Australian War Memorial

‘Accurate to the Point of Mania’: Eyewitness Test imony and Memory Making in Austral ia’s

Off ic ial Paint ings of the Firs t World War


The collection of official war art housed in the Australian War Memorial has played an important role in shaping a memory of the First World War for almost a century. This article explores the importance of eyewitness testimony in the production of war paintings for the Memorial’s collection during the interwar years. Focusing on the repainting of official artist Harold Septimus Power’s canvas Saving the Guns of Robecq, it explores the reasons why—in the inevitably contested construction of memory—Charles Bean and John Treloar privileged veterans’ memories over artists’ interpretations of the conflict. It argues that in the process of memory making aesthetics mattered less than portraying the

war in a way acceptable to the men who had experienced it.

THE AUSTRALIAN WAR MEMORIAL (AWM), Canberra, has a vast collection of paintings of the First World War. Produced under Australia’s first, official war art programme, these canvases played an important role over the years in articulating and shaping collectivememories of this conflict. Despite this, there has been little analysis of whose memories were articulated or how they came to be portrayed in official war paintings.1 Scholarly interest in the memory and commemoration of the First World War has boomed since the 1980s and has gone beyond examining the traditional forms ofWesternmemorialisation, such as monuments and cemetery inscriptions, to explore the diversity of artistic responses to conflict as ‘sites of memory’.2 War paintings have received special attention from scholars, such as Laura Brandon, who argue that as sites of social remembering the aesthetic qualities of a canvas matter less in the process of memory making than the particular meanings that are imposed on or derived

I would like to thank Alex Torrens of the AWM’s Art Section for her untiring assistance with my research of the paintings, and Joan Beaumont, Pat Jalland and Richard White for their invaluable comments on drafts of this article. 1 Scholars of Australia’s official war paintings focus on the artists and an analysis of their work. See, for example, Anne Gray, A. Henry Fullwood: War Paintings (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1983); Catherine Speck, Painting Ghosts: Australian Women Artists in Wartime (Melbourne: Craftsman House, 2004); and Gavin Fry and Anne Gray, Masterpieces of the Australian War Memorial (Adelaide: Rigby, 1982). Anne-Marie Condé has begun to shift the focus away from the artists to those individuals commissioning the official paintings. See Anne-Marie Condé, ‘John Treloar, Official War Art and the Australian War Memorial’, Australian Journal of Politics and History 53, no. 3 (2007): 451–64.

2 The first of these studies to consider the commemoration of the war in a range of cultural forms was Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). There have since been a number of histories published that explore the variety of forms which commemorate the First World War.


from it.3 Central to this process is the dynamic interaction and exchange between individuals, or ‘agents of memory’, who determine what is remembered, shaping or reshaping the memory of the collective to suit changing contemporary needs.4

During the interwar years, Charles Bean, Australia’s official war historian and a leading figure in the development of the AWM, and John L. Treloar, director of the AWM (1920–52), were key figures in constructing a memory of the First World War through amassing a collection of artefacts, textual documents, photographs, film and art. In the case of the official war art, they not only selected artists but also guided the choice of subjects for commissions. This article focuses on an unexplored aspect of their role and criteria: the significance that they attached to eyewitness testimony. Acting not only as agents but also as arbiters of memory, Bean and Treloar assumed responsibility for the translation of veterans’ recollections of the war into publicly displayed paintings, mediating between former soldiers’ desires for the art to capture what they recalled as being accurate and authentic and the artists’ sense of professional integrity. Examining the case of one official artist, Harold Septimus Power, and focusing particularly on his repainting of Saving the Guns at Robecq (1920), this article explores the constant interventions in the creation of this canvas and in doing so provides new insights into Bean and Treloar’s role in constructing memories of the First World War in Australia.

Factual accuracy versus artistic quality

Following Canada’s and Britain’s lead, the Australian government established an official art scheme in May 1917. Ideas for such a programme had emerged in the previous year, when in August 1916 Will Dyson, an expatriate cartoonist, approached the High Commissioner in London, Andrew Fisher, with a proposal to ‘sketch the special Australian characteristics’ of the soldiers in France.5

Concurrently, Bean, spurred on by his role as editor of the The Anzac Book, a collection of satiric sketches and writings from soldiers at Gallipoli, lobbied the government to employ artists serving within the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) to sketch the war.6 Despite competing proposals, such as the one submitted to Fisher by Baldwin Spencer, eminent anthropologist and art connoisseur, and Bertram Mackennal, renowned Australian sculptor, it was Dyson’s and Bean’s ideas that formed the basis of the scheme established in 1917.7 This was

3 Laura Brandon, ‘The Canadian War Museum’s Art Collection as a Site of Meaning, Memory and Identity in the Twentieth Century’ (PhD thesis, Carleton University, 2002), 24; see also Laura Brandon, Art or Memorial? The Forgotten History of Canada’s War Art, illustrated edn (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006).

4 Joan Beaumont, Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2013), xix. 5 Will Dyson to the Official Secretary of the Commonwealth of Australia, 23 August 1916, AWM93 18/7/5 Part 1, Australian War Memorial, Canberra (hereafter AWM).

6 Bean to Minister of Defence George Pearce, 16 September 1916, AWM93 12/12/1 Part 2; Betty Churcher, The Art of War (Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2004), 23.

