Armistice Day in ‘Art’ and Popular Culture

It is a hundred years since the Armistice Day on 11th November 1918. To mark it, here’s a discussion of how people responded to that day from the opening of my book Before Journey’s End: The Great War in British Popular Cinema of the 1920s [NB cheaper copies can be found second hand]. The final version of the book diverges from what’s below after the first page or so for practical and space reasons. But writing about the contrast between these three pictures helped me form a lot of my early ideas, and I still think it’s a discussion worth having…

Towards the start of her popular history The Great Silence 1918-1920: Living in the Shadow of the Great War, Juliet Nicholson offers an account of Armistice Day made up of a series of vignettes culled from diaries, letters and memoirs.[i] We learn of Harold Nicholson, looking up from his desk in Whitehall to see David Lloyd George excitedly announcing peace from the steps of 10 Downing Street; of Duff Cooper, looking down at the celebrating crowds and feeling ‘overcome with melancholy’; of Vera Brittain, working as a VAD nurse, whose ‘joylessness grew with the same speed as the elation that surrounded her’; of Cynthia Curzon celebrating in Trafalgar square, but afterwards admonished by Oswald Mosley for her lack of consideration of ‘the loss of life, the devastation and misery’, and of D.H. Lawrence and his famous outburst at a Bloomsbury party. ‘The war isn’t over,’ he is reputed to have said, ‘It makes me sick to see you rejoicing like a butterfly in the last rays of sun before the winter… Whatever happens there can be no peace on earth.’ Nicholson valiantly struggles to introduce the voices of more ordinary individuals into her account, but the famous names of the aristocratic, the literary and the politically powerful mount up – Lucy Duff Gordon, Thomas Hardy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Arnold Bennett, Sergei Diaghilev, David Garnett, Vanessa Bell, Osbert Sitwell, Virginia Woolf, Adolf Hitler… Out of their collective account a sort of consensus emerges. Each individual looks on at the crowds from afar, unable to participate in the general delight because apparently they have access to a more profound understanding – a greater recognition of what has been lost in the conflict and of the uncertainties to come. The most vivid images of ordinary people come as snapshots in accounts which feel no sympathy for their joy, and see their celebrations as evidence of venality, stupidity or worse. Siegfried Sassoon is described as being ‘disgusted’ by the sight of a woman in Oxford who,

…had tucked her skirts right up to her naked waist and was playing to the cheering crowd, waving a Union flag at the army and navy cadets with unashamed abandon.[ii]

Virginia Woolf noted in her diary that,

Every wounded soldier was kissed by women; nobody had any notion where to go or what to do; it poured steadily; crowds drifted up and down the pavements waving flags and jumping into omnibuses… I felt more and more melancholy and hopeless of the human race. They make one doubt whether any decent life will ever be possible…[iii]

It is Lady Ottoline Morrell who takes this position to its logical culmination. Emerging from a performance of the Ballets Russes at the Coliseum she encountered a one-legged ex-soldier in the Charing Cross Road. He was too drunk to walk with his crutches, and so his companions were simply dragging him along the ground. Lady Ottoline hurried across the road to intervene, but they roughly told her to go away and leave them alone. Nicholson reports Morrell’s interpretation of this encounter without comment or gloss. ‘War’s contribution to this young man’s life, Ottoline wrote later in her diary, had been to “maim him in body and ruin him in soul.”’[iv]

In his majestic study of the war and its effect on English culture, A War Imagined, Samuel Hynes also devotes a chapter to the accounts offered in diaries and letters of that day. His version is rather more crisply self-conscious, noting that every diarist recorded the day, ‘but only to say that the weather was awful and that out there in the rain other people, dreadful people, were celebrating in dreadful ways.’[v] Nevertheless, he quotes a variety of the same people (Woolf, Bennett, Sassoon, Hardy), and despite his acknowledgement of their tone, still allows the logic of his argument to be swayed towards their point of view. ‘It does seem odd.’ he muses,

The end had come that English men and women had yearned and hoped for through the long war years, yet when it came it was not felt as an occasion for celebration. Not for Art. There are no English Armistice Day paintings that I know of, no great images of Victory or Peace…[vi]

There are no English Armistice Day paintings that I know of. Hynes clearly didn’t look very hard. Or perhaps the paintings that he found didn’t accord with his notion of ‘greatness’. Three images come to mind. Two are the sort of pukka ‘art’ that might have a shot at being understood ‘great’ in Hynes’ world. The third is perhaps better known but… is it art?

