Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, February 12, 2021

Augustus John's Unfinished WWI Mural


Augustus John (1878–1961)

The specimen of celebrated Welsh artist Augustus August John's work that might be most recognizable to our readers is the portrait below of Lawrence of Arabia.  That was probably done about the time of the Paris Peace Conference. During the war, however, John had a brief, but memorable,  tour of duty as a war artist. During his five-month service he had worked mostly around the areas of Lens, Liévin and Hill 70 near Vimy Ridge, the centre of important Canadian action in France in 1917. His most important war work, though, was unfinished and remained forgotten for almost a century.

Lawrence of Arabia

In 2011, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited the Canadian War Museum to meet veterans and their families and to unveil The Canadians Opposite Lens, a remarkable painting by John (1878–1961). Twelve metres (40 feet) wide and 3.7 metres (12 feet) high, the unfinished First World War canvas depicts Canadian troops, refugees and prisoners of war against the battle-scarred landscape near Vimy Ridge, in the area of the French town of Lens. Although the most significant Canadian-commissioned painting from the conflict, it had never before been on public view.

John was already recognized as one of the great artists of his time. A notoriously difficult character, after a number of rebuffs and through the patronage of newspaper publisher Max Aiken, he managed to gain a commission as a war artist with the Canadian forces, including a waiver that allowed him to keep his flowing beard. He quickly wore out his welcome, however, barely escaping court martial for his participation in a drunken brawl. He completed only one minor painting of three Canadian soldiers titled Fraternity" before his dismissal.  He would continue working on The Canadians Opposite Lens for almost his entire life.

The Canadians Opposite Lens — Canadian War Museum
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Based on drawings he made in this sector, the massive image depicts more than 50 carefully delineated individuals set against a backdrop of trucks, ruins, an observation balloon, bursting shells, and the mining landscape to the west of Vimy Ridge. Although John sketched in all of these elements, about one-third of the work remains unpainted.

The Canadians Opposite Lens was intended to be the centrepiece for a war memorial art gallery in Canada that was never built. Due to a lack of permanent exhibition space, the painting remained in the artist’s studio in London, England, where he worked on it sporadically until a year before his death. In 1962, it was sold at auction and disappeared into a private collection and remained in that status until the Canadian War Museum acquired it.  It's not clear whether the full mural is on permanent display there.  However, the Beaverbrook Gallery in New Brunswick holds an interesting piece that shows in small scale a charcoal cartoon displaying the concept of the 40x12 foot final oil painting.

Cartoon Study — Beaverbrook Museum
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Sources: Canadian War and Beaverbrook Museums, Wiki Commons

1 comment:

  1. I find this fascinating--both the man and his art. The portrait of Lawrence is one of my favorites. Now I'm going to try to find more information on John.