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.

Back in London, he hooked up with Wyndham Lewis, Epstein and Gaudier-Brzeska, who had by this time split from Roger Fry’s Omega Workshop in order to set up their own group, which became the Rebel Art Centre. Nevinson’s paintings grew more geometrical, and soon incorporated Futurist techniques such as repeated ‘lines of force’ – <<< – and the interpenetration of images to give the impression of movement and commotion. His subjects were trains and buses, a busy night on the Strand, dance halls. Marinetti had made several trips to London to expound his Futurist ideas, but Nevinson was eager that he should come again, and asked Severini to arrange it. The great man arrived in November 1913; Nevinson and Lewis organised a banquet in his honour upstairs at the Florence Restaurant in Rupert Street. Around thirty guests paid to see the Futurist leader, who, Nevinson recalled, ‘recited a poem about the siege of Adrianople, with various kinds of onomatopoeic noises and crashes in free verse, while all the while a band downstairs played “You made me love you, I didn’t want to do it”.’

Only the need to throw off the dead-weight of Victorian prudery can explain the appeal of a fat man in a London restaurant, sweating copiously, veins swelling, making car and aeroplane noises and saying war is the only hope. Nevinson became such a disciple that he called one of his paintings Tum-Tiddly-Um-Tum-Pom-Pom. But his heroic father was equally smitten. H.W. Nevinson had already met Marinetti in the Balkans when covering the wars of 1912-13: ‘Into the ancient life of precedents and perpetual revolution he burst like a shell,’ he now told the papers. ‘I have tried to describe many battle scenes ... the noise, the confusion, the surprise of death, the terror and courage, the shouting, curses, blood and agony – all were recalled by the poet with such passion of abandonment that no one could escape the spell of listening.’ Richard Nevinson’s memoir, Paint and Prejudice, provides some explanation for all this: ‘My father reacted against the purely literary coteries of London and worshipped the Man of Action. I myself have this hereditary trait.’

‘Everybody’s talking about Futurism,’ the editor of T.P.’s Weekly wrote when Marinetti returned to London in the spring of 1914. Crowds packed his performances and Nevinson beat a drum for him – literally, behind the stage curtain. It was the latest craze; looping the loop took over in the summer. Nevinson’s artistic experiments began to be taken seriously. His depiction of a journey on the Tube, Non-Stop, was judged by the Times to be ‘very clever’; another reviewer praised its ‘mixture of streaks of light and fragments of advertisements, and curves and colour, with lines that suggest straphangers’. It helped that the critics could tell roughly what was going on. Compared to Bomberg’s and Lewis’s ‘obfuscations’, the Observer said, ‘Mr Nevinson’s disjointed world in motion becomes as intelligible as photographic realism.’

Nevinson became Marinetti’s protégé and together they published a manifesto entitled Vital English Art. This called for painting and sculpture to be ‘strong, virile and anti-sentimental’; it was essential that painters had a ‘fearless desire for adventure, a heroic instinct of discovery, a worship of strength and a physical and moral courage’. The manifesto seems ridiculous now, though it has its laudable elements – a declaration of war on morris dancing, for instance. Unfortunately, it also has a sizable helping of ‘the sturdy virtues of the English race’. There is no doubt, however, about its most rousing cry: ‘Forward! HURRAH for motors! HURRAH for speed! HURRAH for draughts! HURRAH for lightning!’ At this point during readings of the manifesto, fireworks were set off in the aisles. Even more confusion was caused the night that Wyndham Lewis and his Vorticist bovver boys (Epstein, Gaudier-Brzeska, T.E. Hulme) disrupted the show, furious that Nevinson had associated them with a cause they no longer espoused.

Nevinson responded to the outbreak of war as a man of action should. Or rather he did his best, given that he had recurring rheumatic fever which meant that ‘the Army was out of the question.’ He took a motor engineering course and became a driver in a Friends Ambulance Unit. (He shadowed his father: H.W. Nevinson had a last-minute escape from Berlin, then went out to Belgium with a Quaker unit and saw the first shell strike the Cloth Hall at Ypres.) Marinetti received a signed photo of his acolyte standing imperiously beside his ambulance; arrows marked where it had been hit by shrapnel. Nevinson made much of his own ‘fearless desire for adventure’ at the Front but spent most of his time working less glamorously in a railway siding – nicknamed ‘the Shambles’ – tending soldiers ‘with every form of horrible wound, swelling and festering’, who could not be moved to hospital because the trains were needed elsewhere. After a while, he later wrote, ‘I felt that I had been born in a nightmare.’ He returned to London and began to paint, writing to the Express to deny that he was suffering from ‘any form of nerve trouble’, and to the Times to make it clear that he had spent three months ‘amongst wounds, blood, stench, typhoid, agony and death’.

