War Art at Leeds


For the past few months, Marion and I have been attending the lectures on art and the First World War at Leeds Art Gallery. I blogged here about Sue Malvern’s excellent talk on Nevinson; even more memorable was the account of Herbert Read by his son Ben.

I’m glad to say that the lectures are now available online, at http://ww1art.wordpress.com. For each of the eight talks there is a YouTube sound recording, a transcript, and links to relevant images.

The lecture that I’m most pleased to have online is the one that we missed when we were away on holiday, Anne C. Brookes’s talk on the very strange war memorial that Eric Gill produced for Leeds University in 1923, a carving of Christ Driving the Moneychangers from the Temple’.

gill warmemorial
Click the image for a larger version.
Many at the time protested that this was an odd subject for a war memorial: it depicted no soldiers and said nothing about sacrifice or memory.  It didn’t seem odd to Gill, though, since the story of Christ’s attack on the money-changers was central to his understanding of the War. Like many of the time, Gill welcomed the War as a moral cleanser, offering something finer  than the lazy compromises and mercantile morality of peacetime. Different people interpreted this opportunity according to their own enthusiasms: democrats saw it as a crusade for democracy; right-wingers saw it as a chance to revitalise English manhood and stamp out socialism; church people saw it as an opportunity to evangelise; suffragettes saw it as an opportunity for women to show they could do men’s jobs; temperance preachers saw it as a reason for banning alcohol; and so on.

Gill believed that Britain, too mercenary and mercantile, needed moral reform, and welcomed the War as its agent. Anne C. Brookes explains:

Soon after the outbreak of the Great War, in September 1914, Eric Gill was reflecting on the destruction of the cathedral at Rheims in the following terms “… We deserve nothing else.  We have made the houses of God mere quarries for sightseers.  … I have often said we had need to construct a whip of thongs wherewith to drive out the money changers out of the Temple of England.  God has found a whip of German guns wherewith to deprive the money changers of the temples of France.  … Good.  If we cannot construct a Christian Europe in this age, we certainly are not fit to be the guardians of the evidences of the Christian Europe of the past.”

The piece made little sense to many in Leeds, however; as the Leeds Mercury commented:

many people will still fail to see the memorial as an expression of national or civic gratitude to our men for their sacrifices

The memorial was objected to as political, and as stirring up class hatred, at a time of considerable social tension.
The figure of the war profiteer was, of course, a familiar villain in twenties fiction. He is often represented as Jewish, and I notice that the top-hatted figure towards the front in Gill’s carving carries a pawnbroker’s sign, which was often used as a signifier of Jewishness. If I’d been present at the actual lecture, the question I should have asked was whether any of Gill’s critics in the press suggested that the work was Anti-Semitic, and whether this may have been part of Gill’s own intention.
The Latin at the top of the picture is from the Epistle of James. It translates as:

Go to now, ye rich men, weep and howl for your miseries that shall come  upon you. Your riches are corrupted…

One Comment

  1. Posted September 18, 2021 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    I was photographing in Leeds yesterday, and came across Eric Gill’s frieze, which seemed to me to be anti semitic in its undertones. I returned to look up more about it, and found very little, except the interesting question of anti semitism here. By dressing the characters in contemporary outfits, Christ – who is conveniently never perceived as Jewish despite clearly being so, is driving out those who profit from war. With Leeds’s Jewish population of the time much involved in tailoring and probably uniform making, I feel there are clear under tones of anti semitism from a sculptor steeped in Christian ideology, yet not seeing Christ himself as a Jew.

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