7 Fisher to Prime Minister William Morris Hughes, 31 January 1917, AWM93 12/12/1 Part 2.

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managed under two separate sections: the first was overseen by the Australian High Commission in London, and employed expatriate artists; the second, managed by the Australian War Records Section (AWRS), and also based in London, came under the Department of Defence and employed artists who were already serving in the AIF. Despite their lack of any professional artistic training, Henry Smart, Publicity Officer at the High Commission, managed the first section, while Treloar, at that time Officer-in-Charge of the AWRS, supervised the artists under the second. Bean acted in an advisory role as the AIF representative to both sections of the scheme.8

These men, Bean especially, were convinced that paintings and sketches ‘actually made at the front’ would form an ‘invaluable’ part of the larger collection of unit diaries, battlefield artefacts, photographs and film being amassed for a future national museum.9 To this end, artists under the scheme were employed essentially as eyewitnesses to war, and were instructed to capture what they observed of the conflict in their work, while enjoying the freedom to paint whatever they liked, as long as it portrayed what they saw. Artists drawn from the expatriate art community in London, such as George Bell, Charles Bryant, Henry Fullwood, George Lambert, Fred Leist, John Longstaff, Septimus Power, James Quinn and Arthur Streeton, were sent to the front to live alongside Australian soldiers for periods of up to three months. Each was charged with creating twenty-five images of scenes he witnessed there. In addition, artists already serving as soldiers in the AIF, such as George Benson, Frank Crozier, Will Longstaff, Louis McCubbin and James Scott, were employed to sketch what they saw of the front when they could be spared from military duties.10

Although there were a range of Australian artists working in various styles in Britain and France during this period, only expatriate painters who were trained in an academic tradition—a tradition concerned with ‘harmonious composition’, attention to the ‘arrangement of colour and tone’ and creating visually realistic images—and who eschewed modernism were chosen for the art scheme.11 Bean and Treloar considered such a style appropriate for the paintings they were amassing for a future museum—particularly in the context of the institution’s commemoration of those who had fought and died. Treloar would later argue during debates about the choice of official artists for the Second World War that ‘[a]rtists of the Contemporary School cannot provide as accurate or enduring [a] record of war as others who adhere to academic methods’.12 As Jay Winter has put it: ‘Traditional modes of seeing the war … provided a way of

8 Bean, ‘Australia’s Records: Preserved as Sacred Things’, 29 September 1917, AWM93 12/12/1 Part 2; Lieutenant-General William Birdwood to Robert Henry Muirhead Collins, 21 April 1917, AWM93 12/12/1 Part 2.

9 Charles Bean, The Australian Records, c.1917, AWM93 12/12/1 Part 1. 10 Fry and Gray, 9–13. 11 Ibid., 11. 12 Treloar cited in Michael McKernan, Here Is Their Spirit: A History of the Australian War Memorial

1917–1990 (Brisbane: University of Queensland Press in association with the Australian War Memorial, 1991), 183.

Hutchison: ‘Accurate to the Point of Mania’ 29

remembering which enabled the bereaved to live with their losses’.13 Australian official art was imbued with a memorialising purpose and, as Anne-Marie Condé writes, Bean and Treloar assumed that veterans and relatives of those who had died would visit the AWM ‘looking for inspiration and consolation’. Hence, such ‘a memorial to the war dead could not possibly represent the war experience as formless and meaningless’.14 Bean’s attitude to modern art also reflected that of many Australian critics who saw it as an ‘alien disease’.15 Believing that modern styles of painting were not a fitting mode of expression and would be ‘insulting’ to the veterans and relatives visiting the AWM, Bean declared that other national war art collections, such as Canada’s, had been ‘relegated to obscurity’ after the war because they embraced ‘freak art’.16 However, Bean claimed that the emphasis of the Australian scheme on collecting ‘sketches and small pictures of what the artists actually saw at the front’, captured in the more conventional style of academically trained artists, made the collection a more ‘suitable memorial’.17

By the time of the armistice in November 1918, the art collection consisted of an eclectic array of genres. Artists, though restricted in the subjects they could sketch by Bean and Treloar’s insistence that they depict only what they observed of the conflict, produced images that ranged across a wide spectrum of genres, from intimate sketches in pencil of Australian troops in the trenches, to sweeping landscapes in oils, to numerous portraits of soldiers. This work represented only a small aspect of the Australian war experience and other significant events involving Australian troops went unrecorded since artists were often not present or were unable to observe specific military operations. It was only on their return from the front that they were commissioned with larger works that, as Treloar later argued, would supplement the smaller sketches by ‘representing the more important events, on land and sea, in which the Australians took part’.18

Commissioning larger canvases of significant events, at which artists had often not been present, made it difficult for Bean and Treloar to maintain the precision of detail they believed artists had attained in their work at the front.19

Consequently, during the war they directed artists to compose their larger images from the sketches they had created on the battlefield and provided them with photographs and equipment on which to base their commissions. Further- more, artists were instructed to consult with soldiers who had taken part in the action and were also often sent back to the front for shorter periods so that they

13 Winter, 5. 14 Condé, ‘John Treloar’, 457. 15 John Frank Williams, The Quarantined Culture: Australian Reactions to Modernism 1913–1939

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 24. 16 Bean cited in Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works, Report Together with Minutes of

Evidence Relating to the Proposed Australian War Memorial, Canberra (Canberra, 1928), 4. 17 Bean to Edwin and Lucy Bean, 19 January 1919, AWM38 3DRL 7447/7. Emphasis added. 18 John Treloar, Australian Chivalry: Reproductions in Colour and Duo-Tone of Official War Paintings

(Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1933). 19 Streeton’s Agreement, 3 May 1918, AWM93 18/7/12.

