The Great War in Portraits @ The National Portrait Gallery

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Keeping in the theme of the centenary of the First World War there are many exhibitions and events that I am interested in seeing this year. One of these exhibitions is The Great War in Portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, which is open from 27 February – 15 June. The exhibition (which is free!) concentrates on the many different individuals that were involved in the Great War, which helps to personalise and see the war as something that affected individuals in numerous ways rather than just key political and military figures.

The Great War in Portraits opens up to the grand self-portraits of the key national leaders who would eventually be caught up in the conflict. From King George V to Kaiser Wilhelm II to Emperor Franz Josef I and Franz Ferdinand, these images of splendour and wealth contrast markedly with the photograph exhibited of Gavrilo Princip – the man responsible for assassinating Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which in turn led to the outbreak of war.

The next room goes on to show the portraits of many leading military figures, such as Haig, Foch and Hindenburg from artists commissioned by governments to create positive images of war. One such artist was Sir William Orpen (whose self-portrait is pictured above). As a review in the Telegraph stated: ‘This show benefits from the fact that, unlike war poetry – so familiar to us all from our school days – the art of 1914-18 is comparatively little-known’. Although Orpen was commissioned to paint portraits of those well-known individuals in the war effort, he also turned to painting portraits of ordinary soldiers, such as the anonymous Grenadier Guardsman, showing the heroic bravery of active service by ordinary people.

The Great War in Portraits
Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen

‘It seems you inwardly grin as you pass/ Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,/ Less chanced than you for life, / Bonds to the whims of murder,/ Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,/ The torn fields of France’.

‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, Isaac Rosenberg

The key centrepiece of the exhibition was the wall of photographs of people – some well-known, others practically unknown – who participated in the war, one way or another. There were the faces I instantly recognised – such as Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Graves, Edith Cavell, Isaac Rosenberg – and others I had no idea about. Instead of descriptions next to each photograph, there was a separate book with all the information of each individual within it. I sat and read through each description – they were fascinating. From the first black officer in the British army, Walter Tull, to Maria Botchkareva, who was the leader of Russia’s women-only Battalion of Death to unidentified soldiers and servicemen, this wall of portraits doesn’t distinguish between class, religion, gender, race or beliefs. Each individual is given their place in history and rightly so.

The Great War in Portraits was an extremely interesting and informative exhibition that really makes you think more about the individuals who were caught up in the First World War, rather than the reasons or justifications behind it. It doesn’t matter why it started or if it could have been avoided, what is important here is that many brave and courageous men and women lost their lives to it and deserve to be remembered, no matter what side of the war they were on.

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Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen
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