The two pukka images are ‘Armistice Night, Trafalgar Square’ by George F. Carline (currently in the Government Art Collection, which acquired it in 1978) and ‘Armistice Night, 1918’ by William Nicholson which hangs in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Carline, George F., 1855-1920; Armistice Night, Trafalgar Square
Armistice Night, Trafalgar Square by George F Carline
Armistice Night, 1918 by William Nicholson

Both of these images reproduce some of the ambivalence that Hynes and Nicholson describe in their accounts of ‘artists’ reactions to the armistice. Their depictions literally distance the artist and the viewer from the behaviour of the revellers. Carline’s image is painted from what actually seems an impossible angle, elevated high above the square at a point where the ground actually falls away towards Whitehall. Perhaps he climbed onto a wall or a statue to get this view? Either way, the artist stands apart from the crowd, who appear primarily as indistinct masses in his middle distance. The only figures picked out are the dancing couple in the centre, silhouetted against the light of a bonfire, and the whole crowd is utterly dwarfed by an enormous twilight sky – an opportunity for gorgeous lighting effects which make even the celebratory fireworks seem insignificant and desultory, hanging like inadequate Very lights in the vastness of the space. Nicholson’s image is perhaps less distant. We are among the captured German guns that were lined up along the Mall. We can probably hear the drunken soldiers hanging off their barrels, and are certainly close enough for them to see us and address us with their jubilation. Yet Nicholson’s technique imposes itself between us and them – the thick brushstrokes and deftly articulate shapes render the figures vivid but indistinct. We can’t know the feelings of the soldier on crutches in the foreground – his facial expression isn’t revealed in the paint. Does Nicholson think he has been ‘ruined in soul’ as well as maimed in body, as Lady Ottoline thought of the injured man who told her to ‘fuck off’ outside the Coliseum? The painting doesn’t reveal that to us. It’s surprisingly tiny too – no bigger than six inches square.

I’m not sure whether these two images would necessarily count as ‘great art’ but it’s certainly true that they have been accorded a certain status over the years. Both have been acquired by major public collections, and as a result are available to view as part of ‘the nation’s art’ on the Art Uk website. I don’t know what Government office the Carline adorns, but anyone can get on a train to Cambridge and stand in front of the Nicholson if they choose to. Nicholson of course remains a major figure of the period, and deservedly continues to enjoy a reputation today. Father of Ben Nicholson, and father-in-law of Robert Graves, the author of Goodbye to All That, Nicholson was well connected within bohemian artistic circles of the day. He’d suffered a certain amount of personal loss as a result of the war – his wife Mabel died of influenza in July 1918 and his son Anthony of war wounds in the same year. Perhaps he had good reason to feel ambivalent about the Armistice. Nevertheless, the rather brilliant account of his own experiences on Armistice night offers an intriguing contrast to the distance of his painting. According to his biographer and the companion of his later years, Marguerite Steen, Nicholson’s Armistice night was strikingly lacking in ennui,

Like many others who had lost ‘all they cared about’ in the war, William was swept into the celebrations of Armistice night. He and Marie went to the Café Royal, which was packed from wall to wall with blithe spirits, who imposed their conviviality on the (slightly) soberer section of the community. Among them a charming young officer lurched from table to table “A toasht – toasht – we’ve gotta have a t-toasht!” When sufficient attention was focussed upon this reveller, and everyone was laughing and all glasses were lifted, he brought out his proposal in a triumphant explosion: “La’zh an’ zhen’lemen – I give you – a toash! The dear – ole – Kaiaher!” – a toast which was honoured as it could only be in an English restaurant at the end of four years of war; the rafters dirled with shouts of “The dear – old – Kaiser!”

William and Marie were swept into Piccadilly Circus, which was a mêlée of traffic, surging in all sorts of directions, of service men trying to find their girls, or their buses, or both, of excited, tipsy, happy people. William, assuming all the authority of which he is, at moments, disconcertingly capable, leapt into the traffic stream, checked it by imperiously holding up his hand, wrenched open the door of a Rolls Royce filled with fat women in sables, thrust in a couple of Tommies while others swarmed upon the roof, slammed the door and shouted “Drive on!” – a pleasant jest, which he repeated until there was quite a perceptible thinning of the foot traffic in his part of the Circus, while liveried chauffeurs who must have shuddered for their coachwork, bore onwards into the purlieus of Mayfair and Belgravia the beaming proletariat who, for that night, were kings and queens of London.[vii]

This vivid account seems very far from the pictures above. In fact it seems much closer to my final picture, one which circulated much more widely than either of the other two and was seen not in the rarified galleries of Belgravia, but in bars and waiting rooms and front parlours of the readers of The Sphere.


This image is by Fortunino Matania. It appeared in The Sphere on 21st November 1918. It is not in a public art collection, and I’m not even sure whether the original painting survives, or if it is only available in this reproduction, but it presumably was originally in colour (colour reproductions of other illustrations that Matania produced for The Sphere can be found in Lucinda Gosling’s excellent book, Brushes & Bayonets: Cartoons, Sketches and Paintings of World War 1).[viii] Matania is well known as a prolific illustrator for The Sketch and for The Illustrated London News throughout this period. It’s not difficult to see why his work was popular – it has the immediacy, movement and vibrancy of a photograph, and indeed it jostles alongside many photographic representations on the pages of The Sphere. There is none of the distance evident in the other pictures – we are in the crowd, their emotions are shared with us not only in gesture and attitude but in the details of facial expression and individual incident. The image is unashamedly part of a commercial enterprise – it seeks to erase the space between the viewer and the scene and appeal directly to fellow feeling, and this perhaps is why for figures such as Hynes it fails to attain the status of ‘art’, tending instead towards popular sentiment and tainted with a hint of jingoism. I myself have slipped into using the term ‘illustration’ in describing it, but it’s important to note that despite the distain of the Establishment, Matania himself insisted on the artistic status of his work, arguing for its importance as a record of the war and suggesting to the hanging team of the Imperial War Museum’s Chrystal Palace in 1921 that his image of the interment of the Unknown Soldier (drawn from life) would make a suitable ‘commemoration of the Great Sacrifice made by our noble sons who gave their lives in this Great War for Liberty and Honour.’ Interestingly, despite these claims, Matania was only willing to offer the Museum a copy of his work. They refused to buy it, and he had to be content with simply loaning it to them for the duration of the exhibition – his father Chevalier was given a similarly dusty answer when he attempted to interest the museum in his image of the battle for Neuve Chappelle.

It will be evident by now that my interest is as much in what these images tell us about their own status as ‘art’ as about what they tell us of the reality of the Armistice night celebrations. Nevertheless I think the discussion above demonstrates that those two debates are quite closely intertwined – some of the positions with regard to the end of the war quoted above also function as declarations about how closely or not the people making them want to be associated with the ‘crowds’. There’s also perhaps a metaphor to be drawn out here about cinema. The paintings of Carline and Nicholson, with their distance and their modernist techniques, preserved for the nation by the nation might be analogous to the literary and poetic texts discussed by Hynes – within an accepted tradition of literary and artistic enterprise, understood as evidence of personal but also of universal perceptions and understandings about the war. The Matania image – fiercely commercial, only available in reproduction and with the original perhaps ultimately lost – might be analogous to the filmed images I worked on in my book, some of which were unavailable to view at the time of writing, and many of which remain lost completely. Those images, like the Matania one, have a surface realism to them, conferred by the indexicality of the photographic process itself. But that very realism invokes the suspicion of critics, wary of the untruths that can be smuggled in through tone, composition, framing and narrative in the name of propaganda – questions that are less often asked of the more ‘artistic’ productions.

These are some of the processes by which the experiences and perceptions of the few who make a claim to ‘art’ become preserved and reproduced, long after the experiences of the many, who perhaps really did just feel joy and get drunk, are discarded and forgotten.

[i] Juliet Nicholson, The Great Silence 1918-1920: Living in the Shadow of the Great War (London: John Murray, 2009): 26-43.

[ii] Nicholson: 33.

[iii] Nicholson: 41.

[iv] Nicholson: 34.

[v] Samuel Hynes, A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture (London: Pimlico, 1990): 254.

[vi] Hynes: 255.

[vii] Marguerite Steen, William Nicholson (London: Collins, 1943): 134.

[viii] Lucinda Gosling, Brushes & Bayonets: Cartoons, Sketches and Paintings of World War 1 (London: Osprey, 2008)

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