30 Australian Historical Studies, 46, 2015

could capture the terrain of the battlefield.20 These finished canvases were then inspected by members of the scheme’s Art Committee in London, including Bean, Treloar, Smart, and prominent British painters Algernon Talmage and Luke Fildes. They were tasked not only with judging the quality of the art but also with checking for any factual errors against the official record before accepting the canvas.21

Witnessing war

This emphasis on the accuracy of Australian artists’ work reflected Bean’s own passion for reportage. Bean himself was an eyewitness, living alongside the Australian troops both at Gallipoli and on the Western Front, and his writing was infused with his personal observations of the war.22 Bean’s official histories, with their narrative focus on tactics rather than strategy and celebration of the common soldier, drew heavily not only on what he witnessed of the Australian troops at the front but also on interviews with soldiers after battle. As he later claimed, ‘accuracy is found only in the narratives of eyewitnesses’.23 Dyson, who worked closely with Bean during his time at the front, commented that although Bean’s approach made him something of ‘a dull writer’, he was ‘accurate to the point of mania’.24

Bean’s mania applied not only to his own writing but also to his ideas about the collection of war records for Australia. Both he and Treloar were determined to amass a collection that represented the soldiers’ exact experience, seeing this as being the only fitting memorial to these men.25 They especially prized soldiers’ personal accounts of the war and from the mid-1920s began to collect soldiers’ diaries and letters from next-of-kin as well as surviving members of the AIF.26 In 1928 Bean claimed that this material supplemented the ‘frigid records’ of official documents ‘with the warm, personal narratives of the men actually engaged in the fighting’.27 As Tanja Luckins argues, Bean used these sources ‘to considerable effect in his official histories’.28

Although Bean and Treloar did not clearly define what they understood to be authentic, Bean’s now infamous arguments with official war photographer

20 Bean to Edwin and Lucy Bean, 19 January 1919, AWM38 3DL 7447/7. 21 Minutes of Meeting of AWM Art Committee, May 1917, AWM38 3DRL 6673/286. 22 Dudley McCarthy, Gallipoli to the Somme: The Story of C.E.W. Bean (Sydney: J. Ferguson, 1983), 7. 23 Charles Bean, ‘The Technique of a Contemporary War Historian’, Historical Studies Australia and

New Zealand 2, no. 6 (November 1942); Charles Bean, ‘The Writing of the Australian Official History of the Great War: Sources, Methods and Some Conclusions’, Royal Australian Historical Society 24 (1938): 110.

24 Will Dyson to Edward Dyson, May 1918, Edward Dyson Papers, MS 10617 Box 269, State Library of Victoria.

25 McKernan, 34–49. 26 Anne-Marie Condé, ‘Capturing the Records of War: Collecting at the Mitchell Library and the

Australian War Memorial’, Australian Historical Studies 37, no. 125 (April 2005): 142. 27 Parliamentary Standing Committee, Report Together with Minutes, 6. 28 Tanja Luckins, The Gates of Memory: Australian People’s Experiences of Memories of Loss and the Great

War (Fremantle: Curtin University Books, 2004), 212.

Hutchison: ‘Accurate to the Point of Mania’ 31

Frank Hurley over composite photography indicate what he believed was not. For Bean, the role of photography was to capture ‘the plain and simple truth’ of the war.29 Hurley’s assertion that the chaos and drama of what he witnessed at the front could not be caught ‘on a single negative’, and his resorting to ‘combination pictures’ to show ‘what modern battle looks like’, was unac- ceptable to Bean.30 As Robert Dixon argues, Bean saw Hurley’s composite images as a ‘falsification of reality’ which he would not consent to including in Australia’s war record collection at ‘any price’.31 In 1922 he stopped production on the twelfth volume of the official history, Photographic Record of the War, because he was determined that the images published should be ‘free from faking’. Claiming that he would be ‘the only judge’ on issues of accuracy, Bean, with the help of his assistant Arthur Bazley, ensured that Hurley’s images were rigidly accurate, going as far as to crop the sky in Hurley’s image entitled The First Battle of Passchendaele to make certain that any trace of Hurley’s composite methods were eliminated.32

Bean and Treloar took a similar approach to accuracy in official war paintings. Between 1919 and 1923 the two sections of the art scheme in London were amalgamated under the newly established AWM’s Art Committee and the collection transferred to Australia. Bean and Treloar were central members of the committee, acting in their roles as official historian and director respectively. The other members included Henry Gullet, author of the seventh volume of the official history, Tasman Heyes, veteran and secretary of the Art Committee, and Bernard Hall, director of the National Gallery of Victoria.33

Notably, Hall was the only art expert on the committee, but his opinion was, as Treloar confessed, often ignored if a painting was considered by the other members to be factually accurate. As Treloar declared in 1921, ‘art is not necessarily the predominant note we aim at in our collections’.34 This was because, as he later explained, while ‘[m]ost of the former diggers who inspect our collection may not know much about art … they are very quick to detect mistakes in colour patches, equipment, etc!’.35

Hence, while other institutions, such as the Imperial War Museum, made a distinction in their official collections between, as Sue Malvern argues, smaller images ‘intended as records to supplement the collection of artefacts’ and large- scale canvases of commemorative significance primarily aimed at fulfilling ‘criteria relevant to “art”’, there was no such distinction made in the case of

29 Bean, ‘Australia’s Records’. 30 Hurley cited in Robert Dixon, ‘Spotting the Fake: C. E. W. Bean, Frank Hurley and the Making of

the 1923 Photographic Record of the War’, History of Photography 31, no. 2 (2007): 166; Hurley cited in Martyn Jolly, ‘Australian First World War Photography’, History of Photography 23, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 142.

31 Dixon, ‘Spotting the Fake’, 166; Bean cited in ibid., 166. 32 Dixon, ‘Spotting the Fake’, 165–6, 175. 33 Minutes of AWM Art Committee, February 1921–July 1927 and February 1941, AWM170 4/1. 34 Treloar to Bean, 5 May 1921, AWM38 3DRL 6673/314. 35 Treloar to Adams, 6 April 1936, AWM93 18/1/42.

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the Australian paintings.36 Bean and Treloar conceived of all Australian official war art as preserving for posterity ‘truthful portrayals of the subjects depicted’ and believed it was the responsibility of the AWM as the newly emerging national memorial to ‘guarantee’ that the canvases were both a ‘truthful record as well as a work of art’.37

Yet as the war faded into memory, Bean and Treloar believed that artists’ physical and temporal distance from the front reduced their ability to depict the details of the war. This coincided with wider debates during this period over, as Janet Watson argues, ‘who was best qualified to recapture the “experience” of the war’.38 Progressively there was a narrowing in what were deemed to be legitimate experiences of war and a limiting of those who could claim, as Jay Winter and Antoine Prost argue, ‘the authority of direct experience’: veterans’ memories of the conflict became more valued than artists’ interpretations.39 In Australia, this shift resulted in returned soldiers becoming more directly involved in the production of official paintings during the interwar years. Artists’ work was not only scrutinised by members of the AWM’s Art Committee but also by veterans who, at the request of Bean and Treloar, were encouraged to point out any errors or elements they thought might be improved in the artists’ representation.

