In this latest Guest Blog by Gethin Matthews, he talks about the imagery of the Holy Land and how middle eastern culture came ultimately to affect Welsh culture and society.
The First World War was a world-wide war which transported millions of young men away from their homes to foreign lands. Often these men sought an anchor which could help them make sense of their unfamiliar surroundings as they tried to convey their experiences to their loved ones. In the case of Welshmen who found themselves in Egypt and Palestine, they had a ready vocabulary to describe these countries which came straight from the Bible. The idea of the campaign in the ‘Holy Land’ struck a chord with newspapers and opinion-formers back in Wales, and shaped ideas which persisted with the Welsh public.
In 1914, Laurence Haward, the first Director of the Manchester Art Gallery, began collecting important works of war art. Haward spoke of modern war not as a romantic adventure or performance of heroic make-believe, but bitterness and courage, folly and waste. The artist, he concluded, was in tune with the meaning and impact of war, and ‘will reflect that world and the human emotions it arouses’. Haward’s words made a powerful testimony for the artists of the period who strove to communicate the sensation and impact of modern war.
The First World War saw over 2 million soldiers from Britain and the Dominions wounded. Whether conscript or volunteer, officer or other ranks, British or colonial, military medical organisations played a pivotal role in evacuating the wounded from the frontline to the casualties and treating patients in order to return to the front. Artists depicted the chaos of the frontline casualty, the wounded soldier’s experience of pain and helplessness, and medical attempts to alleviate the agony of wounds or the shock of witnessing the death of comrades. Countering such images of pain, were also images of men’s suffering relieved, seen in the efforts of stretcher-bearers and nurses. Doctors also shared the personal cost of the war, with thousands killed and wounded. Artists, many with frontline experiences as soldiers or as medical workers, often confronted what they witnessed as the inhumanity of modern war with gestures of both collective pain and humane attempts to provide assistance. Paul Nash, for instance, depicted ashen-faced stretcher-bearers carrying their wounded burden across a landscape pitted with charred trees (Wounded, Passchendaele, 1918).
Under the lurid green sky, almost gangrenous in tone, the arduous journey of evacuation transforms an everyday occurrence on the frontline into an apocalyptic scene.
Combining pathos and intimacy with epic power, Henry Lamb recreated the medical encounter of the First World War in his monumental oil painting, Advanced Dressing Station on the Struma, 1916 (183.6 x 212.3cm). Lamb finished the work in 1921, but before that he had worked as a doctor for the Royal Army Medical Corps in Salonika (Thessaloniki) in Greece. This front has received far less attention in the commemoration culture of the last few years, but it held a deep meaning for Lamb. The campaign around the river Struma aimed to push back the Bulgarian advance into eastern Greece. The area was targeted for the liberation of Serbia from the Central Powers. From the position of a medical officer, Lamb witnessed the casualties engaged in the British push across the river towards the strategic city of Serres in Greek Macedonia.
The scene of a dressing station set deep in the forest is modernist in design but bears strong religious overtones that lend emotional weight to the image of helping the wounded. The central group focuses on the relationship between a wounded man and a stretcher-bearer, who attends him with a cup of water, a great relief that many soldiers wrote about as the comfort given between men. Thirst and cold were understood much later in the war as signs of hemorrhage and shock. The bearer’s hand gently touches the wounded man’s head, providing comfort symbolic of the pietà (Christian iconography of Mary cradling Jesus’ corpse).
Indeed, the pietà was often used in war-time humanitarian images of nurses caring for wounded men. But Lamb transforms the theme into an effigy of masculine care and the intimate brotherhood of shared suffering. Placed on the ledge of a shallow trench, the stretcher resembles an altar. In the right hand corner is a Thomas splint used for compound fractures, from which soldiers could die. Pathos is also created by the figure on the left, head in hand, perhaps affected by malaria, a common disease of this front, or perhaps a reference to psychological suffering. The central figure stands over the patient, staring pensively into the distance. Made three years after the end of the war, the composition of this painting symbolises the pain and succour of the entire conflict.
In May 1918, he arrived on the Western Front where he suffered gas poisoning and was invalided home ahead of the Armistice. Lamb exhibited a number of drawings and watercolours at Manchester City Art Gallery in 1920. One of these prompted the Gallery Director, Lawrence Haward, to commission Lamb to make this major painting as the beginning of a war art collection for Manchester City Art Gallery.
This was on display among other works at the award-winning Whitworth Art Gallery, co-curated by Senior Curator David Morris and Ana Carden-Coyne (Centre for the Cultural History of War, University of Manchester). Visions of the Front, 1916-1918 and ended on November 20, 2016, although a descriptive video describing the picture is online.