Henry Woodd Nevinson is one of my heroes, the sort of person I dream of being. The champion crusader of Edwardian journalism, he filed pro-Revolutionary articles from Russia in 1905, and pro-Nationalist pieces from India. He won an exhausting battle to expose forced labour on the cocoa plantations of Portuguese Angola. Celebrated as a war correspondent, he started off wanting to fight, and picked up his pen only when he couldn’t persuade his Radical friends to join him in setting up a legion of volunteers to help Greece in its war against Turkey. No man in London was chucked out of more political meetings; his house was full of Russians, Indians, Irishmen, suffragettes, anarchists and troublemakers of all kinds. He rode a white charger at the head of suffrage marches, and carried himself with such distinction that he was called the Grand Duke. To top it all, when I read his diary I discovered he was passionately and very problematically in love with his best friend’s wife.
I knew little about his artist son, Richard – C.R.W. Nevinson – apart from his First World War paintings and prints. They are easy to like: influenced by Cubism but totally comprehensible – a sort of Modernism-lite. I went to the Nevinson retrospective at the Imperial War Museum hoping for that rare thing: a father-son heroic double-header. The wartime oils and prints were as powerful as I had remembered them: they were thought, when first exhibited, to be a brilliant new type of war art. But the rest was nothing special. In fact, some of it was embarrassingly bad – already by 1918, when he was 29, Nevinson had started to produce less distinctive work. I still wanted to know whether he was heroic material. But now I also felt I needed an explanation for what appeared to be such a fleeting talent. Were the war pictures just flukes? Or – a better question, I suppose – what was the conjunction of circumstances which gave him the opportunity to shine?
In his late teens, C.R.W. Nevinson fancied the life of a bohemian and attention-grabber. His idol was Augustus John, king of the Café Royal, and, in 1908, he decided to go to the Slade, as John had done. There he knocked around with Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler and Edward Wadsworth in the Slade Coster Gang. They went to music halls, held parties with naked dancing girls and got into fights on Tottenham Court Road. It was a remarkable time at the Slade – his other classmates included Paul Nash, Ben Nicholson, David Bomberg and William Roberts – and a revolutionary moment in British art. Even to express support for Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions was daring and radical. Nevinson, having seen a contemporary art show in Venice, knew he was ‘bored with the old Masters’. He was ambitious and keen to be liked, but socially difficult. A photo survives of a Slade summer outing. Nevinson, thick-set, plain and defiant, is beside the handsome Gertler. Dora Carrington, with cropped hair and doll face, is sitting next to them. Both were in love with her. She preferred Gertler.
Nevinson’s first paintings were pseudo-Impressionist treatments of urban, industrial subjects: gasometers, power stations, streets in East Ham. These began to be noticed – a critic identified him as ‘a painter who sees beauty in what the world condemns as ugly’. He hated prim, middle-class England, and zoomed around on a motorbike: this was, he later said, ‘the act of a pioneer’. Still restless, he went to Paris to study at the Académie Julien, Matisse’s Cercle Russe – and the Moulin Rouge. He listened to Apollinaire, attended Gertrude Stein’s salon, shared a studio with Modigliani and became known – after the local gangsters – as ‘l’Apache qui rit’. Most important, he discovered Cubism and met the Futurist artists Severini, Boccioni and Soffici. Futurism was tailor-made for him. It attacked small-minded philistinism and sentimentality; it embraced disruption, machines and speed. He was unfazed by Marinetti’s military language and belief in war as ‘the only health-giver in the world’. It was a way of saying that energy and spirit were more important than bourgeois materialism. In any case, Nevinson had, as he said later, ‘always lived in an atmosphere of war somewhere or other’. Thanks to his father, he was ‘trained in war long before’ 1914.