Fragile memories

It is axiomatic that any single eyewitness account is partial and, hence, this privileging of veterans’ accounts was not without its difficulties. As Alistair Thomson’s work on Australian soldiers and their memory of the First World War has shown, veterans often edit recollections of their war experience to accord with a public narrative, remaking or repressing memories in an attempt to match the past with their present and future lives.40 To add to this, the AWM’s reliance during the interwar years on eyewitness testimony meant veterans were being asked to recall events that had occurred sometimes over two decades previously. As Tim Cook writes, although veterans’ memories were an important source, caution was required when using them, particularly ‘when the passing of time could dull accuracy’.41 Some veterans were themselves aware of the fragile nature of their memories. As one of four veterans to inspect Power’s Ziza (1935) canvas, Major Claude Cadman

36 Sue Malvern, ‘War, Memory and Museums: Art and Artefact in the Imperial War Museum’, History Workshop Journal 49 (January 2000): 188–9.

37 Treloar to Power, 11 December 1925, AWM93 18/4/40. 38 Janet Watson, Fighting Different Wars: Experience, Memory, and the First World War in Britain (New

York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 200. 39 Jay Winter and Antoine Prost, The Great War in History: Debates and Controversies, 1914 to the Present

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 174. 40 Alistair Thomson, ‘Anzac Memories: Putting Popular Memory Theory into Practice in Australia’,

Oral History 18, no. 1 (Spring 1990): 25. 41 Tim Cook, Clio’s Warriors: Canadian Historians and the Writing of the World Wars (Vancouver: UBC

Press, 2006), 51.

Hutchison: ‘Accurate to the Point of Mania’ 33

Easterbrook remarked that ‘After such a lapse of time everybody seems to have different ideas on matters’.42

Artists who had served as soldiers in the war were aware that their experience on the battlefield did not necessarily make them reliable witnesses. Charles Wheeler, who had worked as a professional artist in Australia before the war and who had fought with the 22nd Battalion, Royal Fusiliers in the British Expeditionary Force, had not initially been permitted to paint for the Australian scheme during the conflict—though Bean had lobbied hard for permission from the War Office. However, when approached by Bean and Treloar in 1918 with a commission for the AWM, Wheeler stated that, as he had not made accurate sketches while serving at the front, any painting he produced would be drawn from memory. He therefore ‘declined … on the grounds that it would necessarily be a fake’: he had ‘never faked a picture … and never will’.43 After the war Wheeler did accept several commissions, producing portraits as well as battle scenes. Yet, despite having fought in the conflict, he constantly requested eyewitness accounts as well as other material about the specific details of the scenes he was to paint.44 With regard to one commission, he claimed that ‘he did not feel justified in attempting to paint the picture without … [this material] as it would necessitate a certain amount of faking’, and only after having received these sources was he satisfied that he could complete the canvas.45

Official artists who could not claim any direct combat experience responded in various ways to the importance being placed on eyewitness testimony. Some were granted access to veterans while working on their commissions. In 1925 George Bell, a well-known painter and official artist with the High Commission section who only reached the front in the final days of the war, ‘had the assistance of General Foott’ to get the facts correct in his painting of the construction of the Eterpigny Bridge. The resulting painting satisfied both the demands of accuracy as well as those of art.46 In contrast, other artists found it restricting when they were asked to alter their work if it did not accord with veterans’ memories of the war. Power, for example, became deeply frustrated in 1925 when two of his canvases, The Incident for Which Lieutenant F.H. McNamara Was Awarded the VC (1924) and Camel Corps at Magdhaba (1925), did not meet with veterans’ approval, despite his having consulted them about the scenes.47

Power was a well-respected artist whose specialty was painting animals. He had trained in Melbourne and Paris and found success in London during the

42 Easterbrook to Treloar, 26 May 1937, AWM93 18/4/40 Part 3. 43 Letter from Treloar to Bean, 17 April 1918, AWM38 3DRL 6673/323. 44 Letters between Treloar and Bean about Wheeler, 1920–29, AWM38 3DRL 6673/323. 45 Treloar’s notes on Wheeler, 29 December 1919, AWM38 3DRL 6673/323. 46 Treloar to Bean, 7 October 1925, AWM38 3DRL 6673/292; George Bell, Australian Engineers

Constructing a Bridge at Eterpigny, 1925, oil on canvas, 76.2 x 101.8 cm, ART11416, AWM. This painting had several titles and is also known as The Bridge Builders or Battle Scene, France 1918.

47 Septimus Power, The Incident for Which Lieutenant F.H. McNamara Was Awarded the VC, 1924, oil on canvas, 143 x 234.7 cm, ART08007, AWM; Septimus Power, Camel Corps at Magdhaba, 1925, oil on canvas, 178.5 x 268.5 cm, ART09230, AWM.

