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Review: Screaming Steel - Exhibition focuses on the artistic response to war

Work from the Imperial War Museum and National Portrait Gallery features in a First World War exhibition at Newcastle's Hatton Gallery

Epehy, 1918 by Haydn Reynolds MacKey
Epehy, 1918 by Haydn Reynolds MacKey

Several of the characters who feature in Pat Barker’s novel, Regeneration, crop up in an exhibition called Screaming Steel: Art, War and Trauma 1914-18 at the Hatton Gallery, Newcastle University.

Pat even features herself, her imagined encounter between war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen displayed alongside a manuscript of an Owen poem, complete with the real-life amendments suggested by Sassoon in her fictional account.

The exhibition, featuring material from major institutions including the National Portrait Gallery and Imperial War Museum, looks at the horrors endured by First World War soldiers as depicted or described by the writers, artists and photographers of the time.

In a display case is Sassoon’s famous ‘soldier’s declaration’, Finished with the War, which landed him in the soup in 1917 and which opens Pat Barker’s novel. It is a ‘fair copy’, in neat but tiny writing on a pocket-sized pad.

There is also a letter, dated July 25, 1917, and sent by Sassoon from Craiglockhart War Hospital. “I have been sent here for a bit,” he wrote. “Do you know Dr Rivers (of John’s)? He is enquiring into my mental aberrations! I like him very much so far. Robert Graves was detailed to escort me up here, but of course he missed the train so I came alone!”

The exhibition highlights the emergence of ‘shellshock’, a phenomenon unknown before the industrialised warfare of 1914-18.

Victorian psychiatry had been based on a theory of inherited bad character and lack of moral fibre, which is why Second Lieutenant Eric Skeffington Poole was executed by firing squad on December 10, 1916. Treated for shellshock in July, he returned to the Front a month later and broke down again.

He was courtmartialled as a deserter against the recommendation of his commanding officer and a medical panel.

At one point British dosctors were faced with around 80,000 cases of apparent mental breakdown among ostensibly fit and active young men of good character.

Some of the wonderful drawings and paintings of conscript Paul Nash, who became an official war artist in 1917, are featured, along with excerpts from his written accounts of the Western Front where “the shells never cease” and “it is unspeakable, godless, hopeless”.

Nash, like so many others, suffered from depression for the rest of his life.

WHR Rivers, who applied psychoanalytical principles to the treatment of shellshock victims, and Dr Lewis Yealland, who favoured electric shock treatment (as painfully imagined in Regeneration), both figure in this revealing Hatton exhibition.

In words and pictures we can see how patriotic fervour gave way to disillusionment.

Joseph Gray, who painted A Ration party of the 4th Black Watch at the Battle of Neuve Chapelle, 1915, was born in South Shields in 1890 and recalled in a letter the “best friends” killed alongside him, “all in their early twenties – all men of subtlety or imagination...”

Charles Sims, whose study Sacrifice shows a crucified Christ against a battleground scene, lost his eldest son in 1915 and never recovered, commiting suicide in 1928 when in his mid-50s.

The exhibition runs until December 13. Admission is free.


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