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Fred A. Farrell

Glasgow’s War Artist


Edited by Alan Greenlees, Fiona Hayes, Joanna Meacock & Mark Roberts


London: Philip Wilson, 2014

Paperback. 80 p. ISBN 978-1781300275. £14.99


Reviewed by Sophie Aymes

Université de Bourgogne-Franche-Comté (Dijon)



Amid a spate of publications commemorating the centenary of the First World War, Glasgow Museums have issued the catalogue of an exhibition celebrating Glasgow’s contribution to the war effort on the Home Front and on the Western Front as depicted in the works of Frederick Arthur Farrell (1882-1935). The exhibition Fred A. Farrell – Glasgow’s War Artist : From Home Front to Front Line in WWI was held from 30 May to 23 November 2014 at the People’s Palace. It brought to light the work of an “almost forgotten” artist [6] as well as a unique type of commission since Farrell was recruited as war artist by the City of Glasgow. These aspects are underlined in the short preface by Duncan Dornan, Senior Museum Manager, which is followed by a short introduction and four essays by Glasgow Museums curators that contextualise Farrell’s war drawings, a body of works that “requires serious reconsideration” [8]. The main bulk of the book is constituted by the catalogue proper, containing the reproductions of the 50 drawings acquired by the Corporation of Glasgow. The volume ends with notes and an appendix gathering archival sources.

Joanna Meacock, Curator of British Art, devotes her “Introduction : Collecting World War I” [7-8] to what makes Glasgow’s role in building a war record so conspicuous. The decision to commission Farrell was a response to several calls to start preserving war memorabilia and historical documents, heard from several venues such as the Glasgow Herald or the city’s Corporation. What set it apart from the British Ministry of Information’s propaganda policy was the “pioneering approach to collecting to create a lasting national heritage” [7]. Through the agency of the Lord Provost, Sir Thomas Dunlop, Farrell managed to record the industrial war effort in munitions factories, shipyards and engineering works, and to travel to Belgium and France where he was attached to several Glaswegian battalions belonging to the Highland Light Infantry and to the 51st (Highland) Division. Farrell’s war drawings were exhibited in 1920 while 16 of them were reproduced in Neil Munro’s The 51st (Highland) Division, War Sketches by Fred A. Farrell.

The next essay, “Fred A. Farrell : ‘A fitting official and pictorial history of the War’ ” [10-15], also by Joanna Meacock, delves into the details of Farrell’s career and commission. It starts with a useful summary of government policy regarding the use of pictures for propaganda, from Wellington House’s Picture Department (May 1916) to the Ministry of Information’s Pictorial Propaganda Committee (July 1918), and summarises the terms of the three existing schemes under which war artists were recruited. The “unprecedented” [10] nature Farrell’s own contract is thus highlighted, as well as his bargaining power. The artist however was unpaid and Meacock suggests that his was a “glad burden” [11], perhaps making it possible to “assuag[e] a young man’s guilt at early discharge”. The author then retraces his family history, underlining that Farrell’s father was a prominent Glaswegian who moved on to become curator of the Trades House and was probably acquainted with the Lord Provost. After training as a civil engineer, Farrell entered his artistic career as a self-taught portrait painter and by 1914 had gained a reputation as an etcher and watercolourist, in a vein that revealed the influence of Muirhead Bone. He enlisted as a sapper in December 1915, was discharged in November 1916 due to ill health and in the spring of 1917 succeeded in securing his commission, beginning with his factory drawings in the autumn. In November he was inFlanders for three weeks and went back to the front in late 1918. Meacock notes that as a former soldier he probably gained legitimacy among the troops and she also tackles the issue of the truthfulness of a graphic artist’s record as opposed to that of a photographer. She comments on Farrell’s “sense of drama” [15] and on the variety of effects that he achieved in drawings that vary from comic-book effects to more disturbing scenes, some of them surreal, others propagandist, often relying on reconstructed scenes.

In “The Home Front : ‘While it was not ours to fight – we worked’ ” [16-19], Fiona Hayes, curator of Social History, discusses Farrell’s 1917 record of Clydeside munitions factories and workers in 10 drawings that depict the working conditions under the Glasgow Shell Scheme of 1915 that involved a conversion of the existing workshops, shipyards and engineering firms. Hayes lists the National Projectile Factories and Filling factories built from scratch or from converted sites and she dwells on the Cardonald National Projectile Factory, the subject of 5 of Farrell’s drawings, which specialised in chemical shells. In order to contextualise these pictures, she draws from a 1919 booklet, Souvenir of Cardonald National Projectile Factory, giving details about the output, the workforce and more particularly the women’s working conditions. She sheds light on various aspects such as class division, the 1915 protest against rising rents, staple food and post-war conversion, and finally emphasises Glasgow’s contribution to the war effort, munitions production reaching a peak when Farrell visited the sites.