34 Australian Historical Studies, 46, 2015

1920s painting the stag hunt, landscapes and his beloved horses. Although rejected from enlisting in the army, he had been employed by the High Commission as one of the original official war artists in September 1917 and continued to receive commissions from the Memorial throughout the 1920s.48

Power’s paintings were consistently exhibited on the line—the most coveted space—at the Royal Academy in London and his art was admired for its ‘vivid realism’ and appeal to both ‘the critical gaze of the artist’ and ‘the lay and unskilled eye’.49 His war works, in particular, had received wide acclaim in Britain, praised as masterpieces ‘full of dash and spontaneity’.50

However, despite their critical reception in art circles, several of Power’s paintings did not meet with approval from veterans in Australia. Frank McNamara, the subject of Power’s The Incident for Which Lieutenant F.H. McNamara Was Awarded the VC, claimed that the painting ‘was incorrect in a number of details’, particularly in the way it showed ‘the ground … rougher than it actually was, and the cavalry more massed and closer to the machine [aeroplane] than the Turks got’.51 Only a month after this letter, Treloar asked Power to alter his canvas of the battle at Magdhaba, a painting Power believed was ‘one of the best pictures’ he had produced for the AWM and which had been exhibited in the Royal Academy to wide acclaim.52 The special corres- pondent for The Argus had also noted that it was ‘excellent’ and showed ‘much ability’.53 Yet, George Langley, who had been present during the Magdhaba operation, claimed that ‘the scene is very clear in my own mind’ and complained to Treloar about the many inaccuracies he saw in Power’s representation of the event.54 Although Treloar and other members of the Art Committee were aware that the canvas was ‘artistically … up to your [Power’s] high standard’, there was ‘a certain amount of disappointment that the picture lacks the element of action’. Treloar advised Power that he would need ‘to revise the picture to introduce this element’.55

In terms of McNamara’s criticisms, it became apparent that there were competing memories at play. Power had initially ‘carried out what Capt. McNamara said’ but had ‘started a new picture’ after having received complaints about the canvas from another veteran, Colonel Williams. Hoping to avoid any further discrepancies Power had asked Williams to inspect the repainted canvas to ‘make absolutely certain it was correct in every detail’.56 There were also inconsistencies and variations over time apparent in individual veterans’

48 Harold Septimus Power, Service Record, B2455, National Archives of Australia, Canberra (hereafter NAA).

49 ‘Display of Paintings: Mr. H. Septimus Power’s Work’, The Advertiser, 10 July 1928. 50 ‘Septimus Power: Famous War-Artist’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 April 1922; ‘Picture of the

Year, Royal Academy Exhibition: Australian Artists’, The Argus, 28 June 1919. 51 Treloar to Power, 26 June 1925, AWM93 18/4/40. 52 Tasman Heyes to Treloar, 4 November 1925, AWM93 18/4/40. 53 ‘Royal Academy Exhibition’, The Argus, 6 June 1925. 54 George Langley to Treloar, 13 July 1925, AWM93 18/4/40. 55 Treloar to Power, 20 August 1925, AWM93 18/4/40. 56 Power to Treloar, 30 September 1925, AWM93 18/4/40.

Hutchison: ‘Accurate to the Point of Mania’ 35

memories. Power was ‘considerably’ concerned at Langley’s criticism of the scene at Magdhaba, given he had ‘painted the picture entirely from information give [sic] me by Col Langley’, and from this information had, in his role as artist, ‘depicted the best outlook … that allowed of that subject to be painted’. He declared that it would be ‘impossible’ to revise the canvas, as any changes would ‘mean entirely painting a new picture’.57

Power was not a confrontational man. Bean described him as ‘loveable’ though ‘a very shy gauche chap’ and ‘intensely nervous’.58 He took his work for the war art scheme seriously: ‘I have always tried to give my best services to the War Museum’. However, when asked to repaint the McNamara canvas for a third time despite his having taken measures to avoid the necessity for doing so, and considering the criticism levelled at his prized Magdhaba, Power stated: ‘I’m sure you will understand me when I say I can’t keep on under these conditions’.59 He was so disillusioned that he was no longer interested in completing his next commission, Leaders of the Australian Light Horse in Palestine, 1918 (1926), which he had begun working on. The requests to alter his other canvases had made ‘the conditions so unsatisfactory that I am obliged to turn it down’.60 Treloar assured Power that he understood the ‘burden upon artists’ in meeting veterans’ expectations and that it was only with ‘the best motives’ that the AWM suggested

Figure 1. Septimus Power, The Incident for Which Lieutenant F.H. McNamara Was Awarded the VC, England, 1924, oil on canvas, 143 x 234.7 cm (Australian War Memorial, ART08007).

57 Heyes to Treloar, 4 November 1925, and Power to Treloar, 30 September 1925, AWM93 18/4/40. 58 Bean, Diary, 3 September 1917, AWM38 3DRL606/88/1. 59 Power and Treloar, 30 September 1925, AWM93 18/4/40. 60 Heyes to Treloar, 4 November 1925, and Power and Treloar, 30 September 1925, AWM93 18/


36 Australian Historical Studies, 46, 2015

revisions and with the aim of obtaining a canvas that was accurate and artistic.61

Eventually, through some deft and delicate letter writing, Treloar persuaded Power to continue with his work and Power eventually altered both canvases.

Septimus Power’s Saving the Guns at Robecq

However, worse was to come for Power. While it was commonplace for Bean and Treloar to ask artists to alter their work before the AWM acquired the final painting, they rarely requested that a canvas be repainted after they had accepted it. Yet, this was the fate of Power’s Saving the Guns at Robecq (1920), which depicted the 45th and 47th Batteries of the 12th Field Artillery Brigade withdrawing from the line during the battle of the Lys in April 1918 and saving all the guns in the face of approaching German troops.62 Power had visited the Western Front several times during the war as an official artist and had been attached to the 1st Division. Although he had not been present at this specific event, Bean and Treloar had supplied him with written material about the incident at Robecq when commissioning the canvas in 1919. They had also directed Power to consult with officers of the 12th Field Artillery Brigade on the particulars of the incident.63 When completed by Power in 1920, the painting had been inspected for any factual inaccuracies by the AWM’s representatives in London who, finding none, had accepted the canvas.64 The painting had been displayed on and off during the 1920s. It had also been published in a book of colour and duo-tone reproductions of the AWM’s official paintings, edited by Treloar, Australian Chivalry, without its drawing censure from veterans.65

Yet, in 1933, thirteen years after the painting had been completed, Bean received a letter from Lieutenant-Colonel George Hill Adams challenging the accuracy of Power’s interpretation of the scene. Adams had been an officer with the 47th Field Artillery Battery, had received the Military Cross in 1917 and had made a successful career in the army on returning to Australia.66 After seeing Power’s painting he wrote:

The picture is certainly very good, but as a representation of what occurred on that occasion it is ridiculous … it seemed to me that if this were a matter worthy of being recorded in paint it would be a pity that it should be a source of amusement to anyone who was there.

