D’you know what’s the best unknown picture in London currently?” David Hockney asked me, quizmaster style, one evening six years ago.
“You mean the Canadian generals?” I said. The painting, then on loan to the Royal Academy from the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, had never been exhibited before outside Canada. It is not only the largest William Nicholson ever (about 8 by 10 feet), it is also the most surprising.
“Yes. It’s quite wonderful, actually,” Hockney said.
Commissioned in 1917 by the Canadian War Memorials Fund as part of a commemoration of Canadian sacrifice and effort in the Great War (with still a year to go), Nicholson’s painting is a composition that, far from glorifying the officers involved, assigns them strangely detached stand-in roles. It was, the artist said in a letter to his son Benjamin (later to become better known as Ben Nicholson, the painter), “a Hell of a job.” Six brass hats, as lower ranks referred to them, are stood there, businesslike but at ease. It could be the interval or breathing space between a defense or offensive being adopted and executed. Mustaches are worn and boots are as shiny as can be.
William Nicholson had made his name as one of the two Beggarstaff Brothers (actually the other half was his brother-in-law James Pryde), designers in the 1890s of splendidly bold posters. As a portrait painter he took up more or less where Sargent had left off, and in still lifes and small landscape studies he proved himself pretty well up to Manet’s standard and Corot’s standard respectively.
Nothing, however, quite prepared Nicholson for the challenge of Canadian Headquarters Staff. He was working on the picture when, a month before the war ended, he learned that his son Tony had been killed. Others might have been moved to put mud on the generals’ boots. Not him: drawing maybe on the example set by Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda and working from a group photograph staged for the purpose, he put the figures into a holding pattern, poised to command yet conscious of the consequences. Where Velázquez laid on a vast tapestry-effect landscape of military maneuver, Nicholson did the most extraordinary thing: he inserted behind the generals a blown-up view of the shattered city of Ypres, Belgium, photographed from the air.
Not knowing for certain whether Nicholson worked from a small photo or from an actual enlargement (which would have been extraordinary for the time) hardly matters. What he was at pains to suggest could only be that the generals’ responsibilities were, so to speak, their backdrop. Cause and effect loomed over them. Their troops had proved themselves at the Second Battle of Ypres, in April 1915; they had been the first to suffer onslaught by poison gas; Ypres had become a ruin. And here, in his studio, with his civilian hat and coat laid on the chair at the left, Nicholson creates a war tableau devoid of both poignancy and bellicosity. He, the noncombatant, is in charge. Here we see Major General A. D. McRae attending to a map or paperwork while, slightly above head height, a blank sheet of paper fixed to the sepia photograph invites a caption.
This is not a summing up of what became known around then as the War to end Wars, nor is it simply Velázquez updated. It invites detailed examination, and gets it in Patricia Reed’s sumptuous William Nicholson: Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, published by Modern Art Press/ Yale University Press.
Nicholson was essentially a perpetrator of effects, everything from lustrous elegance to harmonic gloom. His generals parade not authority but wariness. The Cloth Hall of Ypres behind them, obscenely exposed, is a bleached still from the dreadful newsreel of destruction and misery that was to spool on through the century. The polish on the boots matches the glint of melting snow on the Sussex downs he loved to paint daily, before breakfast.
William Feaver is a London correspondent of ARTnews. He is the author of Lucian Freud (Rizzoli, 2007).