Statesmen of World War I

1 portrait of Louis Botha

Statesmen of World War I, by Sir James Guthrie, 1924-1930 - NPG 2463 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Statesmen of World War I

by Sir James Guthrie
oil on canvas, 1924-1930
156 in. x 132 in. (3962 mm x 3353 mm)
Given by Sir Abraham ('Abe') Bailey, 1st Bt, 1930
Primary Collection
NPG 2463


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Artistback to top

  • Sir James Guthrie (1859-1930), Painter. Artist of 3 portraits, Sitter in 17 portraits.

Sittersback to top

This portraitback to top

Physical description

Group portrait of seventeen figures, seated and standing.


Description

In 1918, shortly before the armistice of 11th November, a local art dealer telephoned James Milner, the director of the National Portrait Gallery, London to discuss a client who wished to commission two life-size paintings to commemorate the role of the army and the navy in bringing the First World War to a close. This client was the South African statesmen and financier Sir Abraham ('Abe') Bailey. Bailey's wish for the commission was for it to recognise 'the great soldiers who have been the means of saving the Empire' as well as 'the gallant sailors who have taken as great a share in the victory'. He wanted to show the '[e]mpire how our policy as far as the colonies are concerned has been successful'. Milner and the chair of the Trustees, Lord Dillon, recommended that a third painting also be commissioned as a tribute to those British statesmen who had conducted the war. Bailey agreed to this addition and offered to pay £5,000 for each of the three paintings, with the intention that they would all be gifted to the National Portrait Gallery once completed. The commission was successful and the works - Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope's Naval Officers of World War I, General Officers of World War I by John Singer Sargent and Statesmen of World War I by Sir James Guthrie - are still part of the gallery's collection today.

Although he paid the fee for the paintings himself, Bailey gave permission to the trustees to determine who would be portrayed and who would paint the works. His only conditions were that Dominion statesmen were featured and the pictures were finished promptly for immediate reproduction and distribution throughout the Empire. The trustees' decision to feature all leading British military and naval leaders was an easy one, but the choice of statesmen posed more problems. Eventually, after taking into consideration the limited space for a group of life-sized figures on one canvas, it was decided that only Dominion and British civilian leaders holding office at the outbreak and end of the war should be portrayed. These leaders included the premiers of Australia, Canada, Newfoundland, and New Zealand, as well as the prime ministers, foreign secretaries, secretaries of war, and first lords of the admiralty of Britain. Two leaders of the British Conservative and Labour parties were added because of their membership in the two wartime coalition governments, bringing the total number of figures, at this stage, to sixteen.

By this point John Singer Sargent had already agreed to take on the army portrait, eventually titled General Officers of World War I, and recommended James Guthrie to the National Portrait Gallery officials as a candidate for the painting of the politicians. When they approached Guthrie with their offer, however, his first inclination was to decline, just as Sargent had initially done when they first invited him. Guthrie's hesitation was caused by his awareness of the challenge of achieving a unified and convincing design and his lack of interest in depicting a mere “Board of Directors” image or a collection of portraits arranged like a photographer's group. Sargent persevered with his colleague and friend though and eventually prevailed, with Guthrie accepting the commission early in 1919.

After his acceptance, Guthrie proposed the introduction of one more figure to the painting. In the initial short-list a representative for India had been omitted, so the artist put forward the Maharajah of Bikaner, the Indian delegate to the Versailles peace conference, to fill this gap. This suggestion was agreed upon and brought the total number of politicians to seventeen. Next, the artist spent approximately £1,000 to increase the height of his studio so he could achieve a more evenly diffused light. He was then able to commence work on the life studies of his sitters. Since these studies had to be completed in accord with the schedules of the British leaders, Guthrie did not agree to a deadline. There was still a great sense of urgency though, and the artist was under considerable pressure to finish the studies before the overseas statesmen departed following the Versailles Conference in 1919. These delays inevitably began to concern Bailey, who was growing impatient and wished to get the pictures ready for dispersal across the Empire. Each of the seventeen figures had to be painted separately in London before the grouping could be arranged. This grouping was a complex matter, since the individuals had never been together in one place before. To resolve this, Guthrie decided to create an imaginary setting. Even this had its problems though, with the artist discovering at one point that he had decided to place together two statesmen in close conversation who were, in reality, not on speaking terms.

