London and Wartime: Nocturne is one of the finest and most proficient works of Barry’s career. Most famed for his wartime searchlight pictures Barry created a remarkably varied body of work that although differs in style and theme over the years, always remains imbued with an individual poetic vision. He was a gifted painter and a proficient etcher, having trained under Sir Frank Brangwyn, which encouraged a unique tonality and emphasis on composition and structure in his paintings. Katie Campbell reiterates, ‘Over seven decades of active work Barry’s art never became static or stale. His style evolved constantly, from the early narrative oils through the energetic Vorticist works, from the elegant etchings to the vibrant Pointillist canvases, from the chromatic landscapes to the elemental simplicity of his final works’ (K. Campbell, Moon Behind Clouds, Jersey, 1999, p. 32).
Barry is somewhat of an enigma and the facts of his life are tinged with uncertainty, much of what we do know has been pieced together from documents found in an old suitcase on his death. Born into a wealthy, aristocratic, industrial family Barry was a reclusive figure, who was known for being as equally foul-tempered as he was wickedly witty. Having lost his mother at a young age and been ostracised by his new stepmother, his life was marred with a sense of sadness. This feeling of loss and alienation is seen in some of Barry’s most poignant works, where vast nocturne skies, dwarf the unseen solitary figure watching them, as seen in the present work.
Defying his parents’ wishes to become a painter, Barry moved to Newlyn to be tutored by Alfred East, a fashionable landscape painter and an Associate of the Royal Academy. Here he joined the Newlyn School of Painting and worked alongside the Newlyn School greats, such as Henry Scott Tuke, Norman Garstin and Stanhorpe Forbes, combining the Impressionist interest in light with a Victorian interest in realism. Although shunned by his family, Barry was embraced by the artistic community and at the tender age of 23 was exhibiting at the Royal Academy and later the Royal Society of British Artists, Royal Society of Scottish Artists and the Salon des Artistes in Paris. In 1908 Barry moved to St Ives with his new wife Doris Hume-Spry and joined artists Laura Knight, Augustus John and Alfred Munnings, who had all settled there. Here Barry became an active member of the St Ives Club, later becoming club treasurer, and learnt to paint with a looser, more individual style.
In 1914 with the outbreak of the First World War, the artistic community of St Ives was much disbanded, and many of the artists were called away for military service. Barry did not fight and instead was drafted in to do agricultural labour, to support the production of supplies for troops at the front. Some state that this was due to his pacifist standing, while others believe he may have received exemption, due to prior mental health issues. Whatever the case Barry was in the prime location to record the war at home, creating some of the most striking and moving documentations of the fears civilians faced on a daily basis.
Barry’s paintings of the First World War are amongst the most poignant and accomplished of his works, with his images of searchlights across London being the most evocative of his career. London and Wartime: Nocturne is one of the finest of this oeuvre, at one being historically momentous and lyrically intimate. Describing the air strikes over London, Barry captures the dramatic view of the searchlights radiating out from behind the Houses of Parliament, into the night time sky. Viewed from across the Thames, Barry utilises the rays of the searchlights to create a beautifully scintillating and dramatic use of patterning, which describes the numerous crossing rays of light, transfiguring the danger of the nocturnal scene into a thing of beauty.
Fearful of the security risks of painters depicting strategic sites, the government imposed a ban on outdoor painting, forcing artists back into the studio. This had a significant effect on Barry’s style, encouraging him to move away from the Newlyn’s emphasis on realism and instead look towards the French Pointillist painters and the British Vorticists, who focused on the dynamism of colour and form. The pointillist technique Barry employs in London and Wartime: Nocturne is especially effective, using the small concentrated dots of colour to create an atmospheric haze of light, which falls poetically over the Westminster skyline. Philip Vann describes, ‘Here, Barry’s own fertile study of modern art movements has resulted in a highly original synthesis: the searchlights themselves uniting the severe mechanical angularities of Vorticist and Futurist art with delicate tonal modulations characteristic of Pointilism’ (P. Vann, Francis Barry, 2008, n.p.)
When exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919, London and Wartime: Nocturne received numerous favourable reviews, commenting on Barry’s proficiency of marrying atmospheric realism and decorative effect. One read, ‘On this canvas, showing a dim vision of Westminster from the Surrey side of the river, the searchlight rays criss-cross each other, covering the heavens with a curios pattern of geometrical figures; yellow spots of light on the bridge cast twinkling reflections in waters already alive beneath the moonlight. The impression is clever and well sustained’ (quoted in exhibition catalogue, Sir Claude Francis Barry, Royal Cornwall Museum, 2011, n.p.).
Although aesthetically beautiful there remains an air of the ominous in London and Wartime: Nocturne. The air raids of the First World War signalled a new modern warfare and for the first time in history, England was under attack from the air, bringing total warfare to the doorsteps of family homes. Germany started long-range bombing attacks on London in 1915, primarily with Zeppelins, the colossal hydrogen filled ocean-liners of the air, once used as civilian carriers, and then Gotha bombers. Although accuracy was poor and missions often unsuccessful, the threat of German Zeppelin bombers was a terrifying concept, made all the more frightening by the country's ill-equipped defence system against these strikes at the start of the war. Successful Zeppelin attacks in 1915 and 1916, caused public outcry and government embarrassment, with many people labelling the aircrafts as ‘baby killers’, as people huddled in basements and sheltered in underground stations to escape the terror from the skies. To counter the threat street lights were dimmed and guns, searchlights and observers were mobilised, while some RFC and Royal Naval Air Services were recalled and home defence squadrons took to the sky. In June 1917 the first air raid on Britain by a Gotha bomber aircraft took place, which led to the development of new tactics in aerial combat, including an increase of wireless communication, anti-aircraft fire and barrage balloons. Despite their efforts German raids on London killed nearly 700 and seriously injured almost 2,000, however, they did not succeed in their aim of breaking British morale. The writer, D.H. Lawrence described the spectacle of the September 1915 raid in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell, ‘Then we saw the Zeppelin above us, just ahead, amid a gleaming of clouds … Then there were flashes near the ground – and the shaking noise. It was like Milton – then there was war in heaven … I cannot get over it, that the moon is not Queen of the sky by night, and the stars the lesser lights. It seems the Zeppelin is the zenith of the night, golden like a moon, having taken control of the sky; and the bursting shells are the lesser lights’. Witnessing the fear and terror in London during the German air strikes, Barry concluded, ‘The last fifty years are the most terrible of which history has any record and many of those, myself included, who have lived through them have often wished that they had never been born’ (Barry, quoted in K. Campbell, Moon Behind Clouds, Jersey, 1999, p. 74).
Barry’s distinctive visionary sensibility and powerful subtle colourism stands him out from other artists of the day. Many people have found a continental, in particular French, reticence in his work, which is at times stronger than his English training and background. Campbell explains, ‘Barry’s aesthetic sensibility was always more French than English. The symbolism of the Pont Aven School, the decorative distortions of the Nabis, the colourful exuberance of the Fauves all find echoes in his work, but Barry evolved a unique and unmistakable style’ (K. Campbell, Moon Behind Clouds, Jersey, 1999, p. 11). Throughout his career Barry explored his love of colour, developing a narrow but intensely pure palette, distilling line and form to create a rhythmic unity. London and Wartime: Nocturne, displays Barry at his best, skilfully capturing a momentous period in history with an extraordinary beauty, serenity and heightened feeling.