To Paint a War
3 May 2017
If you were a clever boy at a private school in Sydney in the 1960s, there was a tendency to assume that you would become a doctor or lawyer. The bright boys were channelled away from the art room toward English literature, languages (dead and living), mathematics and science.
Richard Travers conformed to the usual pattern – until, after almost thirty years of legal practice, fate and circumstance combined to release him. Not only has he written the very well-received book Diggers in France – which you all know about, and this book – which I will shortly launch, but he has become, along the way, both an art historian and an artist. If you do not know, Richard’s preferred medium is pen and ink drawing and you will find an attractive example for sale on the internet. It is a beguiling distant view of the old Swiss capital of Bern
Which brings me to the reason why we are all here – this book, Richard’s latest: To Paint a War – The lives of the Australian artists who painted the Great War. It owes its genesis to Heather, who has a creative eye and to whom the book is dedicated. She showed Streeton’s painting of the Somme Valley to Richard and he immediately recognised a certain ‘Australian-ness’ about it – a summer’s day, golden light and a river meandering in the foreground. But intriguingly, on the horizon, at the top of the picture, is the belching smoke of the German guns. Wilfrid Owen described it as the ‘monstrous anger of the guns’. You can see the painting on page 289.
That painting set Richard on a train of enquiry, which soon became a voyage of discovery. And we can all now reap the rewards.
The great Australian painters of the era are all depicted in the book but I will only mention a few. There are the big four, of course – Roberts, Conder, Streeton and McCubbin and the Melbourne group, led by George Coates, that liked to call itself ‘The Prehistoric Order of Cannibals’. It included Percy, Lionel and Norman Lindsay, the Dyson brothers – Will and Ted and Max Meldrum. All of these men, and many more, travelled to London and painted the Great War.
But the book is not all about men, and not every significant painter left Australia. Grace Cossington Smith, for whom I have a particular affection, preferred to paint the home front from the ‘cultural wastelands of Turramurra’. It is a nice phrase but they are Richard’s words not mine.
Another woman who features prominently is Hilda Rix Nicholas. For Richard, she is the great hero of the book. In 1916, Captain George Nicholas from Gippsland was recuperating at the military hospital at Etaples near Calais. When he saw the paintings of Hilda Rix, he was determined to make her acquaintance. And so he did. Not long afterwards, she accompanied him to his investiture at Buckingham Palace, where she watched proudly as he received a DSO. I know from my own father’s experience how much the ladies like such occasions.
Hilda Rix and George Nicholas fell in love, promptly married and five weeks later she was widowed. It was the story of the war. It is little wonder that she portrayed death on the battlefield with such pathos and sympathy. The book is full of such vignettes.
Could I finish by saying something about the writing? The pictures are beautiful of course but the text is immensely interesting. And like the best writers, and too few lawyers, Richard possesses both economy of expression and precision of description. Winston Churchill had the same skill, as did Hemingway. I try…
Please join with me in raising a glass to Richard Travers for producing an important and wonderful book, one that is itself a work of art.