Edward Thomas: A Poet in the Artists’ Rifles –
By Contributor Christopher Martin
Edward Thomas was a poet who had a number of connections with artists during his lifetime. These include the war artist Paul Nash, Edna Clarke Hall, John Fulleylove, John Wheatley, Arnold Mason, the artist-printer James Guthrie and his son Robin Guthrie. Twenty years after Thomas’s death, there was a link with another war artist, C.R.W. Nevinson.
The journalist and editor Henry Nevinson took Thomas on as a book reviewer for the Daily Chronicle, and suggested he took over writing the text for a book on Oxford that Nevinson was to have done. Oxford was illustrated by the water-colourist John Fulleylove (1845-1908), whose work Thomas admired, and who tutored Nevinson’s son, C.R.W. Nevinson (1889-1946), long before he attended the Slade, and for which the artist looked back with gratitude.
C.R.W. Nevinson and his exact contemporary Paul Nash (1889-1946) studied at the Slade under the surgeon turned artist Henry Tonks, as did Edna Clarke Hall (1879-1979) who became a very close friend and muse to Thomas, particularly in the years of the First World War before Thomas was posted to France. It is not clear if or how she appears in any of Thomas’s poems, he certainly figures in Edna’s own poetry. Such was their closeness and shared interests, and her beauty, that his wife Helen felt Edna might be her greatest rival for Edward’s affections.
Paul Nash and Edward Thomas had a common friend in the poet and playwright Gordon Bottomley, who was a great and sympathetic encourager of the talents of both men, who would come across each other in the Artists’ Rifles, over map-reading. Thomas, so very observant of the natural world, found in Nash a perfect finder of birds’ nest. Nash and another artist in the Rifles, John Wheatley (1892-1955) characterised by Thomas as a ‘perfect Welshman’ may have been alluded to as two of three soldiers in a Thomas wartime poem about ‘home’. Wheatley studied under Stanhope Forbes and Walter Sickert, and later attended the Slade. He was a war artist in both world wars and painted a huge canvas for the unrealised Hall of Remembrance at the end of the First World War. Nevinson and Nash were among other artists who also painted pictures of the same size for the project. His wife Edith Grace Wheatley was also a Slade-trained artist. His etched and pencil portraits of Thomas are in the National Portrait Gallery.
Thomas was friends with James Guthrie (1874-1952) who ran the Pear Tree Press, in the village of South Harting, not far from Thomas’s home in Steep. He was a friend, too, of Guthrie’s son Robin Guthrie (1902-1971), who made a full-length linocut portrait of Thomas, now in the National Portrait Gallery.(1) Arnold Mason, yet another Slade-trained artist with whom Thomas was friends in the Artists’ Rifles, became a successful portrait painter.
In 1937, twenty years after Thomas’s death at Arras, a sarsen stone monument was unveiled in his memory on the Shoulder of Mutton hill at Steep. Among those attending were friend and poet Walter de la Mare and Henry Nevinson. A great admirer, the latter often met up with Thomas at London literary gatherings. Two years later Henry’s son’s large painting Rookery was used above Thomas’s four-line poem Thaw for a London Underground poster.(2)
Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed
The speculating rooks at their nests cawed
And saw from elm-tops, delicate as flower of grass,
What we below could not see, Winter pass.(3)
Thomas’s daughter Myfanwy later owned the painting and, in a letter, drew my attention to a disjuncture between painting and poem, for the poem refers to elms but in the painting ‘the trees are not elms, either in the shape of the topmost branches or in the fact that ivy is growing on them – for some reason you never find ivy growing up elm trees!’. If only Edward Thomas was still around then to get that poster produced to their mutual satisfaction!
Christopher Martin is currently compiling a catalogue raisonné of the works of the artist C.R.W. Nevinson. His essay ‘Nevinson and Fiction: a Survey’ appeared in the Nevinson anthology A Dilemma of English Modernism (University of Delaware Press, 2007). He has given talks on Nevinson, and on British artists and pacifism during World War I, and also has an abiding interest in the artist-writer Wyndham Lewis and the poet Edward Thomas.
His poem ‘Against Darkness’ features in the England Remembered Book as Christopher Martin is also one of England Remembered’s Contemporary Poets. (This poem and an interview with the author will follow in a later post).
Header image © Jacky Dillon (Wisteria, West Dean Gardens)
(2) London Transport Museum Poster; Over the land freckled with snow half-thawed, by Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, 1939
(3) Thomas, Edward Philip – Thaw – Poems, Selwyn & Blount, London Oct (1917)