All of the statesmen, apart from Lord Kitchener, who had perished aboard HMS Hampshire in 1916, sat for Guthrie during the springs and early summers of 1919 to 1921. Sargent, who was becoming increasingly anxious about the success of the commission, offered the use of his Tite Street studio for the purpose of these sittings. As time was so short, with one sitter allowing the artist only two sessions totalling thirty minutes, each statesman was painted in the pose he would adopt in the completed group. Other trial poses were also arranged in a series of commissioned photographs. Thus, Guthrie proved himself to be not only a trained and keen observer but also one endowed with the foresight to determine early on the attitude and even the gesture of the sitters as they would appear in the picture ten years later. Given the pressure he was under in 1919, it seems plausible that Guthrie completed his sketches as drawings on paper before tracing them on to canvas and developing them in oils. He may have also used a similar procedure in the execution of the final group. This could partly account for some of the weaknesses, which include the over-scaling of Winston Churchill's head and the 'relatively meagre modelling' of Arthur Balfour's face. Guthrie himself was aware of these deficiencies and was so dissatisfied with his portrayal of Balfour that on the eve of the first showing of the picture in public he “took the heroic course of scraping out the whole face and repainting it” .

Between 1924 and 1930, interrupted by periods of serious illness, Guthrie worked continuously to improve the unity of his composition. When the painting was finally complete it was transported to Edinburgh, where Guthrie spent three weeks applying the finishing touches. In the spring of 1930, prior to its removal to London, the picture went on public display at the National Gallery of Scotland. This display time was extended as a tribute to the artist after Guthrie's death in September 1930.

In anticipation of receiving Guthrie's large painting, the National Portrait Gallery, London, remodelled its main exhibition hall to meet the specifications Guthrie made after visiting the Prado in the early 1920s. They raised the ceiling of the main gallery, implemented a new, elaborate lighting system with mirrors, re-painted the walls red and the floors black. The intention was for the Statesmen to be flanked on either side by Sargent's Generals and Cope's Naval Officers. Guthrie supervised the alteration and redecoration of this room during the last months of his life but did not live to see the outcome.

As the painting neared completion Guthrie had been anxious to keep the original studies of the sitters together, but he was not in a position to present them to the nation himself. They were instead acquired by his cousins, the Gardiners, who had encouraged him to resume painting in 1885, for presentation to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Guthrie arranged the installation of these sketches himself, which included the oil studies of sixteen of the seventeen figures painted from life. After the artist's death in September 1930, the sketches toured Kirkcaldy, Dundee, Stirling, Aberdeen and Glasgow as a national tribute. They were eventually shown in the National Gallery, Scotland in 1934 when the Gallery re-opened after modernisation. At the time, some considered the figures in the series of studies to be, in some respects, actually more impressive, convincing and interesting than the versions in the finished group portrait. The individual portraits were thought to have “a notable vitality, and a feeling of verve in the painting, combined with definite and convincing character.”

The finished painting presents the seventeen men gathered at a conference in a vast hall, flanked by Doric columns, in the shadow of a sculpture of Nike, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. When Guthrie initially began to paint the picture in 1924 he was directly confronted with the cause of his hesitation: how to produce a contemporary epic which would transcend the uniformity of the boardroom portrait and reconcile the demands of obtaining recognisable likeness with the equally pressing demands of picture making. His solution was as ambitious as the commission itself and involved a conscious reversion to the conventions of Baroque state portraiture. Like Sargent and Cope, he first conceived his composition as a simple oblong but, unlike them, he was prepared to make radical alterations for the sake of pictorial effect. Whilst Sargent found it a difficult task to get any effect out of the khaki uniforms of his Generals and simply arranged his sitters in a row, painting them as he saw them, Guthrie undertook his task in a much more serious vein.

After completing the studies but before embarking on the painting itself, Guthrie made two study tours. He visited Holland to study Dutch portrait groups and Spain, where he spent a considerable amount of time studying and admiring the works of Velazquez in the Prado. Whilst in Holland he discovered a precedent for his own compositional problem in a Dutch 'schutterstuk' or company portrait of volunteer militia. Seventeenth-century painters such as Frans Hal and Bartholomeus van der Helst had apparently faced similar requirements: 'the need to achieve a recognisable likeness which dictated a full-face or three-quarter profile of each figure, to organise a large number of figures in a balanced and coherent arrangement while avoiding rigid, frieze-like linearity and to create an illusion of recession into space; to maintain a fine balance between ceremony and studied informality; to avoid giving undue prominence to any individual and so to emphasise the democratic nature of the group.' The example of Dutch painting encouraged and influenced Guthrie's work, in both its format and execution: contemporary critics likened the way the light falls upon the features of the figures to the early Dutch portrait groups of Hals and Rembrandt. A solution to the challenge of creating an imaginary setting came not from outside influences, however, but from the development of an idea Guthrie introduced into his original oil sketch for the group.

