Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art to see the exhibition ‘War in the Sunshine: The British in Italy 1917-1918’. It was my first visit to the museum, a little-known collection of Italian, mostly Futurist, art in a quiet spot in Islington. The current exhibition has been widely advertised, and coincides with the re-opening of the museum following a substantial refurbishment.
‘War in the Sunshine’ comprises paintings and drawings by the British artist Sydney Carline (1888-1929), as well as photographs by Ernest Brooks (1878-1941) and William Joseph Brunell (1878-1960). I was initially spurred to visit by the Estorick’s own blurb, repeated by various reviewers, that the exhibition ‘highlights a forgotten aspect of Britain’s involvement in the conflict [WWI]’. And it’s true – our collective knowledge about the First World War is almost exclusively focused on France and Belgium.
But the exhibition does more than this. On viewing the aerial paintings of Sydney Carline (first sketched as he flew a Sopwith Camel with his knees, and later on commissioned by the RAF), one’s preconceptions of the First World War are profoundly challenged. Rather than hellish depictions of trench warfare, we see dogfights above beautiful Alpine vistas rendered in oils, and subtle depictions of British officers riding through town. Carline was a well-respected artist in post-war Britain, but the exhibition suggests that perhaps he regretted his wartime activity on later reflection. He sadly died of pneumonia at the age of just 41, cutting short a promising artistic career.
Moving on to the second room of the exhibition we see the photos of Brooks and Brunell, soldier and civilian respectively, taking surprisingly different approaches to documenting the campaign. Brooks focuses on portraits of the British soldiers doing soldierly things, whereas Brunell has an eye for interaction between soldier and native, with some particularly effective portraits of Italian women. All in all the photographs help to reveal the importance of this oft-forgotten front, whose tying up of Austro-Hungarian troops may have helped to swing the war’s balance in favour of the Entente powers in 1918.
A final touch added to the exhibition was a series of new works by the artist Keith Roberts, of which I was most impressed by Distant Voices, or Caporetto, pictured at the bottom of the page. The title refers to the battle of Caporetto, in which ten thousand Italian soldiers were killed over the course of a month in late 1917. The cracked and broken bells (they seem to be a favourite subject of the artist) are compared to the sound of ‘an individual voice that has now fallen silent’, and they create a poignant tribute to the wasted Italian youth of a battle whose name is to this day an Italian metaphor for a complete disaster.
Although I don’t know whether the artist is aware of this link, the bells are also highly reminiscent of a similar war memorial in the cathedral of the city of Lübeck in north Germany. During a British air raid in March 1942 the cathedral and its contents were completely destroyed by fire, including an organ played by Dietrich Buxtehude and possibly J.S. Bach. During the church’s restoration it was decided to keep two of the broken bells which crashed to the floor of the south tower during the air raid as a memorial. I was particularly moved by this sight on a visit to the cathedral a few years ago, and it instantly came to mind when I saw Keith Roberts’ work. It seemed a suitable counterpoint to an exhibition which to some extent humanises war and reconnects it to the everyday – a reminder of war’s ultimate price. The exhibition is open until March 19th, and it’s well worth a visit if you have the chance.