Early in 1915 a number of his pictures were included in a show organised by the progressive London Group. The Manchester Guardian commented: ‘Two years ago (in another age) the exhibition of the London Group was a rallying place for all that was wild and even desperate in the new generation of artists. It was expressed outwardly by the wearing of side whiskers, gypsy beards, jerseys, dungarees, by long hair in the men and short hair in the women. In those days it was easy to feel defiant and superior. The enemy was convention. Nowadays there is another enemy.’ Most of the artists, including Nevinson, turned up to the private view in khaki. His pictures were well-received. ‘There were some battle-pictures of the new kind,’ the Guardian review noted, ‘which the sharper methods of the Futurist phases of art are especially fitted to express.’ Nevinson told an interviewer that the war had not taken ‘the modern artist by surprise: it only knocked the old fellows off their feet.’

Nevinson’s style was just the right combination of the figurative and the geometric to produce a new, but accessible art expressive of the dehumanised violence of modern warfare. Romantic, traditional forms of war painting – panoramas of brightly-coloured infantry, the excitement of a cavalry charge, the winning of a decisive victory – were soon recognised as obsolete in the face of trench warfare, with its mechanised batteries, bomb blasts and machine-gun fire. Soldiers were simply replaceable parts of a formidable military machine. ‘Cubism has come in handy,’ one journalist wrote, because in modern war, soldiers did nothing but form themselves ‘into straight lines, squares and angles’. Nevinson painted a body of soldiers on the march as a mass of flat, regular planes and lines of force – the mood is one of determinism rather than heroism. In The First Searchlights at Charing Cross his Futurist method also captured a novel sight for Londoners: the night sky sliced up by precise, criss-crossing beams of white.

At first, some critics were doubtful. The Daily Telegraph called his pictures ‘mean and monotonous’; the Times said they were ‘not cricket’. But by February 1916, when Nevinson staged his first one-man show, even the Times had woken up to the fact that war was more about death than gallantry. The pictures Nevinson exhibited at the Leicester Galleries were the best of his career. A spell the previous year as an orderly at the Third General Hospital in Wandsworth had utterly depressed him – he began to think of war as nothing but a brutal routine. Night Arrivals implies that wounded soldiers being prepared for surgery were parts in a production line. La Mitrailleuse shows a machine-gun post surrounded by broken planks and barbed wire. The soldiers who surround the gun are robot-like and savage. Sickert, who had ridiculed Nevinson’s Futurist excesses, called it ‘the most authoritative and concentrated utterance on war in the history of painting’. The exhibition was a huge success: Bernard Shaw went, so did Ramsay MacDonald, Churchill, Balfour, Lady Diana Manners and Conrad (the last must have got father and son confused, because he complimented Richard on having written some of the finest prose of the age). Nevinson was, in short, ‘the one English artist of whom it may be said that he has “arrived” ’ since the beginning of the war.

In the catalogue, Nevinson argued that Futurism had been vindicated: the war had produced a ‘vital English art’ and had disproved the theory that painters were effeminate and decadent. As if to confirm his patriotism, the catalogue preface was written by General Sir Ian Hamilton, fresh from the disaster at Gallipoli, who gushed: ‘the Cup of War is filled ... with the elixir of life’; presented with Nevinson’s pictures, ‘the Pacifist himself’ was ‘compelled to cry “Bravo!” ’ (It is probably incidental that Hamilton owed H.W. Nevinson a favour: the war correspondent shopped Keith Murdoch, Rupert’s father, to GHQ when Murdoch was set on exposing Hamilton’s bungling of the Gallipoli campaign. Murdoch persisted and the story eventually came out – a bad moment for HWN and a rare glimpse of decency in a Murdoch.) Despite his ardour for the war effort, Nevinson, now in better health, had no desire to be called up and asked his father to have a word with C.F.G. Masterman, Director of Propaganda, in the hope of securing a post as an Official War Artist. After concerted lobbying, he succeeded.