The statue of the Winged Victory of Samothrace from the Louvre, Paris, becomes the centrepiece and dominant motif in the finished picture. She watches over the group of Statesmen and conveys a sense of action and triumph, transforming the piece into an allegory of imperial victory. Three figures in particular are thought to be significant of this sense of action, because they all implemented wider political and social change: George Barnes, who joined the War Cabinet in 1917, the first Labour minister in government, the Maharaja of Bikaner, in recognition of India's contribution to the survival of the Empire; and beside him, Louis Botha, who had led a guerrilla war and inflicted defeat on British troops in South Africa. In order to accommodate the large scale of the statue behind the seventeen figures, the original oblong planned for the painting had to be expanded into a more square-like area with massive proportions. From the right, a slanted ray of sunlight falls like a spotlight onto the figure of Churchill. This emphasis on Churchill is almost prophetic, but was probably dictated by his function as an anchor in the design. After all, at the time the painting was completed, Churchill's reputation had yet to recover from his association with the disastrous naval assault on the Dardanelles in 1915. On the far right, Horatio Herbert Kitchener stands with his profile in the shadows, slightly detached from the rest of the group. This placement may make reference to the fact that the likeness of Kitchener is posthumous and that he had already drowned on his cruiser, HMS Hampshire in 1916. Within the other Statesmen's faces, which were all studied from life, there is a sense of animation, which helps to keep the picture alive.

The picture itself received a generally positive reception. Some critics referred to it as an 'outstanding achievement…which need fear no rivalry from Rembrandt or any of the Dutch masters', a tour de force, and a work that has invested politicians with poetic glamour, but others felt it was Guthrie's least successful achievement that showed 'signs of fatigue; heads out of scale and lack or spatial breadth'. Either way, it was the focus of the artist for the last eleven years of his life and was considered by the majority of people to be the crowning achievement of his distinguished career.

Footnotes

1) A. Bailey to M. Leggatt, “Correspondence with Donor” in Bailey Commission Papers (BCP), National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG), (23 Oct, 1918)
2) A. Bailey to V. Dillon, BCP, (4 November, 1918)
3) R. Adelson, “Sir James Guthrie and Some Statesmen of The Great War” in SCOTIA: Interdisciplinary Journal of Scottish Studies, vol xx, (Department of History Old Dominion University Norfolk, Virgina, U.S.A., 1996), p. 1
4) “Minutes of meeting of NPG Trustees” in BCP, (13 Nov, 1918)
5) “Minutes of NPG Trustees and Sub-Committee” in BCP, 5, (17 Dec, 1918) and A. Bailey to J. Milner, BCP, (12 Feb, 1919)
6) J. Warrack, “Sir James Guthrie: A Friend's Tribute”, in The Scotsman, (Edinburgh, 9 Sep, 1930)
7) A. Bailey to J. Milner, BCP, (12 Feb, 1919)
8) Warrack, (1930)
9) J. Caw to J. Milner, BCP, (5 Feb, 1919); J. Guthrie to J. Milner, BCP, (11 Feb, 1919); J. Milner to V. Dillon, BCP, (10 Mar, 1919); A. Bailey to J. Milner, BCP, (25 Jan, 1919)
10) Adelson, (1996), p.5
11) Warrack, (1930)
12) Adelson, (1996), p.5
13) “Great Scottish Artist - Death of Sir James Guthrie, R. S. A.” in Glasgow Herald, (8 Sep, 1930)
14) Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Some Statesmen of the Great War by Sir James Guthrie, (Printed in Scotland for HMSO by WM Blackwood & Sons Ltd., Edinburgh, 1983), p. 3
15) Dr. Herbert Thompson, “Book of the Day - A Great Scottish Master: Memorial of a Distinguished Artist”, (25 Oct, 1932)
16) Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Some Statesmen of the Great War by Sir James Guthrie, (Printed in Scotland for HMSO by WM Blackwood & Sons Ltd., Edinburgh, 1983), p. 2
17) J. Caw, Sir James Guthrie, (London, 1932), pp.141-2
18) Adelson, (1996), p.11
19) “Guthrie Pictures: At Glasgow Art Gallery: Memorial Exhibition” in The Scotsman, (Edinburgh, 8 Oct 1931)
20) “Guthrie Pictures: At Glasgow Art Gallery: Memorial Exhibition” in The Scotsman, (Edinburgh, 8 Oct 1931)
21) M. Howard, “Frocks and Brass Hats”, lecture delivered on 3 June 2004, at the NPG.
22) Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 'Some Statesmen of the Great War' by Sir James Guthrie, (Printed in Scotland for HMSO by WM Blackwood & Sons Ltd., Edinburgh, 1983), p. 1
23) “Review” in Yorkshire Post, (Leeds, 3 Oct, 1930)
24) Caw, (1932), pp. 228-30
25) Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Some Statesmen of the Great War by Sir James Guthrie, (Printed in Scotland for HMSO by WM Blackwood & Sons Ltd., Edinburgh, 1983), p. 1
26) “Review” in The African World, (3 Oct, 1931)
27) NPG object label
28) Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 'Some Statesmen of the Great War' by Sir James Guthrie, (Printed in Scotland for HMSO by WM Blackwood & Sons Ltd., Edinburgh, 1983), p. 2
29) Dr. Herbert Thompson, “Book of the Day - A Great Scottish Master: Memorial of a Distinguished Artist”, (25 Oct, 1932)

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