Greville Irwin - Retreat from Mons - British Expeditionary Force in France, 1914
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Overall: 61cm (24in) x 72cm (28.7in)
Private collection, southeast England
Watercolour on paper, circa 1930. One of a pair of brush sketches recalling the artist’s experience of the opening weeks of the First World War. Framed and glazed.
Henry Greville Wood Irwin, R.B.A. (1893-1947) was born in Australia in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda and was educated in England at William Hulme’s Grammar School, Manchester where he was football captain in 1910 and cricket vice captain in 1911. At nineteen he travelled to Paris and enrolled himself at the Académie Julian, one of the leading independent art schools of the day. Fellow students included the painter and poet Jean Arp, the American Precisionist Preston Dickinson, and Irwin’s compatriot C.R.W. Nevinson, who, through his encounters with Cubism and Italian Futurists, was soon to produce some of the most instantly recognisable art of the Great War. Clearly there was much to stimulate Irwin’s artistic instincts in Paris at this time, but it is also known that he made several visits to Brittany to paint ‘en plein air’.
In June 1913 he became a part time soldier in the Special Reserve, being gazetted 2nd Lieutenant in the 3rd (Reserve) Battalion, The Prince of Wales’s Volunteers (South Lancashire Regiment) based at Warrington. On Britain’s declaration of war on 4 August 1914, he was attached to the 2nd Battalion, which, as part of the 7th Brigade, 3rd Division, immediately embarked for France as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). Following the BEF’s eastward advance to meet the Germans, he found himself caught up in the Retreat from Mons. His battalion was ordered to cover the withdrawal of the 7th Brigade, which in turn had been detailed as rearguard of the 3rd Division. On the evening of 25 August, after two days of marching in gruelling heat, the 2nd South Lancashires and 1st Wiltshires fought a bloody yet successful rearguard action at Solesmes in which Irwin was wounded by shrapnel in the spine and posted missing in action.
On 18 September 1914 he was reported as a prisoner of war. He received treatment at a French civilian hospital at Valenciennes and was then moved towards Germany, where he was held at an officers’ camp at Osnabruck. In the summer of 1915 Swiss Army doctors identified him as a candidate for internment in Switzerland where he could better recover from his injuries under the terms of an agreement brokered by the International Red Cross. Accordingly, he joined several thousand similarly placed PoW’s in the limbo of Swiss internment at Château d’Oex, Vaud. For many in Irwin’s position time weighed heavily and infringements of military discipline were rife amongst the men. The Senior British Officer at Château d’Oex, Lieutenant-Colonel Maxwell Earle, D.S.O., of the 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards, complained bitterly that unless some purposes was found for the PoWs he would ‘bring home nothing but a cargo of loafers’. It was perhaps under Earle’s influence that Irwin gained his admiration for the elite Guards regiments that he so vividly portrayed in the 1930s. Earle, who was joined by his wife and family, enjoyed relative freedom, and it may be assumed that Irwin too was only confined by the limits of the internment zone. Indeed PoW records suggest he may have found employment as a representative of a Swiss iron furniture maker L. & C. Arnold of Pratteln. Moreover, at the age of twenty-three Irwin became engaged and was married in July 1917 at the British Consulate in Lausanne, to a twenty-one year-old Serbian girl Roujitza Aratchitch.
Throughout this period and for the rest of his life Irwin was plagued with partial paralysis. He was repatriated in 1918 and served briefly at the 3rd South Lancs’ depot at Warrington before being released from the Army in 1919. An impressionistic painting thought to have been executed at this time, featuring cuirassiers under a rainbow sky cheered by khaki clad infantry and titled ‘Rearguard Action, French Cavalry Charging’, foretells of future work and past experience. It contrasts the military splendour of obsolete mounted troops in red and blue uniforms, and steel cuirasses that he would have encountered in 1914 and the harsh realities of industrialized warfare that blighted the rest of his life.
In the 1920s Irwin worked in St. Ives, Mevagissey and Polperro; and, perhaps still under the influence of Gaugin’s Breton paintings of the 1880s, he revisited Brittany. - such being evident in ‘Pontaven: le jour du Pardon’ which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1938. In 1926 he studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux Arts in Brussels, but by the mid 1930s had settled at Ewell in Surrey. From Ewell he had easy access to the ceremonial duties performed by the Household Division in central London, as well as the military pomp of George V’s Silver Jubilee in 1935 and the Coronation of George VI in May 1937. Vivid and energetic paintings worked around these themes perfectly capture the quintessentially English essence of early summer in St. James’s and the perfection of British ceremonial.
In 1937 a selection of Irwin’s pictures were favourably reviewed at a retrospective exhibition of the Royal Society of British Artists where they were hung in a room alongside works by L.S. Lowry. The art critic of the Daily News, commented on the ‘livelier note’ of these exhibits and the two artists ability to ‘animate actuality with perception’. In many ways his work heralded Paul Lucien Maze (1887-1979) whose impressionistic sketches of post Second World War national pageants and celebrations remain widely admired. With the outbreak of the Second World War Irwin moved to Leamington Spa where he served in a camouflage unit from 1939 to 1943. After the war he took a studio the artists’ colony of St Ives. It was here, tragically in 1946 that Irwin took his own life following a bout of depression. His last picture, which was exhibited posthumously in the summer of 1947 at the Royal Academy, was ‘Low tide, St. Ives’