A Crisis of Brilliance by David Boyd Haycock (2009)

A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War  by David Boyd Haycock (2009) is the book which led to the lovely exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The artists in question all attended Slade Art school in the years just before WWI and this group biography – weaving together their family stories, their love affairs, their letters and diaries and works of art – gives a wonderful sense of what it was to be young (very young in some cases, 16, 17) and dedicated to Art at a great turning point in history. The five are:

Paul Nash (1889-1946) at Slade 1910-11. Parents artists, but his unstable mother had a nervous breakdown and went into a mental asylum in 1910. Served with the Artists’ Rifles 1914–17; appointed Official War Artist as a result of his exhibition Ypres Salient at the Goupil Gallery 1917.

CRW (Christopher) Nevinson (1889-1946) at Slade 1910-11, from an artistic middle class family, Nevinson was a loud bombastic man who joined the Futurists, was briefly allied to Ezra Pound’s Vorticists, before achieving his height of fame as a war artist during the Great War with a series of wonderful Modernist depictions of the conflict, most famously La Mitrailleuse.

Mark Gertler (1891-1939) at Slade 1908. From very poor Jewish immigrant family struggling to survive in the East End, popular and famous in his day he is best known for the harshly Modernist the Merry-go-round.

Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) at Slade 1908-12. From a populous family of a come-down-in-the-world middle class family living in Cookham, Berkshire, which Spencer came to idolise. Served with the R.A.M.C. and the Royal Berkshire Regiment, mainly in Macedonia, 1915–18, and was commissioned to paint a war picture for the Imperial War Museum

Dora Carrington (1893-1932) at Slade  . From a smart, professional and arty middle class family but with a spectacularly repressed Victorian mother who passed on her sexual ignorance to Dora who spent her entire life trying to break free until she ended up in a very Bloomsbury menage with the gay writer Lytton Strachey.

The book falls into two halves: the first half where a selection of promising art students arrive at Slade, in slightly different years, at different ages, from different backgrounds, and set about trying to make careers in London’s difficult and treacherous art and literary world; and the second half when, quite by surprise, the First World War begins and all of them (except the only woman, Dora Carrington) find themselves dragged into it. Although it brings out the artistic best in Nevinson above all, but also in Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, the War destroys their innocence and optimism and neither the world nor they are the same afterwards.

This book more than anything I’ve ever read conveys the way the Great war smashed lives. It creates such a compelling sense of the group, the gang of friends and hangers-on and aquaintances, all living their rather self-obsessed literary or artistic lives, squabbling and falling in love and issuing little manifestoes – and then, BANG! Horror and terror. Never before have I shared the fear and anxiety these young men and their brothers felt about whether or not to enlist and then, as conscription spread like a plague, how or if they could escape being conscripted and being forcibly sent like sausage fodder in trains to the Front to be murdered in their millions.

The book begins with the light airiness of Cookham by the Thames but by the time it draws to a conclusion at the same beauty spot 50 years later too much has happened, too many lives been lost and cultures been broken and hopes been dashed for it not to be shadowed and riven. This is a wonderful book and at the end I was nearly crying.

A marvellous nude by Dora Carrington aged 19, the varieties of flesh tone set against an impenetrable black from Fuseli.

Nude Woman 1912 by Dora Carrington (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Nude Woman 1912 by Dora Carrington (source: Wikimedia Commons)

A few years later the sensuous comfort, based on centuries of realistic painting, of Carrington’s nude, was swept away by faceless masses, by the semi automatons which were created by war on a hitherto unimaginable scale, captured by one of Nevinson’s wonderfully evocative war paintings, Column on the March.

Column on the March by CRW Nevinson (Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

Column on the March by CRW Nevinson (copyright Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery)

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