In Battersea Park there is a war memorial for the 24th Division. It shows the three soldiers of the division – one of whom is said to be modelled on Robert Graves. The artist was Londoner Eric Kennington.
Eric Henri Kennington was born in Chelsea in 1888 and was the son of an artist. After attending public school in London, Kennington exhibited his work at the Royal Academy in 1908. In the years before the Great War he was a keen painter of costermongers (street traders) in London – including an imprortant 1914 painting called The Costermongers.
After war began in 1914, he joined the army and went out to France and Belgium. Rather confusingly (given his name) Kennington joined the Kensington Battalion (the 13th Battalion, London Regiment). He served at the front with them from November 1914 to January 1915, when he was injured and lost a toe. After a few months in hospital, he was honorably discharged from the army in June 1915.
For the remainder of that year, Kenning worked on what became a classic Great War painting: The Kensingtons At Laventie, displayed at at Goupil Gallery on Regent Street in May 1916 (and described in the Times under the headline ‘A Real War Picture’).
The painting is owned by the Imperial War Museum – their page about it describes the scene:
The painting depicts men in his unit, Platoon no. 7, C Company, and includes a self-portrait. He shows a moment when his platoon, exhausted from four days and sleepless nights in the fire trench in twenty degrees of frost and almost continuous snow, have made their way through the deep mud of a communications trench to the comparative protection of the ruined village at Laventie. The men are waiting for their Corporal to give the order to ‘Fall in’ for the next part of the journey: a march of five miles to a billet outside the shelling area.
With the Kensington’s having been a London Territorial battalion, Eric Kennington is undoubtedly not the only Londoner depicted in the painting. In 1915, most Territorial units were still overwhelmingly made up of men from the place (or at least county) unit was linked it. This amazing, stark painting is an image of Londoners at war.
Kennington eventually became an official war artist, although his relationship with the Ministry of Information was an unhappy one. His paintings (including the excellent Gassed and Wounded) were popular and he resumed his war-artist work in the Second World War (which has been subject to a recent exhibition and a book).
Through his career as a painter and sculptor, Kennington’s work was highly rated and covered a vast range of subjects, including his war paintings and memorials, portraits of Lawrence of Arabia, and images produced for the brickwork of a Shakespeare memorial theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The Kensingtons at Laventie remains his most famous work, though: a classic image of soldiers that he produced before such honest portrayals were generally seen. It shows a messy scene behind the lines, it shows exhausted men, it shows Londoners at war.