The Official War Artists scheme was conceived by the Ministry of Information in 1916, when it decided that photos of muddy soldiers going over the top had ceased to stimulate the British – and more important, the American – public. The first artist appointed was Muirhead Bone (Bonehead Muir, Nevinson called him), a respectable realist painter. Nevinson had convinced Masterman that he was ‘anxious to crawl into the front line and draw things full of violence and terror’, and that this would inspire arresting images. He didn’t do much crawling. Billeted at the Château d’Harcourt, he was chauffeur-driven to the front each day, arriving at midday, and collected promptly at 4 p.m. He got into some scrapes but, in general, had a much more enjoyable war than when an orderly in Wandsworth. Perhaps as a result he lost some of his edge. No doubt wanting to maximise his appeal to the people, he introduced changes to his work, erasing almost all traces of Cubism. In future, he declared, he wouldn’t be bound by any one method.

His new, wholly figurative pictures – of a child killed in an air-raid, a shell-shocked soldier, women in munitions factories, profiteers – remained determinedly unsentimental. They were also provocative: A Group of Soldiers was accused of representing Tommies as degenerate and cretinous, and Paths of Glory was banned by the censor for fear of lowering morale – it showed two dead British soldiers, lying amid barbed wire with their faces in the mud. At his exhibition in March 1918 Nevinson hung it despite the ban, sticking a strip of brown paper over the soldiers with ‘Censored’ written across it. This, he later wrote, caused a ‘GREAT sensation’. He was more famous than ever. The Tatler thought it ‘amusing’ that rebellious Modernists were now exhibiting their pictures under the aegis of the Government. Beaverbrook thought his paintings were ‘an excellent way of appealing to the public’. It must have pleased Nevinson to read in the Daily Sketch in July 1918 that it was ‘one of the ironic metamorphoses of war that, whereas in the old days one always referred to C.R.W. Nevinson as the son of the war correspondent, now one speaks of “H.W.” as being the father of the artist’.

Without the background of the war, however, Nevinson’s turn to the figurative soon exposed his limitations. When his large canvas War in the Air was exhibited in January 1919, even his strongest supporter said it should be thrown into the Atlantic. He began to encounter what he called ‘the hostility of the intellectuals’ and went to a ‘nerve specialist’ because he thought he had developed a persecution mania. He increasingly felt outside the art establishment and talked of the ‘tyranny of abstraction’. ‘My joy in chaos has gone,’ he told one journalist. Ominously, ‘Renoir and his prettiness’ were appealing to him ‘more and more’.

He was at his best when he reclaimed the geometrical – often in drypoints, etchings and other types of print. In the early 1920s, for example, he went to New York and was stirred once more by the beauty of modernity. Looking through Brooklyn Bridge, his most impressive postwar work, has a panorama of simply drawn skyscrapers behind a lattice of angled suspension cables – a not-so poor man’s Joseph Stella. He continued to bad-mouth the Bloomsberries and to attack ‘pot-bound old Royal Academicians’ – at least until he was elected to the Academy. The critics now damned him as a ‘good second-rater’, ‘hot-headed and opinionated’ but with ‘journalistic flair’. He began to feel dejected about urban life, and his cityscapes took on a menacing rather than celebratory air. In the 1930s, he moved to pastoral landscapes and flowers – pussywillows and catkins were particular favourites. His work, along with that of Arthur Rackham, was chosen by Cadburys to decorate one of their gift boxes.

He continued to live on the edge of fashionable society, knowing a few Guinnesses, Cunards and Sitwells, and held fabulous parties at his studio in Hampstead. He emulated Augustus John in becoming a fixture at the Café Royal. (An early version of The Waste Land included the lines: ‘He the young carbuncular will stare/Boldly about, in London’s one café/And he will tell her with a casual air,/Grandly, I have been with Nevinson today.’) He was never out of the papers, both as a writer and a subject. A small sample of his articles: for the Sunday Chronicle, ‘The worst women in the world – and they’re British!’; for the Standard, ‘We all know them – the guests who won’t go home’; and, for the Express, ‘ “Me” by C.R.W. Nevinson, the famous painter’. He was the kind of person who could be persuaded to speak at a Fruit Trades’ Federation Lunch at Claridge’s. He was, it turns out, no hero. The daredevil Futurist motorbiker now took pride in being a pioneer caravanner, pootling around England in a vehicle which he proudly described as ‘furnished with bunks and a little kitchen ... papered in pale pink with little cretonne curtains decorated with rosebuds.’ HURRAH for motors! HURRAH for speed!

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