Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Artists Rifles

Portrait of Frederic Lord Leighton by GF Watts

"Are you interested in rifles or are you just here to look at the paintings?"

This was the question posed to me by a gentleman whilst I was standing in front of the above painting at Southampton City Art Gallery last week. I assured hum I was there to look at the paintings; he, on the other hand, looked more of a military history sort of chap, so I wonder what he made of the show (there weren't any actual rifles).

Flowing to the Sea ~ John Everett Millais, 1871
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this exhibition; here's what the blurb on the art gallery website says.

 'At the outbreak of World War I, Paul Nash, a prominent artist, gave up painting and enlisted in the Artists Rifles, eventually fighting with the Hampshire Regiment. Inspired by his story, this exhibition introduces the Artists Rifles, a volunteer regiment founded in 1860 under the threat of French invasion. Its early membership was a who’s who of the Victorian art world: Burne Jones, Rossetti, Millais, Leighton and Holman Hunt. The Great War saw a new stream of creative people join its ranks: Frank Dobson, Charles Jagger, Wilfred Owen, Edward Thomas and John Nash who went ‘over the top’ with the regiment in 1917. Follow a history of the regiment and its members through a selection of artworks, including loans from the Royal Academy, Imperial War Museum, British Council and Arts Council England.'

The idea of a regiment consisting entirely of artists, poets and other creative types seems somewhat bizarre - the phrase 'herding cats' springs to mind - and having seen the show, I still can't quite get my head around it. It is, however, an interesting mix of art and artifacts. 

Eurydice to Orpheus - Frederic Lord Leighton

There is a great deal of Pre-Raphaelite work, as you might expect - portraits and Victorian narrative paintings (which don't have anything to do with war or the Artists Rifles directly as far as I can tell). The work continues through WWI and WWII with etchings, drawings and paintings by both John and Paul Nash, as well as a series of 1930s (?) posters for fuel. There are many photographs and sketches of the regiment itself (with titles like 'Troops on Wimbledon Common after a skirmish' which baffled me - who could they be skirmishing with?! - until I discovered they trained on Wimbledon Common). There are also cases containing uniforms and various documents and publications relating to the regiment, plus plenty of information panels on the walls (most of which I confess I didn't read, because obviously, I was just there for the paintings...).It's an interesting show though, even if you're not interested in military history, or the Pre Raphaelites for that matter. I recommend it.

CE Perugini ~ Frederic Lord Leighton

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