James Fox. British Art and the First World War, 1914-1924. Studies in the Social and Culture History of Modern Warfare Series. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Illustrations. xii + 233 pp. $44.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-107-10587-4.
Reviewed by Shane Peterson (Independent Scholar)
Published on H-War (February, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
Did art, particularly modern art, help English people recover from the first modern industrial war? James Fox is certain it did. He made his case directly to the English people in 2011 in a BBC documentary film on art masters, and now he takes his arguments to his fellow art historians. Fox looks at how the Great War influenced English artists as a social group, who in turn, helped the larger socitey. This is as much a work of sociology as art history.
Fox cites the archival holdings of London museums, art guilds, and art societies. The Victoria and Albert Museum, Imperial War Museum, London Transport Museum, National Gallery, London Metropolitan Archives, and Tate Archives join records of the Artists’ General Benevolent Institution, Art-Workers’ Guild, Professional Classes Aide Council, Royal Society of British Sculptors, Royal Watercolor Society, and others. The inner workings of London art society are seen in meeting books, council meetings, exhibition catalogues, annual reports, and company records. The public workings of this society are found in more than forty war-time journals, reviews, and newspapers. The articles listed from this quest are extensive. The list of secondary sources seems complete, running up to 2014, with a list of unpublished dissertations as well.
As this book is about art, it is well that eleven color plates and over twenty figures are reproduced. These plates sample the work of Philip Dadd, Tom Mostyn, George Clausen, Laura Knight, Edward McKnight Kauffer, John Nash, and Paul Nash. Paul Nash’s masterpiece, We Are Making a New World, is used for the dust jacket.
Fox organizes the book into six chapters. The first chapter looks at demand for art at the start of the conflict, while the second examines the reason for that demand and people’s perceptions of art. The third chapter moves to a discussion of the art world joining other groups in aiding the war effort, with the fourth addressing what came out of that mobilization. In the fifth chapter, Fox focuses on how art may have played a role in the peace following the war. Fox sees art as helping people deal with the loss of loved ones. Paintings seemed to make the person more alive than photographs. One grieving man talked of a “miracle of consolation” (p. 122). Low cost prints of such paintings as The Great Sacrifice by James Clark, which shows a fallen serviceman next to Christ on the cross, were sold in large numbers. Fox provides a color plate of this print (plate 6). The last chapter covers the relationship between art and people after the war, noting sales of art and praise at almost hysterical levels.
Publication of the book was preceded by a powerful documentary film series in which Fox was deeply involved. As the film/book joke often goes “don’t judge the book by the film,” in this case it may be the other way around. I am tempted to call Fox’s British Art and the First World War to be the unofficial “companion” book to the first episode “We Are Making A New World” of a three-part BBC 4 series, British Masters, that premiered in 2011. Judging by the first two parts, it is a tour-de-force documentary, written by Fox with Fox as the on-camera tour guide to the often painful, hidden, lost, or dystopian world of key British figures. Cambridge University Press does not mention the documentary in its catalogue description. The reason for this seems clear; this book is for an academic peer group and looks at how an entire art society responded to war, not just to master painters. Unlike the documentary series, the book stops in 1924 with the massive British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. The war reached into the lives of the artists like a mandatory inoculation, forcing a closer bond to ordinary people. Fox is sure of one thing, “by 1924 British art was more conscious of society” (p. 10). This external change was brought about by an internal unity in the arts society. Fox also notes that by 1924 the deeply wounded and faction-ridden art community had “reached an armistice of their own” (p. 155).
The view of the war as a deeply creative time for art in England contradicts the prevailing art history views, such as the perception of the late Charles Harrison. Fox cites Harrison’s English Art and Modernism, 1900–1939 (1981) as an example of the prevailing judgment. Fox quotes Harrison’s view of the war as a time of “hiatus” (p. 134). It is true that the first throws of the conflict did spell the end of business as usual, but a close look at how the art society adapted shows a very quick recovery during, not just after, the war.
Why did the public take to art as a means of coping with the war? Fox shows how, at the start of 1914, the public was already primed for pictures. The war, Fox notes, “met a society whose cultural taste was overwhelmingly visual” (p. 85). People wanted to see the war. Photographers tried to fill that endless need, yet the conditions of the conflict gave artists the edge in the creation of material that had the emotional bond people needed. The artist emerged as “the uniquely dependable eyewitness” (p. 95).
The key witness, for Fox, was John Nash. Nash emerges as an artist who tried to transcribe the war front and bring that message back home. In Fox’s work (film and print), Wyndham Lewis and Nash form a kind of yin and yang of the era, with Lewis as a kind of Darth Vader figure, sinister genuis in the film, understated in the book. As art masters, they were both caught up in the maelstrom of war, the dark and light swirling around each other in hopeless stalemate. Yet it was the daylight of Nash that would poke through to deliver a message to anyone who wanted the war to go on. Nash recorded his message in a letter to his wife—“It will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls” (p. 106)—even as he doubted how effective his art was to convey this message that the war was at a stalemate.
As the culture of Great Britain began to disappear into the shadows of trench warfare, it was British artists, Fox believes, who led many people back into the light of a new world. To be sure, this was to be a changed world, but it could still hold something indelibly bright and shining, and above all, English. Fox believes that the war “encouraged the art world to reach out to the public, so they encouraged the public to reach out to art” (p. 9). While it might seem a stretch to claim that the public reached out to the art world, Fox cites an astonishing figure of over seventeen million visitors to the 1924 Exhibition, with the Palace of Arts as the “center” of the complex at the exhibition (p. 155). With numbers that high, any jury, academic or public, has room for reasonable doubt.
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Shane Peterson. Review of Fox, James, British Art and the First World War, 1914-1924.
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