In the final essay “Fred A. Farrell: ‘Truthful representations of the character and aspect of modern war’” [20-24], Collections Access Assistant Alan Greenlees retraces Farrell’s footsteps on the Western Front. In the absence of any record of Farrell’s movements and with only few biographical sources available, the author draws from the artist’s annotations on his pictures as well as on The 51st (Highland) Division. He provides fairly extensive details about the 15th, 16th and 17th battalions of the Highland Light Infantry, all of them raised inGlasgow, being the units to which Farrell was first attached for three weeks inFlanders in late 1917. Greenlees recalls the extent of the losses incurred on the Ypres Salient, notably during the Battle of Passchendaele and some of the scenes of daily life recorded by the artist. He then moves on to describe the composition of the 51st (Highland) Division to which Farrell was attached on his second trip to France in late 1918 and discusses the new tactics that were introduced after the Somme, such as the use of creeping barrage and trench raids. He notes that some of the formations depicted by Farrell were controversial or outdated, yet adds that both the 17th HLI and the 51st were particularly fearsome units. After a few words about Farrell’s ability to evoke the horrors of war in spite of censorship, the essay concludes with a quotation from Munro’s The 51st (Highland) Division that provides the title of the essay.

The 50 reproductions presented in the catalogue [25-75] by Meacock and Community Heritage Manager Mark Roberts are arranged on thematic lines, beginning with the 10 works depicting industrial production in pencil, chalk, and crayon, sometimes reworked in watercolour. They are followed by the 40 scenes of the Western Front in the same media with the addition of pastel and ink. These are high-quality reproductions, one per page, although the reader might regret the absence of dimensions. All of them have the quality of sketches made on the spot although many of the drawings of the Front were reconstructed from notes and memory. These works exhibit a fine sense of detail, composition and colour in spite of a reduced palette, all of which make up for the sometimes clumsy delineation of human figures. The industrial drawings are less formidable than the sublime renderings of Joseph Pennell and Muirhead Bone—although Farrell’s use of a high viewpoint in a couple of factory scenes is reminiscent of the latter’s The Hall of the Million Shells (The Western Front, 1917) and the view of a shipyard (n° 9) will also remind readers of his more architectural compositions. The captions provide useful explanations of the technical processes involved in melting, casting, and hammering and they emphasise the role of women in the factories. They also underline the graphic features that enhance the sense of speed, rhythm and energy as well as the modern abstract quality of the some of the pictures.

The first of the Western Front pictures (n° 11) is aptly chosen: this nocturnal scene of searchlights near Ypres has a “strange beauty” [36] that is also found in n° 13 (Ypres Salient – Drumfire ‘Flashes’) and in the sunsets of n° 17 (6th Gordons at Roeux Chemical Works) and n° 49 (Battlefield). The low horizon in certain battle scenes reveals “a sense of visual theatre” [37] as in the view of an aerial battle (n° 12). Farrell’s documentary acumen shows through in reconstructed battle scenes with individualised portraits of men in the foreground and in more intimate views of bunkers, shelters and HQs. These contrast with panoramic views that recall the topographical drawings of the Western Front produced by Bone, endowed with the same effect of distancing from the action taking place in the background. However certain “deceptively still” [49] watercolours create powerful effects with minimalist means (n° 22, 24, 32 a view of the desolation of Ypres 39 and 45). Others display a cartoon- or poster-like quality (especially n° 26, ‘Surrender Englander!’ – Neuville St Vaast). The editors identify locations, units and officers, making good use of the explanatory notes Farrell added onto his works. They bring to the fore the way he managed to bypass censorship and the feelings of poignancy, desolation, comradeship and resilience that he conveyed. The concluding picture is another nocturnal scene, a rare image to have escaped censorship, showing a dead soldier caught on barbed wire, the only one in the captions to be directly compared to another artist’s work, namely Nevinson’s Paths of Glory (1917). The variety of scenes desolate landscapes, battles, church service, clearing station, or mobile cookers and the clear captions give an excellent overview of what the Western Front was like.

This handsome book provides a very clear introduction to this aspect of WW1 and to a chapter of Scottish history that is well worth revisiting. Although the influence of Pennell and Bone on Farrell is pointed out, one might regret that no overall comparison between their works is made in a separate essay. But the focus is rather on Glasgow’s contribution to the war effort. Through the use of local archives and primary sources, the book offers a didactic contextualisation of Farrell’s commission and provides precise definitions of key terms such as Kitchener’s army, divisions, battalions, and clearing stations that will appeal to the general public and students. All readers, including those who have more specialised knowledge of the period, will be happy to acquaint themselves with this set of overlooked drawings that add a new chapter to the history of the visual records of the First World War.


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