61 Treloar to Power, 11 December 1925, AWM93 18/4/40. 62 Septimus Power, Saving the Guns at Robecq, 1920, oil on canvas, 152.3 x 244 cm, ART03332, AWM. 63 Treloar to Bean, 24 August 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 64 Charles Bean, ‘Australian War Memorial Pictures Commissioned’, 1919, AWM38 3DRL 6673/286;

Treloar to Adams, 4 September 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 65 Saving the Guns at Robecq was displayed in the first exhibition of the AWM in Melbourne, 1922.

Charles Bean, Australian War Museum: The Relics and Records of Australia’s Effort in the Defence of the Empire, 1914–1918 (Melbourne: AWM, 1922), 27. Treloar, Australian Chivalry.

66 Adams George Hill, Service Record, 1914 – 1920, B2455, NAA; letters between Treloar and Adams, 1929, AWM93 12/11/2109; The Army List of the Australian Military Forces (Melbourne: Govt. Printer, 1940), 1003.

Hutchison: ‘Accurate to the Point of Mania’ 37

Despite having no professional artistic training, Adams supplied his own small sketch ‘of what actually occurred’.67

Bean and Treloar were greatly troubled by Adams’ comments, particularly because they were unable to understand how the painting, which had followed the process of production prescribed for larger commissions, could be so inaccurate. Consequently, Treloar suggested that the official records of the incident be consulted before any action was taken and that Power should be contacted to ascertain ‘from whom he obtained data for the picture’.68 Although he never questioned that, ‘As one who took part in the incident Colonel Adams must … know what he is talking about’, Treloar did note that Power’s painting was ‘not inconsistent’ with what he believed to be an ‘authoritative’ account written by Frederic Cutlack, an intelligence officer in the British Expeditionary Force attached to the AIF during the war and later an official war correspondent and author of the eighth volume of the official history, Australian Flying Corps.69

Figure 2. Original version of Septimus Power’s Saving the Guns at Robecq, England, 1920, oil on canvas, 152.3 x 244 cm. Reproduced in John Treloar, Australian Chivalry: Reproductions in Colour and Duo-tone of Official War Paintings (Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1933).

67 Lieutenant-Colonel G. H. Adams to Charles Bean, 4 August 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. Unfortu- nately, the sketch has not survived.

68 Treloar to Bean, 24 August 1933, and Treloar to Bean, 30 August 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 69 Treloar to Bean, 24 August 1933, and Treloar to Adams, 4 October 1933, AWM93 18/1/42; A. J.

Sweeting, ‘Cutlack, Frederic Morley (1886–1967)’, in Australian Dictionary of Biography (Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University), cutlack-frederic-morley-5859 (accessed 25 August 2014); Frederic Cutlack, The Australians: Their Final Campaign, 1918. An Account of the Concluding Operations of the Australian Divisions in France (London: Sampson Low, Marston, 1918).

38 Australian Historical Studies, 46, 2015

However, after considering Treloar’s material, as well as his own records, amongst which were ‘two excellent accounts’ of the incident from Colonel Lloyd, commander of the 12th Field Artillery Brigade and Lieutenant Waterhouse of the 47th Battery that described ‘many of the details required to be known’, Bean was convinced that Power’s representation was flawed.70 Unable to discover where Power had obtained his information or if he had consulted veterans as instructed, Treloar officially concluded that the material supplied by the AWM to Power had been insufficient and the details ‘necessary for the painting of a picture’ omitted.71 Treloar pointed out that ultimately the AWM was at fault since the inaccuracies should have been caught at the time the commission was produced, and it seemed that ‘the precautions usually adopted to ensure the factual accuracy of a painting appear to have been relaxed in this case’.72

What followed illustrates the extent to which Bean and Treloar privileged the lived experience of combatants over a professional artist’s interpretation of the war. Initially Bean raised the idea that the canvas might be sold, or be given back to Power as part payment for another commission. Drawing on his own authority as historian and eyewitness, Bean also proposed two different scenes if the AWM ever decided to recommission an artist with the Robecq scene: such a painting, he suggested, should focus on ‘the batteries beginning to limber up’ or ‘a couple of guns racing along the Robecq road’.73 Both of these, as it happened, aligned closely with his own description of the incident in the official history.74 However, Bean also claimed that ‘perhaps the best solution might be to withdraw the picture and say nothing about it until he [Power] approaches us, as he probably will some day, with an inquiry as to whether we have any more work for him’. Alternatively, Bean suggested that the AWM might keep Power’s work and consider it an ‘imaginative’ piece depicting the Australian artillery in action, and that another canvas of the Robecq incident be painted if the opportunity arose later.75 Treloar, in turn, agreed that the Art Committee should ‘regard it as an imaginative work’, and suggested that the AWM ‘exhibit it under the more generic title “Bringing Up the Guns”’, discarding its links with a specific incident in the war and thereby bypassing Adams’ criticisms about its accuracy. In suggesting this Treloar appeared to overlook the fact that there was already a painting by Power entitled Bringing Up the Guns which had been completed in 1921.76 As a further option, there was some discussion between Bean and Treloar about altering the painting and its title to show an incident Bean himself witnessed

70 Bean to Treloar, 4 September 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 71 Treloar to Bean, 7 September 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 72 Treloar to Adams, 4 October 1933, AWM93 18/1/42; extract from 21st Meeting of Finance

Committee, 11 December 1933, AWM93 18/4/40. 73 Bean to Treloar, 4 September 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 74 Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France: During the Main German Offensive 1918, Official

History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, vol. 5 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1941), 438–42. 75 Bean to Treloar, 4 September 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 76 Treloar to Bean, 7 September 1933, AWM93 18/1/42; Septimus Power, Bringing Up the Guns, oil

on canvas, 147.3 x 233.7 cm, 1921, ART03334, AWM.

