The Art of Remembrance
The underlying scars on the landscape from those days of utter devastation are still clear to see, the remnants of the times depicted in the dark and powerful paintings from the First World War can still be read upon the undulations of the land
The Wittenham clumps are two prominent chalk hills in the Thames valley, both tufted with woodland, and the site of an Iron Age hill fort now maintained as a nature reserve by the Earth Trust. One of the most visited outdoors places in South Oxfordshire, they are both an iconic Oxfordshire view and a great place for panoramic views.
The artist Paul Nash (1889-1946) sat upon these hills early in the twentieth century and said, ‘Ever since I remember them the Clumps had meant something to me. I felt their importance long before I knew their history. They were the pyramids of my small world.’First encountering them in his late teenage years, he was immediately caught by their atmospheric shapes and mystical associations. The Clumps became a rich source of inspiration and he returned to paint them many times during his life.
Today in her Aston Tirrold studio in the lea of the Ridgeway and on the edge of the Berkshire Downs, Anna Dillon, one of Oxfordshire’s best landscape artists is inspired by both the same views that inspired Paul Nash a century earlier, and by his artwork.
Paul Nash is a painter much associated with the Wittenham clumps and is fast becoming one of the most well-known War Artists of his generation. He’s the Wilfred Owen of the visual arts: the transition in his work from pre-1914 when he was a romantically minded, passionate and driven young man to those paintings during and after his war experiences is every bit as stark as the changes in Wilfred Owen’s poetry.
Nash, for example, on first arriving in France wrote lyrically to his wife, “The morning filled with sunshine made everything look full of colour and alive. The larks were singing and a fresh wind made walking very refreshing. Never have I seen such curious beauty...” but in time his commentary turned from 'Oh these wonderful trenches at night, at dawn, at sundown' to 'Sunset and sunrise are blasphemous, they are mockeries to man, only the black rain out of the bruised and swollen clouds all through the bitter black of night is fit atmosphere in such a land.'
Following an injury that kept him out of service for most of 1917 Paul Nash became an official war artist and returned to France and Belgium to witness the tragic aftermath of conflict upon the landscape. His depictions of broken trees and bleak and sombre sketches were nervously received by those who had commissioned him.
A hundred years on from Paul Nash’s time in the trenches, and for the centenary of the First World War, Anna is working on several paintings showing the new life on these battle-scarred grounds and these will be in her studio at the end of November as part of an Oxfordshire Artweeks Christmas exhibition.
‘My Great Grandfather Harold James Page was badly injured with shrapnel wounds in his jaw during combat in Northern France in November 1916’ says Anna, ‘and he died the year I was born. I was keen to see the battlefields he had fought upon.’ And so in the cold bleak winter last year, Anna went on a reconnaissance study of the First World War battlefields, visited British front line tunnels and reflected on the regenerated chalk-land countryside of the Somme as seen today from a helicopter. Now green and verdant, the underlying scars on the landscape from those days of utter devastation are still clear to see, the remnants of the times depicted in the dark and powerful paintings from the First World War can still be read upon the undulations of the land, a testament to the impact of war on the landscape, a new layer of history on the surface of the earth just as iron age forts left their marks millennia earlier.
The Lochnagar crater on the 1916 Somme battlefields in France is the largest man-made mine crater in the world, a striking earthen remnant of the Western Front. It was laid by the British Army’s 179th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers underneath a German stronghold called “Schwaben Höhe”. The mine was exploded when the British launched a major offensive against the German lines on the morning of 1st July 1916, and the crater it created, almost 100m in diameter and over 20m deep is now a unique memorial dedicated to peace, fellowship and reconciliation between all nations who fought on the Western Front. Astounded by its size and impact, Anna chose this for her first picture in the The Battlelines Redrawn Series, a contemporary monument for those lost in the War.
Anna’s other work depicts many local scenes including the Wittenham Clumps and a striking image of an Oxfordshire poppy field. These paintings, and others in progress, will be exhibited alongside art by talented local woodturner Steve Giles who also draws inspiration from the natural world working with timber sourced locally from sustainable sources.
And as we remember the men and women who gave their lives in the service of their country and celebrate the lives and liberties of the county’s inhabitants a century on, Oxford hosts its second Kicking the Bucket, a festival of Living and Dying (until 13th November) which includes amongst other things a guided trail around the Ashmolean, exploring their collection from the angle of life and death; two photography exhibitions at Crisis Skylight Café & The Old Fire Station in Oxford; and a multi-media exhibition at Jericho’s St Barnabas church where renowned Oxfordshire sculptor Pam Foley presents a multi-media visual art installation exploring loss and grief and healing through curiosity and conversation.
For more information on Anna Dillon and her inspiration visit annadillon.com, nashclumps.org and battlelines-redrawn.co.uk. To see more on artist Steve Giles, visit stevegileswoodturning.co.uk. You can visit their open studio at Hathersage, Aston Street, Aston Tirrold nr Didcot, OX11 9DJ from 11:00am-6:00pm on 22 & 23 November as part of Oxfordshire Artweeks Christmas exhibitions (artweeks.org). For further details on Kicking The Bucket: A Festival of Living and Dying visit kickingthebucket.co.uk.
- Esther Lafferty