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Having made two failed attempts to volunteer, Percy Smith finally joined the Royal Marine Artillery and arrived at the Somme in October 1916. While serving on the Western Front, he made countless drawings and etchings of what he saw and was arrested as a spy on more than one occasion for smuggling his work between book sheets.
The present, extremely rare set of seven etchings is the greatest achievement of this almost forgotten artist. Based on his sketches made at Thiepval on the Somme, Smith combines realistic depictions of the trenches, the slaughter, the dying and the dead, with the traditional, allegorical figure of Death as a skeleton wrapped in a cloak, looming over these dismal scenes. In Death Ponders, the skeleton chillingly waits for the soldier to take his final breath, while in Death Refuses, the cloaked figure turning his back on the trapped soldier is almost taunting him. Unsparing and determined in it's anti-war sentiment, Smith's Dance of Death is perhaps the most devastating depiction of World War I in British Art, comparable only to Otto Dix's famous portfolio Der Krieg.
While Dix created his much larger series of prints in hindsight in 1924, it appears that Percy began work on the prints during the war and printed and published them shortly after.
As well as printmaker, Smith was a painter and typographer, and although following the war he received a number of high-profile commissions, including the lettering of the Canadian War Memorial at Vimy Ridge, France, little of his work appears to have survived. In the last twenty years, only a couple of watercolours, some individual etchings and two complete sets of The Dance of Death have been offered at auction.