The First World War marked a new age of modern warfare, born of the scientific and mechanical advancements of the day, which saw a conflict more brutal and fatal than anything ever seen before. The British Government was quick to recognise the historical and social significance of the First World War and were fast to implement government sponsorship for the arts. This began in 1916 with the establishment of the propaganda department Wellington House and the successive appointment of official war artists such as Muirhead Bone, Paul Nash, C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer and Percy Wyndham Lewis.
The traditional techniques of painting, however, once used to capture war were no longer sufficient and a new aesthetic language was to be created, which could adequately express the grim, hard, mechanical character of this war and could render a more realistic and truthful impression of being in combat. The formerly aggressive looking pre-war avant-garde movements, such as Cubism, Futurism and Vorticism, which once seemed harsh in their treatment of the figure now seemed appropriate for the brutality of warfare. Artists, naturally, found their own, individual approach to depicting the war. Nevinson embraced the Futurist aesthetic and explored the synthesis between man and machine, creating some of the most potent and moving images of the war. Nullifying the individual he often presented troops as a mass mechanical unit, highlighting the monstrous perversities of modern warfare. Paul Nash took a different approach and focused instead on the destruction of nature in battle, capturing endless pictures of the landscape, some standing adverse to the destruction of man, others helplessly defeated in the conflict.
Barry, like many artists found a successful formula in the equilibrium of individual style, personal experience and descriptive, factual representation. The Grand Fleet: Searchlight Display is one of Barry’s most striking wartime works, marrying his interest in the Vorticist and Futurist aesthetic with his own imaginative interpretation of events. Capturing the jubilation at the end of the First World War, witnessed at Southend, Barry pictures the display of fireworks and searchlights, which illuminate the nighttime sky, signifying peace. Southend was one of the first towns to be hit by the German air raids, when a Zeppelin aircraft dropped over 100 bombs on the town on 10th May 1915. This must have held a particular resonance with Barry who had long wished to capture the end of the war and had waited for months in London, with his wife for peace to be declared, so that he could depict this momentous occasion.
Although jubilatory in the hissing gold fireworks and the arresting display of lights that poetically reflects off the water, there is a pathos and sense of contemplation to the work. This is felt in the mass of sky and sparseness of the composition, which speaks of the ultimate emptiness of victory in the face of such suffering. There is something spiritual about the present work, with the beams of the searchlights searing up into the nighttime sky, creating an almost celestial feel to the painting. The silhouettes of the boats, from which they radiate, are dwarfed by the vast nocturnal skyline, which highlights the slightness of the individual in the face of this overwhelming spectacle. Through the use of a series of crossing Vorticistic rays, which punctuate the skyline, Barry invites the viewer to look upwards, drawing our eyes up to the heavens, as if trying to elevate the horrors of war, or find some higher purpose and meaning in it all. The Grand Fleet: Searchlight Display, therefore, not only portrays the jubilation of victory, but also seems to question it, reflecting on what and who has been lost and is no longer there at the end of it all.