A haunting portrait of a First World War casualty, his head swathed in blood-stained bandages, by C.R.W. Nevinson, one of the most famous war artists, is among the highlights of the Two Day Sale at The Canterbury Auction Galleries on Tuesday and Wednesday December 6-7. From a private collection, it is estimated at £8,000-10,000.
Portrait of a Soldier was painted in 1916 and although partially unfinished, is signed in full, suggesting, in the words of art historian Michael J.K. Walsh, “that for whatever reason, Nevinson was signing off on the commission before completion”.
Intriguingly, the work does not appear in any of Nevinson’s war exhibition catalogues from the UK or USA, nor does it appear in Nevinson's own studio photographs, or by reference in his father’s journals housed at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, yet it bears a label on the reverse of the frame from London gallery Whitford Fine Art, 6 Duke Street, St. James. Says Walsh: “This painting, however, is a rare and welcome glimpse at Nevinson succeeding as a portrait artist at a watershed moment in his career.”
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889 -1946) was the son of the war correspondent Henry Nevinson and the suffrage campaigner and writer Margaret Nevinson. He studied at the St John's Wood School of Art and, inspired by seeing the work of Augustus John, he enrolled at the Slade School of Art, where his contemporaries included Stanley Spencer and Paul Nash.
On the outbreak of the First World War, Nevinson joined the Friends' Ambulance Unit with his father, and was deeply disturbed by his work tending wounded French soldiers before ill health forced his return to Britain. He used these experiences as the subject matter for a series of powerful paintings which used Futurist techniques to great effect.
In researching the present portrait, Michael Walsh says that Nevinson was never one to shy away from depicting the uniformed Tommy, as often as not wounded, on the Western Front. “His time working in The Shambles, a clearing station for the wounded in Belgium, had stripped away any veneer of glory in war from before Christmas 1914,” he writes.
“His service records indicate that he worked from November 13, 1914 as a stretcher bearer at Dunkirk; from November 20 as a chauffeur at Woesten; from November 22 at Kursal; from November 28 as a night orderly at St. Pierre and by January 30 he was discharged or left the R.A.M.C. He was later be awarded the Mons Star.
“Upon his return to London he let the public know that 'I have spent the last three months at the front in France & Belgium amongst wounds, Blood, Stench, Typhoid, agony and death’ but suggested, nevertheless, that all artists should go to the Front for a dose of reality. He was with the wounded again at Wandsworth General Hospital in 1915 where his father recorded in his personal journal that his son was 'unutterably miserable among the men, nurses and officers’. In 1917 he was made an Official War Artist and retained the commission until the Armistice in November 1918.
“Portrait of a Soldier sees Nevinson face the wounded again, utilising the 'style' of painting most normally associated with late 1916, or early 1917, and employing a posture seen in his own very competent self portraits of 1911 and 1915. The adventurous modernist style, which had seen him insert glass and buttons onto the canvas in Portrait of a Motorist, had been replaced with a confident handling of paint, and a genuine quest for expression, The head is turned, the eyes view us intensely, but betray little emotion, and the face remains calm - almost becalmed. The unknown sitter is clearly at home with the artist and there is a trust and confidence evident.
“The blood soaked bandaged head reminds us (in addition to the celebrated Self Portrait of Van Gogh) of Nevinson's celebrated canvas The Doctor (1915) or The Wound (1915, now lost), but betrays none of the vapid characteristics of In the Observation Ward from the year before, or the risible Hans and Fritz from the year after. The idea is not to horrify the viewer as the sketches of facial wounds by Henry Tonks might have done. The brush work and surface texture harkens to the era of The Road from Arras to Bapaume, After a Push, and Paths of Glory (all exhibited in 1917). In its serenity it possesses none of the angst of War Profiteers from the same year or the pathos of He Gained a Fortune but he Gave a Son (1918)”.
Portrait of a Soldier will be on view at The Canterbury Auction Galleries alongside the usual eclectic pre-Christmas selection of fine art, antiques and collectors’ items on Saturday December 3 from 10.00am to 4.00pm; Sunday December 4 from 12 noon to 4.00pm; Monday, December 5 from 10.00am to 7.00pm and on the mornings of sale from 8.30am. The catalogue can be viewed on-line at www.thecanterburyauctiongalleries/com and the sale will be broadcast on the Internet allowing for live bidding on www.the-saleroom.com. For further information, please contact the auctioneer on 01227 763337 or email@example.com