FLOATING heavenwards, the ethereal, melancholic figures carry the black shroud aloft, bearing the dead soldier – his rifle laid on his chest – closer to his maker.
It is a powerful image and one which left a vivid impression on war poet Wilfred Owen when he saw it in 1917. Now, 98 years since it was first shown, it will take centre stage in an Edinburgh gallery once again.
Henry Lintott’s Avatar was painted two years into the First World War, when the true horror of what was taking place on the fields of Flanders and in the trenches of France was known to those on the home front.
Lintott, one of the first staff members at Edinburgh College of Art, had the piece hung in the Royal Scottish Academy when he became an associate of the gallery, and it was there a year later when Owen was being treated for shellshock at Craiglockhart.
The poet was so moved by the work that he declared it “the finest picture now in the Edinburgh Gallery”. He met Lintott, writing to his mother to declare him “an excellent gentleman” with “reason to be proud of his work” – days later Owen produced his first manuscript of his most famous poem, Dulce et Decorum Est.
Yet despite Owen’s endorsement, Avatar has only been on show to the public a handful of times since the First World War, but as of Monday – the 100th anniversary of the start of the war – it will hang in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery for the next 11 months as part of its Remembering The Great War exhibition.
“It’s not a portrait as such but it is quite significant and would be called a symbolist picture,” explains Christopher Baker, director of the gallery. “It is quite a wonderful painting and has been generously lent to us by the RSA. It’s been specially conserved as it hasn’t been shown for many years.
“It’s of particular interest as having been admired by Owen when he was recuperating in Edinburgh. He’s a figure so many people connect with remembrance and the Great War so it seems very appropriate to us to display what is a very powerful image in our exhibition commemorating the war.”
The exhibition includes a vast array of portraiture in different mediums, some of which has been shown before, but this time the works are set in the context of the First World War.
“There are some very familiar figures like Lord (John) Reith, a remarkable, brilliant man who would normally be shown in connection with the BBC,” says Baker. “But this time we’re highlighting the scar on his face which can clearly be seen and which was the result of his being shot by a German sniper in 1915 when he fought with the 5th Scottish Rifles and which he miraculously survived.
“So we’re looking at familiar things but through the prism of the effect the Great War had on them. And it’s not all famous people, we’ve got some wonderful photography from the home front of women working in Scotland in different industries, many of them doing so for the first time in their lives which are very poignant and moving. It’s not an exhibition about the morality of war, but the way in which everybody’s lives were affected by it, from the great to the man and woman in the street.”
Depictions of senior statesmen, military figures, writers, poets, painters and musicians will sit alongside photos of servicemen and women as well as the original preparatory drawings for the Scottish National War Memorial at Edinburgh Castle. There will also be a group of etchings inspired by the war experiences of German artist Otto Dix.
The figures who played a significant part in the lead-up to the war will begin the exhibition, including portraits of King George V by Charles Sims, and Field Marshal Douglas Haig by John Singer Sargent, and those strongly opposed to the war including Labour leader Keir Hardie and the first Labour prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald.
Then there will be the role of women and the war effort, and the social changes wrought by the conflict in Scotland. Among the women represented are Flora Drummond, a militant Suffragette, but one who put on hold her demands for the vote to support the war effort, and poet and author Lady Margaret Sackville, who wrote The Pageant of War, a collection of anti-war poems in which she declared women who supported the war were betraying their sons.
Women who were involved in the medical response to the war are also represented through Mary Garden, an opera singer who worked as a nurse after failing in her attempt to enlist disguised as a man, and Dr Elsie Inglis who served in field hospitals in Serbia and Russia.
Images of nurses and the wounded on the wards of Glasgow’s Springburn Hospital show all too clearly the physical aftermath of war.
Also on display will be celebrity figures such as Sir Harry Lauder, who Churchill described as “Scotland’s greatest ever ambassador” for his contribution to the entertaining of troops – and whose only son, John, was killed in France in October 1916, and artist William McCance who was imprisoned as a conscientious
Towards the end of the exhibition, things are brought more “up to date”, says Baker, with a “powerful group of photographs” by Scottish photographer Peter Cattrell.
“They shift our wartime reflections into the present and the images of the Somme battlefield as it is today are incredibly haunting, stripped as they are of all humanity.
“They are so elegant yet austere and show the scars on the landscape of the war. They’re all the more powerful I think as his great uncle William Bagshawe was one of the 57,000 who died on the first day of the Somme.”
Cattrell has also captured the Sambre-Oise canal, where Wilfred Owen died on November 4, 1918, bringing the exhibition full circle.
“We hope it makes the powerful point that the Great War profoundly affected society as a whole, leaving nobody untouched, that it reminds our visitors of the terrible sacrifice and enduring impact of the war and the special role that Scotland played.”
• Remembering the Great War runs at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Queen Street, from August 4 to July 3, 2015. Admission free.
Owen’s vision of frontline horrors outlived him
WILFRED Owen, one of the leading poets of the First World War, was 21 and teaching in France when war broke out.
By October 1915, he was serving with the Artists’ Rifles Officers’ Training Corps, then a second lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment.
In May 1917, while serving in Picardy, he was diagnosed with shellshock and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh to convalesce. It was while recuperating there that he met Siegfried Sassoon – a poet who through his work was alerting the public to the horrors of war – and began to write poetry in earnest.
Back in action by August 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross for his courage and leadership at Joncourt on the Aisne. Twelve weeks later he was dead.
His poems became famous after he died; the best known include Dulce et Decorum Est, Insensibility, Anthem for Doomed Youth, and Futility.