I had the good fortune to attend the opening of a new touring art exhibition “From Pre-Raphaelites to Passchendaele”, in Hampshire, which showcases the work of the soldiers from a unique artists regiment.
The story begins when the Artist Rifles regiment was formed in 1860. Set up in patriotic fervour in response to the threat of invasion from Napoleon III of France, the volunteer regiment ‘Corps of Artists’ was formed.
It consisted of painters, sculptors, engravers, musicians, architects and actors; in fact, the membership was like a who’s who of the Victorian art world: Burne Jones, Rossetti, Millais, Leighton and Holman Hunt.
There are some interesting tales of the Pre-Raphaelites being trained as soldiers. William Morris could not tell his left from right, turning the wrong way while drilling. Rossetti, as you would expect, was reluctant to take orders without questioning the officer at length.
The First World War saw a new stream of creative people joining its ranks, going on to play a key role when it became an officer training corps. The poets Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas, and artists Paul and John Nash were all members of the regiment.
The artworks include the dramatic painting ‘Over the Top’ by John Nash (featured), which depicts men climbing from the snow covered trenches and attacking the enemy.
Many of the 60 works of art of display have been loaned by the UK’s leading museums and art galleries including the Imperial War Museum, the Royal Academy, the Arts Council, and the British Council Collection.
It was an excellent exhibition which tells a very moving and unusual story.