Art of war marks 90th anniversary of Britain's bloodiest ever battle

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The Independent Online

Amid the carnage of the Battle of the Somme, a handful of British soldiers were on a mission as new and intimidating as the warfare they were witnessing: they were painting and drawing combat. An exhibition will open next week commemorating the 1916 battle, which claimed 310,000 lives and left more than a million wounded.

The First World War battle was the first in which officially-sanctioned artists were sent by the British government to record a campaign. The work of artists including Muirhead Bone and William Orpen will feature in the exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London alongside three new works by the contemporary artist, Paul Hodgson, reinterpreting some of the paintings arising from the Somme.

The modern works will hang alongside Gassed, the iconic work by John Singer Sargent showing British troops suffering the after-effects of a chlorine attack.

The Battle of the Somme, which started on 1 July 1916, brought home for the first time the full horror of mechanised warfare and the lethal power of the machine-gun to the British people at home. The opening day was the bloodiest in the history of the British Army, claiming 19,240 lives.

The official war artists scheme, originally set up by what was then the War Office as a tool for propaganda and censorship, eventually included some of the most avant-garde British artists of the day. The list included Percy Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash, John Singer Sargent and Stanley Spencer.

Although many artists were enlisted in the ranks of the Army, the official artists benefited from a degree of privilege. Bone, a master etcher, was commissioned as an honorary second-lieutenant and toured the Western Front in a chauffeur-driven car. Others, including Nash, did not let their official status interfere with their depiction of the horror of the front line.

Nash joined the Artists' Rifles and fought at Ypres, being sent home injured in 1916. He returned under the War Office scheme in 1917 and wrote: "I am no longer an artist. I am a messenger who will bring word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls."

The exhibition, the Battle of the Somme, opens on 1 June.

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