C.R.W. Nevinson (1889-1946) first flew, in the back seat of a BE2C Reconnaisance biplane, from Hendon aerodrome in mid-June 1917. His pilot was one of the first British men to be awarded a pilot’s licence – Sir Sefton Brancker (1877-1930) (by then Director of Military Aeronautics for the Royal Flying Corps, 1917-18). Nevinson was later to memorably recall in his autobiography (first published in November 1937), he found flying in equal measure both exhilarating and terrifying. His anxiety is referenced in his composition Banking At 4,000 Feet (created in mid-June 1917 as one of six works Making Aircraft as part of the Department of Information’s lithographic series ‘Britain’s Efforts and Ideals’), the artist’s right hand grasps the flimsy canvas side of the aircraft with white-knuckled strain. At the same time he found the experience of flying 4,000 feet above the countryside of north London, the quasi-Cubist pattern of the fields far below, a fascinating one that he felt demanded artistic expression.
He flew again during the month he spent, in July 1917, as an official war artist in France, participating as the ‘back seat passenger’ on at least two reconnaissance missions flown deep behind enemy lines over the Cambrai sector of the front. On one occasion, Nevinson’s aircraft was menaced by a German fighter and the artist did his best to deter the enemy by firing the rear-seat mounted machine gun at him. He recalled the unforgettable sight of the shell-ravaged Western Front from about 7,000 feet in an atmospheric lithograph he entitled Over The Lines (1918).
In June 1918 he returned to France as a war artist working for the Canadian War Memorial Scheme and took several flights as preparation for his large canvas War In The Air (canvas now in the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa) in part inspired by the exploits of Canadian fighter ace Colonel William ‘Billy’ Bishop VC (1894-1956). He still enjoyed flying but noted it was exacting a toll on his emotional equilibrium. He found it increasingly difficult to sleep – his dreams haunted with nightmares of being trapped in the seat of an aircraft on fire and plunging precipitately earthwards. He later recalled in his autobiography: ‘ … I was in the awful condition of feeling that I was falling through the air, just as I was about to go to sleep and of waking up with an imaginary crash …’ For hours after having flown over France he suffered: ‘intensely from delayed shock beginning with a terrible elation, followed by incontrollable tremblings and ending with vomiting, with all forms of anticipation of evil and with eventual prostration.’ 1
1. C.R.W. Nevinson, Paint and Prejudice (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co, 1938), p.150.
His emotional state became so serious in the spring and then summer of 1918 he was treated for ‘acute air nerves’ at the RAF Hospital on Hampstead Heath by the celebrated psychologist Dr. Henry Head (1861-1940).
Nevinson produced a first version of the impressive and compelling From A Paris ‘Plane as an oil in the early 1920’s – probably related to his experience of taking one of the first precarious and uncomfortable civilian air flights in 1919 from London to Paris, flying in a converted wartime RAF Handley Page twin-engined bomber (he referred in passing to making several such turbulence-wracked flights ‘shortly after the war’ in an article he wrote for the Daily Mail, published in January 1930). He may have been led to translate the composition into this commandingly monumental and lithograph later in the 1920’s - the first recorded incidence of the lithograph being exhibited was at the Pittsburgh International Art Fair early in October 1930; only a week after the Wall Street Stock Market crash which would wreck the until then healthy market for contemporary prints in the UK and the USA - as his lithographs had been particularly well-received when exhibited in a solo show of his prints held in New York at the Kraushaar Galleries in October 1926 and as part of a major retrospective of his print making achievements held at the Ruskin Galleries, Birmingham, in July-August 1927.
The number of lithographs Nevinson produced after the early 1920’s did decline markedly as he focussed on more prestigious and lucrative drypoints and etchings (he took up working in etching with acid in 1922-23; by the end of the decade he was charging on average 5-6 guineas for a lithograph as opposed to 12-15 guineas for an etching). However, this superb late lithograph stands as impressive testament to his ability in the medium which he had first experimented with in 1912, taking classes given by master lithographer Ernest Jackson (1872-1945) at the London County Council School at Bolt Court off Southampton Row and then returned to late in 1916 with an ambitious lithograph entitled Dawn At Southwark.
From A Paris ‘Plane compositionally owes a great deal to Nevinsons awareness of contemporary photography – aerial views would often be reproduced in popular magazines of the day such as The Sphere and The Graphic – but the work also benefits from the artist’s undoubted technical skill. The dynamic presentation of simplified shadows on the wing, the articulation of the fields far below receding into the distance through skilful scraping away by Nevinson on the surface of the lithographic stone and the use of a schematised zig-zag Seine estuary (or possibly the mouth of the River Somme) to lead the eye from the aircraft wing on the left to move into the centre of the composition, all attest to Nevinson’s consummate skill as a designer and printmaker. This was in all likelihood Nevinson’s last major lithograph; owing to increasing problems with his physical health he gave up printmaking altogether in 1932 (although in the late 1930’s he designed several striking lithographic posters for the London Passenger Transport Board and its publicity supremo Frank Pick).
We would like to thank Dr Jonathan Black, author of C.R.W. Nevinson The Complete Prints, for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.