionately opposed to the war. Picture: Contributed
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THE First World War saw the loss of perhaps as many as 16 million lives. Several empires also saw their end. One other thing that died with them was the idea, much older than Homer, of the glory of war.

Remembering the Great War

Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh


There was no shortage of courage. Indeed the courage of men walking into machine-gun fire and almost certain death as anonymous, expendable units in vast armies was extraordinary. There was individual heroism too, but in all the mud and death, little glory. Nor was it sought or expected. James Barrie spoke for many when he wrote to one of his adopted sons: “I don’t have any iota of desire for you to get military glory. I do not care a farthing for anything of the kind, but I have one passionate desire – that we may all be together again once at least.”

Barrie, represented by an elegant portrait by William Nicholson, is one of a group of Scots and those with Scottish connections gathered together in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery’s show commemorating the First World War. Although Barrie’s sentiment was widely shared, there was nevertheless a demand for solidarity in the face of war. Suffragette Flora Drummond was serving her ninth prison sentence in 1914 and her portrait by Flora Lion reflects the pugnacity that put her in prison, but when she came out she joined Emmeline and Christobel Pankhurst in the Women’s Party supporting the war by fostering patriotism in the working classes and campaigning against strikes. James Maxton (painted by Lavery) was imprisoned for sedition for campaigning against the war. Keir Hardie was another passionate opponent. His portrait by HJ Dobson shows a man of energy. Nevertheless he died in 1915, exhausted by hostility to his pacifism. Artist William McCance, represented by a pensive self-portrait, was imprisoned as a conscientious objector. Others questioned the war, but privately. Naomi Mitchison painted by Wyndham Lewis, wrote of her friend Vera Britten that she did not realise that she and her generation were being “smashed up and killed, not for honour or love of dear community, but to uphold a system which they had scarcely thought about, but would have known as evil if they had”. Lady Margaret Sackville, painted by Henry Lintott, was even fiercer in her condemnation of those who, evidently like herself, failed to oppose the war because of social pressures: “We spoke not, so men died/Fearing that men should praise us less/We smiled… We betrayed our sons, because men laughed, we were afraid.”

Many artists did fight. William Gillies, represented by a self-portrait, never spoke about his experiences in the trenches in later life. The sculptor William Lamb was wounded three times and finally at the battle of Ypres lost the use of his right hand. He had to learn to sculpt with his left. His self-portrait is suitably determined. Adam Bruce Thomson recorded what he saw in beautiful drawings. Morris Meredith Williams’s drawings were the basis of his full-size cartoon for a section of his wife Alice’s frieze in the Scottish National War Memorial. The frieze itself has also been photographed and printed on the blinds to create a ghostly army marching across the light.

Elsie Inglis founded the Scottish Women’s Hospital Organisation. Refused permission to serve with the British forces, she served with the French and then the Serbians instead. Isabel Emslie, pictured, later a pioneer psychiatrist, served with her. They and their nurses were known in France simply as les braves dames Ecossaises. Others were moved by the war to seek change. Appalled by the impact of crude antiseptics on the healing of wounds, Alexander Fleming determined to find something better and so eventually discovered penicillin. Naomi Mitchison’s father John Scott Haldane was a respiratory physiologist. He experimented on himself to understand gas warfare and pioneer protection against it.

This and much else makes a tiny snapshot of British society during the war. There are photographs of spirited barefoot girls working in factories. Nevertheless inevitably the people represented here are mostly the famous and the influential. It is moving nonetheless. Their losses were as painful as any. Architect George Washington Browne lost his three sons in the war. Others, like the poet Violet Jacob, subject of a fine bust by William Lamb, who lost her son had the words to articulate her loss. So too did Harry Lauder, who likewise lost a son.

The poet Wilfred Owen recuperated from shell-shock at Craiglockhart Hospital. In Edinburgh he saw and admired Henry Lintott’s painting hanging here of a soldier carried off by angels. Maidie Scott, one of two beautiful sisters painted by Eric Robertson, formed “an intense but purely spiritual passion” for the young poet which he evidently reciprocated. But then he wrote in the hospital magazine how some of the patients were getting “dangerously well”. Dangerous indeed. Deemed well, he was sent back and killed in the last week of the war.

Contemporary photographer Peter Cattrell has made poignant photographs of the battlefields. One is of the canal near where Owen died. Alongside is his poem, Anthem for Doomed Youth. It was to be his own obsequy. There were for him, “No prayers nor bells;/Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,/The shrill demented choirs of wailing shells/And bugles calling them from sad shires.”

The only limitation on this moving display is its size. Given more space and more resources it could have been even more telling. Nevertheless it is well worth seeing.
• Until 5 July, 2015