My wife went to York recently and, in the shop of the City Art Gallery, found this postcard, which she knew I would like.
It is Return to the Front:Victoria Railway Station, 1916 by Richard Jack, and seems to capture the mood of 1916 very well. These are not the naive volunteers of 1914, going off in an ecstasy of flag-wagging, but serious-looking men, going about their business professionally; only the melancholy-looking figure in the foreground gives any hint of the qualms that all must be feeling.
The figure who interests me especially is the young woman with the basket of books and magazines. On first glance, I thought that she was in some kind of uniform, and that she might be dispensing religious literature or similar uplift. On closer examination, I’m pretty sure that she is offering secular literature. Is that yellow book a Hodder and Stoughton thriller? What are the magazines at the back of the tray?
The postcard from which I’ve enlarged this detail is small but the painting is big (80 x 125 in). The style looks a bit impressionistic, but maybe some of the titles are clearer in the original. Can anyone offer suggestions?
I like the way that she is offering the books to the gloomy-looking Scotsman, and looking at him with such sympathy. The painting seems to be suggesting that in wartime, literature could be a way of sharing values, bridging the gap between people, and providing at least a distraction from more terrible thoughts. I’m reminded of the story Camouflage, which I wrote about a while ago.