City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Portrait Gallery Brings Home Tragedy of the Great War


By edg - Posted on 04 August 2014

Avatar and bust - Scottish National Portrait Gallery

A moving, new exhibition opening today at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery brings home the tragedy of World War One, one hundred years to the day since hostilities broke out with Germany.

Through an array of personal portraits and stories, "Remembering the Great War", a free exhibition, recalls first how society reacted to the outbreak of war and communicates the deep sense of loss, suffering and heroism that ensued.

The exhibition begins by showing the varied responses of both proponents and opponents in the run up to the outbreak of war. These include a portrait of King George V by Charles Sims and an oil study of Field Marshall Douglas Haig, 1st Earl Haig, by John Singer Sargent.

Portraits of the Scottish socialist and Labour leader James Keir Hardie, and the first Labour Prime Minister James Ramsay MacDonald, represent those who were strongly opposed to the war.

Among the women represented here are Flora Drummond, a militant figure in the Suffragette movement which on the outbreak of hostilities put on hold its demands for emancipation to support the war; and the poet and children’s author Lady Margaret Sackville who published The Pageant of War, a collection of anti-war poems in which she declared that women who supported the war were betraying their sons.

Also on display is a collection of significant figures in the Scottish artistic landscape at the start of the 20th-century. These include the music hall artist Sir Harry Lauder, described by Winston Churchill as ‘Scotland’s greatest ever ambassador’ for his contribution to the entertainment of troops, who tragically lost his only son in France; artist William McCance who was imprisoned as a conscientious objector; and Lord Reith, later the Director-General of the BBC, who fought with distinction for the 5th Scottish Rifles and was shot in the face by a German sniper, sustaining the famous scar clearly visible in his portrait by Sir Oswald Birley.

Some of the most poignant pieces in the exhibition are featured in a second display area. A largely unknown painting, "Avatar", of a dead warrior being spirited away by four ethereal figures is displayed prominently. An elegiac meditation on the fallen of the War, it was painted by Henry Lintott in 1916. The poet Wilfred Owen, who saw it while he was being treated for shell shock in 1917 at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh, was so impressed by it that he described the work as the ‘finest picture now in the Edinburgh Gallery.’

Avatar, which is on loan from the Royal Scottish Academy has only been on show to the public a handful of times since the War, and has been specially conserved with the aid of a grant from AIM and the Pilgrim Trust Award, to feature in the exhibition.

In the same room are two busts sculpted by the Montrose artist William Lamb, "the people's sculptor". Lamb volunteered in 1915 and served with the Queen's Own Cameron Highlanders. He was wounded three times. On the third occasion, at the battle of Passchendaele, Lamb's dominant right hand and arm was crippled. After the war he taught himself to use his left hand. Among the many works he subsequently created, are two busts in the exhibition: a self-portrait and a portrait of Angus poet and friend Violet Jacob in 1925. Jacob, who appears mournful and bowed, lost her only son Henry, after he died from wounds inflicted at the Somme at the age of 21. The exhibition plaque tells us that she never recovered from the loss of her son.

Alongside, is a large and striking painting of artist James Gunn by his friend William Oliphant Hutchison in 1927. Gunn is looking away in a moment of melancholy reflection. The exhibition plaque recalls how Gunn, who lost two brothers, Stanley and Charles, in the War, forbade talk of the War as it was too painful.

A bust of Sir Alexander Fleming, a flinty Scot with a broken nose, is a reminder of how his service in the Army Medical Corps informed his later research and subsequent discovery of Penicillin. Fleming saw in the field how antiseptics used for treating deep wounds were destroying vital leucocytes (white blood cells) causing more harm than good.

The contribution of women in the war is examined through figures such as Mary Garden, an opera singer who worked as a nurse after failing in her attempt to enlist, disguised as a man, in the French army and Dr Elsie Ingles, who helped to establish the Scottish Women's Hospital for Foreign Service Committee, and served in field hospitals in Serbia (where she was captured) and Russia.

The exhibition also includes photographs of the wartime wards of Springburn Hospital in Glasgow, and contemporary black-and-white photographs of the Somme battlefield in France as it stands today, by Scottish photographer Peter Cattrell.

Born in Glasgow in 1959, Cattrell’s interest in the Somme took flight after discovering a photograph of his great uncle, William Wyatt Bagshawe, who died on the first day of the Somme in July 1916. Some 57,000 men were killed on that day alone.

In the final part of the exhibition a short clip of kilted soldiers marching by, grinning to the camera and apparently unaware of the awful situation they were marching to, loops over and over.

It was supposed to be "the war to end all wars". However, as you exit, a large, portrait of a characteristically bulldog Winston Churchill indicates how misplaced that expectation turned out to be.

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I found the small exhibition very moving and poignant - particularly so because I discovered on show a portrait of a young lieutenant from my own Regiment - The King's Own Scottish Borderers. The young Lieutenant Scott Moncrieff in the painting, who gained literary status by being the translator of Proust, had been a close friend of William Owen when both had been shell-shocked during the war. Scott Moncrieff was devastated by the death of Owen and felt his loss terribly.