Hutchison: ‘Accurate to the Point of Mania’ 39

near Lihons in 1918, which he claimed the painting fairly closely resembled.77

Given Power’s reaction to criticism of his work in 1925, Bean and Treloar were faced with a delicate task. Bean asked Adams as to how the painting might be altered to make it ‘more truly representative [of] any phase of this incident’.78 At the same time he wrote to Treloar noting that ‘Power’s pride in his work must be considered’.79 Bean then met with Power to discuss Adams’ criticisms and ascertain if anything could be done to ‘fix’ the painting. Together they concluded that Adams’ suggestions were so extreme that they could not be carried out without the scene being painted anew.80 However, this did not satisfy Adams who insisted that ‘it would be comparatively easy to alter the picture in question’. He added that ‘apart from the fact that the picture is incorrect as regards the terrain it would be a great pity if such an excellent painting were withdrawn permanently’. Adams even offered to ‘assist’ the AWM with the details and went on to explain that alterations were necessary only to eliminate the team in the background on the left of the painting.81 Power found that these suggestions were not as drastic as he and Bean had initially anticipated and, after speaking with Adams in person at the urging of Treloar, decided he would be able alter the canvas to accommodate Adams’ memory of the incident.82

In late 1934 Power sent a photograph of the revised painting to Treloar with an express wish that it also be forwarded to Adams. Treloar, in turn, invited Adams to ‘criticize it so that [Power] may know if it is now satisfactory or requires further alteration’.83 In response, Adams replied that the ‘picture gives a very faithful idea of what happened’, adding that he could find ‘nothing to criticize in the general surroundings’ and thought ‘the picture excellent’.84 The reworked painting differed significantly from the first version. For example, there was no sign of the team on the left who have been replaced by several guns. However, Adams was most impressed with the striking change in the landscape, declaring that Power’s representation of his own description of the surroundings was ‘extraordinarily good’, especially since ‘he could only paint them from his own imagination’.85

The reasons why Power deferred to those with less artistic authority than himself remain elusive in the archives. Possibly, he did not want to jeopardise his chances of obtaining further commissions from the AWM. As Treloar commented, he had ‘been having a rather thin time in London’ and he

77 Bean to Treloar, 4 September 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 78 Bean to Adams, c.18 August 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 79 Bean to Treloar, 4 September 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 80 Note from Treloar, 2 October 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 81 Adams to Bean, 7 October 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 82 Treloar to Adams, 11 October 1933, and Treloar to Heyes, 30 November 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 83 Treloar to Adams, 18 December 1934, AWM93 18/1/42. 84 Adams to Treloar, 3 January 1935, AWM93 18/1/42. 85 Adams to Treloar, 8 April 1936, AWM93 18/1/42.

40 Australian Historical Studies, 46, 2015

appeared keen to talk with Adams in late 1933.86 Further, though many of the state galleries had acquired war paintings from official artists in the years immediately after the conflict, as Treloar acknowledged, in the 1930s ‘war pictures are not popular with galleries’ and it was unlikely that Power could have sold the canvas to another institution.87 He was paid one hundred pounds to alter the canvas, and although only roughly a third of what he was paid for the original commission, this may have appeared to him the best option for a painting unlikely to be popular elsewhere.88

Unsurprisingly, there were details about the Robecq incident that Adams remembered incorrectly, as well as ones that he missed. For example, in reference to a key component of the gun, he emphatically stated that ‘In the case of the air recuperator the buffer was below the gun instead of being on top as in the case of the spring buffer’.89 Treloar checked this detail with Robert Peacock, librarian at the Department of Defence, only to learn that the 18 pounder Mark II had the air recuperator on top of the gun and not below as Adams claimed.90 When Treloar then asked Adams if the first gun, the Mark II, was the gun he had in mind and supplied him with photographs, he replied that ‘It is quite clear from the photographs that my memory was at

Figure 3. Photograph of the altered painting, c.1934 (Australian War Memorial Registry File, AWM93 18/1/42).

86 Treloar to Bean, 13 February 1933, AWM38 3 DRL 6673/314; Treloar to Adams, 2 November 1933, AWM93 18/1/42.

87 Treloar to Bean, 7 September 1933, AWM93 18/1/42. 88 Extract from 21st Meeting of Finance Committee, 11 December 1933, AWM93 18/4/40. 89 Adams to Treloar, 9 May 1936, AWM93 18/1/42. 90 Treloar to Peacock, 6 June 1936, AWM93 18/1/42.

Hutchison: ‘Accurate to the Point of Mania’ 41

fault in this matter’.91 Treloar claimed to have shown the repainted image to several other former AIF artillerymen who allegedly pointed out some minor inaccuracies that still existed in the painting. However, whether this occurred remains uncertain.92 Regardless, it became evident that there were other details Adams missed, such as whether, as Treloar asked, Power had ‘erred in placing a saddle on the off-side horse’.93 Adams took another, and closer, look at the photograph of the repainted canvas and declared that it was not a saddle but a rolled blanket which in itself was wrong as it should be laid flat against the horse. He also commented that there was a small error in the depiction of the team on the right, where a brake seemed to be showing on the off wheel of the gun instead of on the gun.94

Treloar relayed these remaining inaccurate details to the long-suffering Power, leaving him to decide on ‘whatever action they may suggest’.95 Power in fact chose to ignore several of Adams’ comments, as became apparent when the repainted canvas arrived at the AWM’s premises in Melbourne in 1936. Adams pointed out these details, particularly noting that the gun limber was still shown with a brake.96 As a result, Power returned to the Exhibition Building to make

Figure 4. Final version of Septimus Power’s Saving the Guns at Robecq, England, oil on canvas, 152.3 x 244 cm (Australian War Memorial, ART03332).

