As England’s only signed-up convert to Futurism, Nevinson worshipped all things modern and mechanical. Before the outbreak of the First World War he shocked more conservative members of London’s New English Art Club by turning up to meetings on a motorbike. His pre-war work included paintings of steam ships, railway engines and nightclubs, and in the press he was heralded as the man who could paint motion – even sounds and smells. He was thus ideally positioned to paint the drama and horrors of the Western Front – including the very modern phenomenon of planes in air-to-air combat.
Nevinson first tackled this subject in 1915, and the following year made his first flights in an aeroplane: it would be claimed later by the war correspondent C.E. Montague that Nevinson was the first artist to paint in the air. His first aerial paintings and drawings used the Futurist technique for which he soon became famous, and he would write in his autobiography in 1937 that ‘in all modesty’ he considered his ‘aeroplane pictures … the finest work I have done. The whole newness of vision, and the excitement of it, infected my work and gave it an enthusiasm which can be felt’ (C.R.W. Nevinson, Paint and Prejudice, London, 1937, p. 130).
By 1917, Nevinson had temporarily abandoned his modernist, ‘Cubo-Futurist’ techniques for a more traditional idiom, as is to be seen in this work. The scene of the action, in which a British biplane banks towards a German aircraft that is already, perhaps, belching smoke and plunging earthwards, is unknown. A fragment of label on the reverse carries the tantalizing words ‘Bridge Thames 1918,’ but the bridge depicted does not markedly resemble a known crossing of the river. The painting may be related to the invitation Nevinson received from the Canadian War Memorials Committee in the summer of 1918 to illustrate an ‘aerial battle’ that had involved the Royal Air Force pilot William Avery (‘Billy’) Bishop. Canada’s greatest flying ‘ace’ of the First World War, Bishop (1894-1956) was credited with seventy-two victories through the course of his dramatic (and controversial) flying career – achievements which won him the Victoria Cross, the Distinguished Service Order with bar, the Distinguished Flying Cross and Military Cross.
Nevinson’s new period of official employment in the summer of 1918 was again not a happy time for the young artist. Asked to portray a dog-fight in which Bishop successfully took on three enemy aircraft, Nevinson struggled: ‘I was given all manner of descriptions of the fight and two or three photographs of the machine used, and was granted every facility for flying about in the clouds, where the fight took place. But I had not actually witnessed the fight; and although I had seen a good deal of aerial warfare and had myself been attacked by hostile planes, I found the task a terribly difficult one. What with flying, ill-health, and overwork, I broke down under the strain’ (C.R.W. Nevinson, ibid., p. 156).
An official painting, War in the Air, depicting a British aircraft (presumably piloted by Bishop) in combat with three German aircraft was completed and is now in the collection of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Whilst the precise subject of the painting remains unknown, it is almost certain that Dog Fight dates from the period of the war itself. As Nevinson wrote in 1937, ‘I finished my war paintings with the end of the War. I may have varnished one of them and framed another, but after the Armistice I did not do a stroke of painting which dealt with the War. It was a period I wished to put behind me …’ (C.R.W. Nevinson, ibid., pp. 150).
We are very grateful to Dr David Boyd Haycock for preparing this catalogue entry.
We are very grateful to Jonathan Black and Christopher Martin with their assistance cataloguing this work.