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William Roberts, R.A. (1895-1980)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY OF A GENTLEMAN
William Roberts, R.A. (1895-1980)

The Leave Train

William Roberts, R.A. (1895-1980)
The Leave Train
signed 'Roberts' (lower left), inscribed 'The Leave Train' (lower right)
pencil and watercolour
10 x 14 in. (25.4 x 35.5 cm.)
Executed in 1916.
Arnold Bennett, his sale; Sotheby's, 23 July 1931, lot 67.
Private collection.
Special notice

Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

Lot Essay

Executed in 1916, The Leave Train is one of the rarest examples of William Roberts wartime work. Conceived in ink and watercolour it stands as one of the fullest examples of this period to come to auction. In April 1916 Roberts was called-up for active service, joining the Royal Field Artillery as a gunner, where he spent two long years at the front and was left weary by the miserable monotony and horror of warfare. The present work appears to poignantly capture the moment when he departed, when the excitement and heroism of war was still palpable. Poetically mirroring life, The Leave Train depicts the moment a group of young soldiers leave for the front, their mood joyous and boisterous, as they laugh and joke amongst one another, seemingly oblivious to what they are about to face.

This sense of removal from the realities of war was not uncommon for many at home, and although the war had started two years earlier, the young artist’s life had remained relatively unchanged. He recalls in his memoirs published in 1974: ‘Despite Lord Kitchener's image with its commanding finger pointing down from the hoardings, during most of 1915 I paid more attention to matters of art and picture-making (as did most of the artists with whom I associated) than to the war taking place in France. I produced a cubist St. George for the 'Evening News', some drawings for the 'Second Blast', a number of paintings for the Vorticist show at the Doré Gallery, and some for the London Group at the Goupil. Besides this, and in a rather different sphere, I worked some weeks making bomb parts in a Tufnell Park munitions factory’ (Roberts, 4.5 Howitzer Gunner R.F.A. 1916–1918, London, 1974).

First located at barracks in Woolwich it was not long before Roberts embarked for France, where he was posted to the Vimy Ridge, later fighting at Arras and Ypres. The initial feelings of optimism he expressed in a letter to his wife Sarah, in which he naively wrote; ‘I suppose we shan’t get shot – and the war will be over in a month – and we shall leave the army healthy and fit’, soon turned to despair (Roberts, quoted in A. Heard, exhibition catalogue, William Roberts 1895-1980, Newcastle, Hatton Gallery, 2004, p. 42). This sense of desperation was recalled in his memoirs, where he shared many of his wartime experiences, finding those in Arras particularly harrowing: ‘One incident I especially remember of that hectic night, is the picture of Major Morrison on his hands and knees among the ruins searching by candlelight for survivors. We buried our own dead, together with some left over from the infantry's advance, shoulder to shoulder in a wide shallow grave, each in his blood-stained uniform and covered by a blanket. I noticed that some feet projected beyond the covering, showing that they had died with their boots on, in some cases with their spurs on too’ (Roberts, 4.5 Howitzer Gunner R.F.A. 1916–1918, London, 1974).

In 1918 Roberts received a glimmer of hope, in the form of a letter from his friend Guy Baker, who told him of the news that his contemporary Wyndham Lewis had been appointed an official war artist by the Canadians and that he too might be able to achieve the same break. This break did indeed come and in April 1918 Roberts returned home to work on a commission depicting the first cloud gas attack launched by the Germans on the Canadians during the First Battle of Ypres, to mixed reviews. Instead Roberts was greater celebrated for the works on paper and sketches that he did intermittently during the war, such as The Leave Train, which reveal with a raw honesty his experiences and feelings about fighting on the front.

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