By Robert Perry
Few visitors to the Somme see the cruel beauty of the battlefields in quite the same way as Robert Perry – one of the stalwarts of the Friends of Lochnagar and an esteemed and highly respected landscape artist.
Rob’s a familiar sight on the battlefield, with his unique ‘mobile studio-workshop’ – a white van kitted out with all kinds of home-made gadgets for his work as a travelling painter, which also serves as a rough-and-ready place to sleep. He’s often out in all weathers in all seasons, in the rain and the mud and in temperatures so low he’s had chilblains. He also often works in the woods – with permission – at night.
Rob’s from Stourbridge in the west Midlands. He’s exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of British Artists, and he staged a major exhibition this summer at Wolverhampton Art Gallery. He’s a member of the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists, and a Citoyen d’Honneur de la Ville d’Albert. He’s featured on TV many times in the UK and in France.
Much of Rob’s work is in the Black Country, and he’s fascinated by atmosphere, seasons, agriculture and industrialisation, but in this article he explains why his studies of battlefields – on the Somme but also at Verdun and elsewhere – are such an important part of his portfolio.
Why am I drawn to the battlefields? Well, part of the reason is that I have a deep detestation of warfare and the suffering of innocent people which it inevitably entails. I’m drawn to the western Front because that’s where the tragedy of so much incompetence and folly is clearly demonstrated. But it’s also personal. My grandmother lost three cousins in the Great War, and she used to talk to me about it when I was very young. It’s always been part of my consciousness.
I’m sure everyone reading this journal will understand that once you visit the Somme you get sucked into it. The more you learn about it, the more there is to learn. So I keep coming because I have a kind of empathy for those poor lads who came and suffered and died here.
How do I work? I’m part of that English landscape tradition of travelling, observing and painting directly from source. I don’t work in a studio. You have to get close the landscape. This can be uncomfortable and challenging. Using the van means I’m flexible and adaptable, and I’m used to improvising. I only work outdoors, often under terrific time pressure.
It’s this time pressure that forces you to develop all sorts of techniques to be able to very quickly abbreviate what you see and summarise it in a few brush-strokes. I use a range of materials including oils, gouache, charcoal, crayon, ink and pen, and an air brush powered by air cylinders. Virtually every piece I do is done at one sitting. That’s what gives your work a kind of energy.
A few years ago, I did a series of works inside Aveluy Wood. It might sound daft, but I did it in February, so the cold, strong winds, rain and mud shouldn’t have surprised me, although I realised early on it was a mistake to forget my wellies. A lot of the work was at night, when the darkness adds mystery and depth.
I made a note in my diary:
“Trudging back and forth to my van in black night, with a heavy backpack, both hands full of equipment, frequently getting lost and disorientated even in this small complex of trenches, slippery and treacherous underfoot, I begin to become physically aware of two further aspects of the grotesque horror of the experiences endured by those soldiers: isolation and disorientation. “One shudders to think of their nightly treks in the darkness, heavily laden with munitions or supplies for front line troops, trying to memorise landmarks, unable to see more than a few metres in any direction, under constant threat of random shell and sniper fire, with no lamps, traversing mazes of trenches, shell holes and labyrinths of tunnels.”
It was on this trip that I photographed a headstone at La Neuville British Cemetery near Corbie which commemorates two of my grand-mother’s cousins, both of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment. Private Charles Conrad Dean and Sergeant Robert W Dean died within two weeks of each other in 1916. Charles was 20 and Robert 28.
After my grandmother died, I found two press cuttings she’d kept from 1916. The first announced the loss of ‘Bob’ and stated that Charles had witnessed his brother’s death by shellfire. The second, two weeks later, reported the death of Charles. Bob Dean has no known grave, and is commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial.
I remember that whenever I paint it.
All the pictures in this article are courtesy of Robert Perry.
To read more about Robert and to see his work, go to: www.robertperry-artist.co.uk
The website includes several TV reports.