91 Treloar to Adams, 8 July 1936, AWM93 18/1/42; Adams to Treloar, 20 July 1936, AWM93 18/ 1/42

92 Treloar to Power, 3 May 1935, AWM93 18/1/42 93 Treloar to Adams, 5 February 1935, AWM93 18/1/42. 94 Adams to Treloar, 8 February 1935, AWM93 18/1/42. 95 Ibid. 96 Adams to Treloar, 8 April 1936, and Treloar to Power, 22 July 1936, AWM93 18/1/42.

42 Australian Historical Studies, 46, 2015

these final corrections. Overall, though, Adams was very pleased with the picture and wrote to Treloar that it ‘generally gives a very true idea of what actually happened’ and ‘the general spirit of the thing is just right’.97


Accuracy came at a price. In this case, it was the artistic quality of the painting which was lost in the process of translating eyewitness testimony into paint. Power’s original canvas was a vivid and arresting representation of a scene that evoked the chaotic atmosphere of battle. The final painting lacked this intensity. The scene is stiff, the dash and spontaneity Power was famous for in his war work having disappeared in the attempt to impose factual accuracy. The landscape in which the men fight is almost serene, the menacing clouds, planes and towering smoke from the distant artillery have vanished, replaced by more tranquil surroundings—a featureless sky, an empty horizon, a few willow trees, a bridge over a stream. While there remain some traces of the energy captured in the original, such as the rushing momentum of the central team of horses in the foreground, the painting as a whole has lost its vitality and the repainted section on the left is particularly stilted.

Adams was aware of the painting’s loss of drama, noting when he viewed the final alterations to the canvas that ‘it is probably a good deal less dramatic than the original painting’.98 However, in a statement that candidly articulated Bean and Treloar’s aims for the war art, Treloar assured Adams of their gratitude for his assistance and satisfaction with the repainted image:

We have always endeavoured to ensure the accuracy of paintings so that they can be handed down to posterity with the assurance that their veracity is vouched for by men with first-hand knowledge of the subjects depicted. Unfortunately we ‘slipped’ with regard to the Robecq painting and are, therefore, grateful that you not only drew attention to its shortcomings but furnished the information which enabled the artist to achieve the historical accuracy for which we have always striven.99

For Treloar, aesthetics mattered less than the accuracy of the painting and its depiction of a scene drawn from the testimony of an eyewitness who could claim the authority of lived experience.

After the pedantry of this process, the question arises, was the repainted canvas an effective site of memory? Certainly it conformed to Bean’s idea that meaning was found in the narrative of the eyewitness. The process of altering the canvas mirrored Bean’s own aims for the official histories, which he explained were to ‘right many wrongs’ and ‘bring to thousands of actions recognition’.100

Consequently, by imposing or embedding Adams’ recollections of the Robecq

97 Adams to Treloar, 8 April 1936, AWM93 18/1/42. 98 Ibid. 99 Treloar to Adams, 2 May 1936, AWM93 18/1/42. 100 Bean, ‘The Technique of a Contemporary War Historian’, 79.

Hutchison: ‘Accurate to the Point of Mania’ 43

incident in Power’s painting, Bean and Treloar saw themselves according to the veterans the status of the privileged eyewitness. However, by insisting on changes that had the effect of divesting the painting of its aesthetic and emotive intensity, Bean’s and Treloar’s dogged pursuit of accuracy compromised the canvas as a site of memory. The consolation and inspiration which Bean and Treloar hoped visitors would discover in the AWM’s collections was found not in canvases which strove to capture ‘accuracy’ through the flawed memory of veterans, but in evocative images such as Will Longstaff’s Menin Gate at Midnight (1927). This canvas was, significantly, painted outside of the official scheme and acquired by the AWM in 1927.101 Depicting the ghostly forms of soldiers moving toward the moonlit monument at Ypres, Longstaff sentimentalised the war. Yet this entirely fictional scene, imbued with a spiritualism popular in the years following the conflict, captured the imagination of grieving Australians who were attempting to come to terms with the consequences of the conflict—thousands of reproductions were sold during this era.102

It is not certain whether Power’s original canvas would have enjoyed greater popularity than the repainted image. Although there is evidence to suggest that the altered painting was exhibited in the AWM until the late 1960s, it is no longer on display and is housed in the AWM storage facility at Mitchell, Canberra.103 What is evident is that Bean and Treloar’s pursuit of accuracy in the official art and intervention in the production of the paintings—reflecting a wider trend of the AWM’s collecting practices of the period—meant that veterans’ personal recollections profoundly shaped the art commissioned during this era and, thereby, the broader and more public memory of the First World War.

Margaret Hutchison Australian National University Email:

101 Will Longstaff, Menin Gate at Midnight, 1927, oil on canvas, 137 x 270 cm, ART09807, AWM; Anne Gray, exhibition catalogue, ‘Will Longstaff: Art and Remembrance’, November 2001– February 2002, Australian War Memorial.

102 John Stephens, ‘“The Ghosts of Menin Gate”: Art, Architecture and Commemoration’, Journal of Contemporary History 44, no. 1 (January 2009): 23.

103 Guide to the Australian War Memorial (Canberra: Government Printing Office, 1968). The painting was loaned to Museum Victoria briefly in 2001 before returning to storage until 2008 when it was temporarily on display in the AWM’s First World War Gallery until 2009: correspondence between author and AWM Art Section, 25 September and 7 October 2014.

44 Australian Historical Studies, 46, 2015

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  • Abstract
  • Factual accuracy versus artistic quality
  • Witnessing war
  • Fragile memories
  • Septimus Power’s Saving the Guns at Robecq
  • Conclusion

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