C.R.W. Nevinson

nevinsonChristopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (1889-1946) was one of the most interesting of all the British war artists. An early (lone) supporter in Britain of Marinetti’s Futurism, he renounced that label by 1915, and thereafter refused to be labelled. He continued painting after the war, and was even briefly an official war artist again in 1940. His experiences in the war clearly fed into his one claim to inclusion on this website, a novel called Exodus A.D.: A Warning to Civilians (Hutchinson: London, 1934), written with Princess Mariya Troubetzkoy, which John Clute calls “a Future War tale suffused with interbellum rancour, paranoia and despair about the survival of a civilised Europe”.

Richard Nevinson was the son of Henry Woodd Nevinson (not a typo) – journalist, radical campaigner, and writer – and Margaret Wynne Nevinson. (At the age of 77, in 1933, Henry married his long-time lover Evelyn Sharp, suffragist, anti-war campaigner and writer.) Nevinson was brought up in Hampstead, and educated there and at Uppingham (which he left because of bullying). He studied art, latterly at the Slade, where he met contemporaries such as Dora Carrington, Mark Gertler, and Stanley Spencer. (He and Gertler fell out with each other when they found out they were both in love with Carrington.) He left the Slade in 1912, and travelled to Paris, where he became friends with Gino Severini, a futurist painter, who introduced Nevinson to Marinetti, the Italian apostle of modernity, speed, machinery and violence. In 1913, Nevinson welcomed Marinetti to London, as did Wyndham Lewis. Lewis, however, fell out with Marinetti’s ideas – “you wops insist too much of the machine” (Welch 85), denounced Nevinson, and founded what he called Vorticism.

Nevinson continued to act as Marinetti’s disciple in England. They jointly issued “A Futurist Manifesto: Vital English Art” in June 1914. It attacked other English artists, of course: “in one stroke,” Robert Ingleby has written, “Nevinson had succeeded in alienating himself from his contemporaries: once again he had become the outside” (Ingleby 16). He called himself a futurist until late in 1915; after that he renounced all labels for his work. But even before that he was trying to distance himself from Marinetti. In an article call “Painter of Smells at the Front: A Futurist’s View of the War”, published in the Daily Express 25 February 1915, he wrote “Unlike my Italian friends. I do not glory in war for its own sake, not can I accept their doctrine that war is the only health-giver” (Welch 98).

Nevison’s involvement with the Great War – first with the Friends Ambulance Unit and later as an official war artist – began in 1914. He continued painting after the war, but most critics have felt that his peacetime painting did not match the work he was doing during the Great War. His war paintings had made him so well-known, that when, in 1919, the Czechs held celebrations for the founding of their nation the previous year, he was sent to represent British culture alongside H.G. Wells and Edward Elgar. He was well-known, but not necessarily liked, and a review of an exhibition noted that “It is something, at the age of thirty one, to be among the most discussed, most successful, most promising, most admired and most hated British artists.”

He became well known also as a journalist, writing for a wide range of publications, on art or anything that took his fancy. Julian Freeman notes that “the variety, salacity, and often uncompromising savagery of his egocentric articles remains enormously entertaining.” His writing was very right-wing and often xenophobic; Freeman says that his correspondence (in the Imperial War Museum) also displays explicit racism.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Nevinson hoped to be offered a commission by the War Artists Advisory Committee, but this never happened. Three works he sent them were rejected. They did accept two pictures by him eventually, and the Royal Air Force commissioned him also, taking him up in a plane to help him paint the air war. He did paint a cloudscape as The Battle of Britain, which he presented to Churchill; apparently it still hangs in 10 Downing Street. Nevinson had a series of strokes in the 1940s that left him paralysed in his right hand; he taught himself to paint with his left hand, and completed a number of commissions. He died in his home in Hampstead in 1946, aged 57. The New York Times reported the death of a “genius, playboy and war hero”, while the Hampstead News noted “Stricken artist died in his native Hampstead” (Walsh, 1).

My information is drawn from Julian Freeman’s entry in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, from the detailed Wikipedia article, and from Michael J.K. Walsh’s excellent book C.R.W. Nevinson: This Cult of Violence (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002). The best introduction to his art is probably C.R.W. Nevinson: The Twentieth Century, the catalogue of the exhibition of his work at the Imperial War Museum in 1999 and at the Yale Centre for British Art in 2000, by Richard Ingleby and others (London: Merrell Holberton, 1999).