Walter Allward’s Despair about War Expressed in Sketches
Walter Allward’s culminating work as a sculptor is the 1936 Vimy Memorial in northeastern France, which honours the more than 65,000 Canadians who lost their lives during the First World War between 1914 and 1918. Described by Allward as “a protest in a quiet way against the futility of war,” the Memorial is not only a profound acknowledgement of sacrifice (“a huge urn … designed to hold grief,” as described by novelist Jane Urquhart) but also a poignant call for humankind to pursue the values symbolized by the sculptures on the upper sections of the two pylons – Justice, Truth and Peace, among them.
Like many of his generation, Allward (1874–1955) believed that the First World War was “the war to end all wars” and fell into deep despair when a new conflict was unleashed with Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, a mere three years after the unveiling of the Vimy Memorial. Allward’s anxiety was heightened towards the end of May 1940, when the British government planted a story in the Canadian press indicating that the Vimy Memorial had been destroyed by the German air force. Adolf Hitler’s famous visit to the monument a few days later was an attempt to undermine these reports, but the Allies suppressed photographs of the trip in order to maximize their propaganda efforts. The story of the Memorial’s destruction persisted for several months before the truth began to emerge, forcing Prime Minister Mackenzie King to make a statement in Parliament in early August, correcting the earlier claims.
Introspective by nature, Allward responded to the hostilities in Europe by immersing himself in art, producing during these years more than 100 allegorical sketches that he referred to as “war cartoons.” As a series, the drawings reflect his deep disillusionment over a war that would ultimately take more than 75 million lives in a little over five years.
Executed in graphite and coloured pencil, the war cartoons explore a broad range of themes. In a work from the National Gallery of Canada’s collection, called Futility, three figures are shown struggling to pull sacks of gold and other loot up a steep cliff, a reference to the futile obsession with material wealth. In The Failure, a single figure with head bowed and hands clasped together is juxtaposed with a globe run through with a sword.
The Dead Hear presents a trumpeter raising figures from the dead in order to enlist their support in the war effort. Visible through the doorway to the right in this drawing is an outline of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, a symbol of British resilience during the Second World War. The famed cathedral had survived a ferocious German air raid in the early morning of 30 December 1940, and was immortalized in one of the war’s best-known photographs, St. Paul Survives by Herbert Mason.
Sacrifice and redemption are recurring themes in the drawings. In War Cartoon, one of several sketches to include explicit religious messaging, Allward shows Christ saving drowning figures from the swirling waters below.
Although Allward produced drawings throughout his career, the war cartoons are unusual for their immediacy and emotive impact, which is achieved in part through gesture, placing figures close to the foreground, and minimizing depth. In spirit, the drawings are indebted to the 82 prints that comprise Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War (1810–20), while also showing stylistic similarities to the work of British poet and painter William Blake.
Most of the examples in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada were donated by Allward’s grandson, Peter Allward, who also gifted drawings from the series to the Art Gallery of Ontario and Queen’s University Archives. For the artist, the war cartoons were private works and were never shown in public during his lifetime. Today, they are widely recognized as being among his most accomplished drawings, as well as an evocative personal response to the tragedy of war.
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