To coincide with of the publication of Jonathan Black’s new book and a display of printed works at Osborne Samuel, David Boyd Haycock discusses C.R.W. Nevinson’s single-minded pursuit of artistic renown and how his printed works in particular were a vital promotional tool.
It has long been my impression that the thing C.R.W. Nevinson wanted most of all in life was to be famous. Born in 1889, he was the son of Henry Nevinson, probably Britain’s most renowned war journalist, and Margaret Wynne Nevinson, a writer and leading figure in the Suffragette movement. Nevinson grew up in Hampstead in a talented, ambitious and iconoclastic household. As he would write in Paint and Prejudice, his notoriously self-aggrandizing autobiography:
At home I heard little but a lucidly expressed contempt for the grossness of Edwardian days and its worship of all things which were established, be it prostitution or painting. Our house seemed to be a meeting-place for French, Germans, Finns, Russians, Indians, ‘Colonials’, Professional Irishmen, and Suffragettes, and none of them had any respect for the things that were. It was, indeed, clear to them that England had nothing to be proud of; a belief which was in sharp contrast to the apparent self-righteousness of all other classes. Puritanism, with all its lusts and cruelties, had created a suspicion of beauty and a reverence for commercial success. It did not matter what a man did for the world. What would he leave? A poem? A picture? Nonsense. Look at his will. [How much] had he made.
This extraordinary domestic atmosphere, combined with a public school education that he hated (‘I might just as well have sent him for three years to hell’, Nevinson’s father later confessed) resulted in a young man who was both shy and aggressive: ‘The only things that I ever learned as a youth are those I have spent years trying to forget.’
Success and fame, it seemed, might offer some relief from the sense of inadequacy and failure that threatened to swallow him up. He chose as his career the life of an artist. It was a struggle. At the Slade School of Art in London his caustic drawing master, Henry Tonks, advised him to abandon any ambitions of ever becoming an artist. Briefly, he turned his eyes to following his father’s profession as a journalist. But he decided to persevere. He drew, he painted, he experimented, he exhibited, he explored. In London he met Augustus John, Percy Wyndham Lewis and Roger Fry; in Paris he tracked down Picasso and Modigliani. His great moment came in 1912 when he met the Futurists and befriended Filippo Marinetti and Gino Severini. He became the only Englishman to join their radical avant-garde movement. From them he learnt the art of self-promotion – a skill that he would exploit through the rest of his life.
Marinetti – a poet and a writer, not a painter – knew the importance of words and publicity in getting yourself noticed. The Futurists published manifestoes, they put on extraordinary performances of noise as well as painting, and they made outrageous remarks and did outlandish things they knew would be reported in the press. Percy Wyndham Lewis learnt much from the Futurists, and used similar techniques when he established his own rival group of modernists, the Vorticists, in 1914: the title for the movement’s manifesto/journal, BLAST, was Nevinson’s invention.
Absorbing the Futurists’ lessons, Nevinson never ignored an opportunity to talk to the press, or to maximize the chances of having his work seen. Perhaps, with Wyndham Lewis (who, like Marinetti, was also a writer) he was the first modern British artist to fully recognize the fact that it was not simply enough to be a painter. It was perhaps this fact that led Nevinson into becoming a printmaker. Etchings, lithographs, mezzotints, woodcuts, drypoint – he practised in all forms – could be produced on a mass scale, and could be reproduced in the press much better than paintings; they would also travel further and more cheaply than canvases. The potential for increasing one’s audience was huge. And he was able to transfer his natural skill as a designer into powerful black and white images that were also used with some success, coloured, as posters. His earliest etchings date from the Great War, and were first shown as a part of his exhibition of war works at the Leicester Galleries in September 1916 – an exhibition that succeeded in making him probably the most famous young artist in Britain.
It had been my impression that this fame – along with his talent – dwindled rapidly in the years immediately following the end of the Great War. But as Jonathan Black’s wonderfully informative and beautifully illustrated monograph reveals, Nevinson’s prints continued to enjoy considerable popularity until the early 1930s, when poor health sadly brought the production of new works to an end. Even before the Armistice his subjects included much more than war: in particular he was interested in cityscapes, especially London, Paris and New York: there are the streets and buildings, but also the people, the traffic and the rivers. He was also keen on landscapes and seascapes. The Blue Wave (1917), which I included in my Crisis of Brilliance exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery last year, is one of the most beautiful artistic evocations of the sea I have ever seen. It would be easy to pick out a dozen favourites: the skyscrapers of Manhattan, his politically agitated Strikers on Tower Hill, or the wonderful mezzotints, From an Office Window and Wind. The best of them do still date from the peak of his powers between 1916 and about 1922, but there is much to enjoy throughout his oeuvre. With the accompanying exhibition of prints soon opening at Osborne Samuel, and an exhibition of his war art opening soon at the Barber Institute in Birmingham, Nevinson’s star will surely continue, deservedly, to rise.
David Boyd Haycock
David Boyd Haycock is an art-historian, writer and curator. His books on British art include Paul Nash (2002), and A Crisis of Brilliance: Five Young British Artists and the Great War (2009) which formed the basis for the popular exhibition A Crisis of Brilliance at Dulwich Picture Gallery in 2013.