Friday, 4 April 2014

Exhibition Review : The Artists Rifles - From Pre-Raphaelites to Passchendaele

Last night I had the good fortune to attend the opening of a new exhibition at Southampton Art Gallery.  The subject relates to the First World War commemorations that are happening this year but stretched back further than that, all the way to the Pre-Raphaelites.  The subject was the Artists Rifles...

Cap badge of the Artists Rifles
The Artists Rifles were one of many volunteer regiments formed in mid nineteenth century when Britain felt under threat from the French.  Raised in London in 1859 by an art student, Edward Sterling, it comprised of men in the creative arts: painters, musicians, actors, architects and the suchlike.  It was formally named the 38th Middlesex (Artists') Rifle Volunteer Corps in 1860, with its HQ in Burlington House.  The unit's badge, above, designed by J W Wyon shows Mars and Minerva in profile.

What I didn't realise was how many of the Pre-Raphaelite and associated Victorian artists were involved in the venture.  Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, John Everett Millias, William Holman Hunt, Ford Madox Brown, together with G F Watts and Lord Leighton were all members.  Lord Leighton became CO of the corp after the original commander stepped down, possibly good training for being in charge of the Royal Academy.  The exhibition fills a marvellous room with their art, together with a set of portraits of the gentlemen involved.

Oscar Gustav Rejlander double self-portrait
as artist and in Artists Rifle uniform
There are some smashing stories of Pre-Raphaelites being trained as soldiers.  William Morris couldn't tell his left from his right and so turned the wrong way while drilling.  He ended up facing his friends, apologising profusely and turning around again.  Rossetti, predictably, argued all the time and wouldn't take orders without questioning the officer at length.  I think we are fortunate that the French never invaded.

Over the Top (1918) John Nash
Of course it isn't all jolly fun with beardy chaps.  The fact that it is linked to the 1914 events give a hint that the corp was involved in the First World War and a stark painting by John Nash shows part of their involvement.  Over the Top shows the Welsh Ridge counter-attack of December 1917 where the Artists Rifles climbed from the trenches in the snow and attacked the enemy.  Of the 80 men involved, 68 were killed or wounded in the first few minutes.

The Artists Rifles memorial at the Royal Academy
Post 1918, the work of the Artists Rifles is shown in such glorious pictures as Shell posters (which I have an absolute weakness for) and some utterly glorious paintings such as this one, possibly my favourite of the exhibition (outside the nineteenth century)...

Pauline Waiting (1939) Herbert James Gunn
The exhibition features works from major national collections including the Imperial War Museum, Leighton House and the National Portrait Gallery (and the Russell Cotes Museum and Art Gallery, hence me getting to go to the opening with Mr Walker).  It also has objects and uniforms from the Regiment.  It starts in Southampton Art Gallery where it runs from 4th April until 28th June.  It then goes to The Willis Museum in Basingstoke from 5th July to 27th September, then to the Gosport Discovery Centre from 4th October until 27th December.

It's a beautiful exhibition with a really moving story to tell so if you are able to come to the South, I thoroughly encourage you to do so.


  1. As Whistler (who else?) once quipped; Leighton was president of the artists' rifles and colonel of the royal academy.
    Looks a good exhibition though, I will try and make it down, I've been meaning to re visit the Perseus pictures in Southampton for a while too.

  2. It is a lovely exhibition and you get to sit in the Perseus room too. What a splendid day out!

  3. Relevant to WWI, Sir John Everett Millais 3rd Bt (grandson of the artist) served in the RN as Lt. promoted 1919 to Lt.-Commander. Much more at:

  4. I'm delighted that you enjoyed it. I think that Southampton have done very well.

  5. Kirsty, my history of the early members of the Artists Rifles has been circulated by Patrick Baty. Thought you and your readers might be interested as well!

    Thanks for reviewing the exhibition for those of us who can't get there.


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx