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Onlookers in France

Onlookers in France

LECTURES AT THE PRINCESS GRACE IRISH LIBRARY BY PROFESSOR KEITH JEFFERY, PROFESSOR OF BRITISH HISTORY, QUEEN'S UNIVERSITY BELFAST

 

Professor Jeffery gave two talks on 8 November at the Princess Grace Irish Library.

He spoke to a group of students and their English teacher Jean-René Fonquerne (Lycée Albert I – Monaco) about the history of the Secret Intelligence Service. In 2005, he was appointed to write the first official history of the SIS and is the only historian ever to have had full access to the Service archives. MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949 was published in 2010 to wide critical acclaim.

He addressed the Friends of the Library about the activities of Dublin-born Major Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen (1878-1931) and Belfast-born Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) who were both appointed Official British War Artists during the First World War.

Long before the days of digital photographs and embedded news reporters and cameramen reporting live from the world's war zones, official war artists were appointed by governments for information (or propaganda) purposes to record events on the battlefield. In addition to the official artists, the scenes of horror were also depicted by combatants who were artists, civilians who witnessed war and prisoners of war who chronicled the often-appalling conditions in which they were detained. Nowadays, artists are still sent to cover conflicts but their role is complementary to the work carried out by journalists and historians.

Early in 1917, Charles Masterman, chief of the government's War Propaganda Bureau appointed Orpen to paint on the Western Front. His biographer, Bruce Arnold, writes: “He left for France in April 1917, and for the next four years was totally immersed in the war and its aftermath. His output, and its overall excellence, makes him the outstanding war artist of that period, possibly the greatest war artist produced in Britain. Analysis of his war work, the major part of which is in the Imperial War Museum, London, shows a development in style and understanding, from the idealism which inspired him when he first arrived at the front to the disillusionment with the terrible ending to the war, and then the further dismay he and many felt at the direction taken by the peace deliberations. His paintings of the Somme battlefields are haunting recollections of anguish and chaos, of ruined landscapes baked in the summer sun, the torn ground white and rocky, the debris of the dead scattered and ignored."

Orpen painted an extraordinary range of canvases, from apparently idyllic landscapes of the Somme battlefield, to stunning portraits and sombre reflections of the destructive and dispiriting impact of the war on soldiers and civilians alike. His large paintings of the Versailles Peace Conference captured to perfection the wrangling of the politicians and statesmen. He donated most of these works to the British government on the condition that they were to be mounted in plain white frames and kept together as a collection; they are now in the Imperial War Museum in London.

By the time war was declared in 1914, Lavery had already been established as a fashionable and highly successful portraitist for some years. He had intended to record the Allies' war effort during a six-week period on the Western Front but he and his wife Hazel were injured in a motor-car accident and he never travelled to Northern France… much to his regret. However, armed with the necessary permits from the Chief Naval Censor, Lavery spent September 1917 painting the ports and harbours on the Forth. Some of his most striking pictures were North Queensferry Air Station and haunting landscapes of battleships at anchor in Scapa Flow, Orkney. He also depicted hospital scenes and women munitions factory workers. In 1919, after the Armistice, he accepted a final commission — recording women's war work in France before the closure of their operations.

The work of both artists reflects the political and social impact of the war in ways which still resonate almost a century later.

Due to the Covid-19 epidemic, visits to the Princess Grace Irish Library are by appointment only. +377 93 50 12 25. info@pgil.mc

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