Henry Tonks was a war artist of the highest degree. He did not do landscapes.
He was a Professor. Maybe a little old fashioned.
Henry Tonks said when he taught art at the Slade “I will resign if this talk of cubism continues”
He had taught many artists such as Paul Nash at the Slade School of Art but he did not teach him enough. Paul Nash's paintings have become an important visual reference for us when thinking about the conflict, including this powerful, apocalyptic vision of nature violated by war. Nash was commissioned by a government scheme, in 1916, which initially aimed to illustrate publications with drawings to supplement the limited photographs available. Nash had served briefly in the Ypres Salient in 1917 before being invalided out. When he returned to Belgium as an artist, he was shocked by the devastation wrought by the battle of Passchendaele. All of the commissioned artists’ work had to be passed by the official censor. While depictions of dead British soldiers were unacceptable, this devastated landscape managed to pass unchallenged due to its symbolic, rather than literal, content. Nash’s startling, new, modernist vision would bring him huge acclaim in the art world.
However, Colonel A N Lee, the censor, could not foresee this. He wrote: “I cannot help thinking that Nash is having a huge joke with the British public, and lovers of ‘art’ in particular. Is he?”
While Paul Nash was basking in glory, stylising suffering as official war artist, Henry Tonks was recording the reality of war on a very intimate scale.
Tonks too old for front line action volunteered as an orderly.
Dr Harold Gilles had helped set up a pioneering new hospital specialising in facial surgery.
When Gilles, who was the head surgeon realised that Tonks was working there his instincts to record the remodelling or rebuilding of a face were assisted when he asked Tonks to help him.
He needed colour and Tonks with his background as a surgeon and then as a demonstrator of anatomy understood what Gilles needed.
He was in the right place at the right time to do his bit for the war.
Reconstructive surgery at that time was largely at its infancy and mostly made up of just clinching flesh, and pulling it over to close up a wound and stitching it into a part of the face that would help it to resemble what was there before.
Some would never recover from the wounds they had endured.
When we say the scars of war, he recorded them in all their disfigured glory.
They were humans who had given themselves in the cause of freedom.
With dignity Tonks made a portrait in soft pastel of Walter Ashworth of the Bradford Pals who injured on the first day of the first world war.
In the first few minutes the Pals were cut to ribbons.
He also made a diagram of where to stitch and then he painted him again after the reconstruction that gave him what was described as 'a pleasant smile'.
Art as modernism in a modern age. He had to use the skills of Leonardo Da Vinci for a new age, after all he was qualified.
He said about his portraits “These are the only works of which I am not ashamed.”
He would help in rescuing these wretched creatures lives, of abandoned luck and malicious evil.
Artistic compassion was required.
Imagine the sitter seeing his image and knowing how he looked.
The sharing of this ordeal will have been hard.
It is so difficult today to look at these images, even in reproduction through the internet or on TV.
But look you must, because in these images we see why war is wrong and those heroic stories of heroism in the face of fire fall heavy down to earth when you witness what Henry saw.
Fire in the face.
No matter how hard I look I turn away from the reality. I try again and still my mind wont let me focus, it is too real, I turn away again and again I try to look.
It seems as if you don't want to, so as not to defy a lifetime of watching war films made, rightly to testify to those brave sods who went over the top. But this is reality.
But, we the world turned its back on the truth and it is only now a hundred years later that we can palate the truth of Henry Tonks images of soldiers brave, those without palates, for a lot of them had been blown to smithereens.
Those poor people who would not only be reminded, after the war, of that indiscriminate trajectory missile that scarred them.
These faces would remind every one else of the horrors of war and so they would be saddled with carrying the guilt of others lives cut short.
They say when you are staring into the abyss you find yourself, but these poor people look like lost souls, like ghostly images from the deep. I have spared the reader the full horror.
Or are they just the depths of our of our own spirit?
They make you realise that those who were lucky, were sometimes dead. They did not have to live the horrors for the rest of their life. They were free of the stigma of half a decade of mass murder on an industrial scale in those Flanders Fields.
You don't see this sort of stuff in films such as Where Eagles Dare or Force 10 from Navaronne.
We do not see the blood of war like the trench reality would have been.
You cant smell the stench of rotting flesh.
Even though we know Spielberg can do such a brilliant job of convincing us, of showing bullets flying through the air and hollowing the sounds war makes, he would never dare show this. The censors would not let him. But look we must.
When the Americans chased Saddam Hussains Iraqi army out of Kuwait and bombed the hell out of them on the road back to Basra they left many of them as charred skeletons torn of flesh. The images captured by brave war correspondents, of this stench of death, were banned from being shown to the American public.
They might ruin the breakfasts of a nation and spoil their day.
There is no redemption for the victors of war, for they write history. And as with the Vietnamese murder zone a picture can tell a story.
PR can save a President who should be shot or be on trial for war crimes.
For these works by Henry Tonks show the side of war that I want to forget, but I must look at.
I must learn to stare and so I should challenge Presidents and Prime Ministers and Saudi Princes in pure white stainless linen with blood on their hands.
Tony Blair should be made to look at these pictures of the aftermath of war.
Those who survive who will be forever locked into a dream like sequence of recurring nightmare night after night, cast into perpetual recollection for perpetuity, waking up every night screaming need compassion.
So not only is the suffering of war written on the faces of those Tonks Tommy soldier boys they were branded with them for life, or what was left of that life.
How could these boys be taken and destroyed in the flowering of their youth.
And while I am writing this article I see an image by Francis Bacon.
It looks like one of Tonks Tommies with a twisted face, yet this is of his lover.
It seems that he is copying Henry Tonks style?.......but as a way to make himself look clever, to show his prowess as a painter. He has captured Tonks images.
It may be that he has just stumbled across a style.
Bacon grew up during the blitz it is well recorded. He saw bad times.
But did Bacon ever see these images of real despair by Henry Tonks?
Bacon was brave enough to use the twisted and tortured souls of his portraiture and turn it into modernism.
Why can we look at Bacon's work with ease?
No matter how we tell ourselves its haunting we flinch to turn away from images of poor Tommy boys crying inside, bleeding from within.
Is this because Bacon was capturing emotion and not recording the tragedy of grief?
Who could except the compassionate respectful and watchful eye of Henry Tonks?
Who was the better artist?
For to Tonks I tip my hat, to a man who cared, not for himself, because the pastels and watercolours he did was not gallery work, that would hang for all to see on pristine white walls. But show us our guilt of futile pride and slaughter.
Tonks work has been hidden from public view for almost a hundred years. From a public who would be upset, who would not turn up if they were displayed in a gallery. Maybe they should not be displayed on public view.
They were much more important than that.