Jagger edge

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 51, Summer 2017

Page 48

There is more than one kind of heroism. Consider, for instance, two very different artistic portrayals of bravery during the First World War. The courage of soldiers living and dying in blood and mud is portrayed with Expressionist intensity in Charles Sargeant Jagger's No Man's Land (1919-20), a bronze relief of stiff emaciated bodies, horrifically snagged on barbed wire or splayed on the ground like figures from a 15th-century Calvary. One living soldier lies among them, using the bodies of the fallen as cover.

A different kind of resilience is remembered by a self-portrait sold in 2015 by Bonhams for £115,300. The Conscientious Objector (1917) shows a young man who refused military service in the Great War.

The painting asserts he is no coward. He defies those who would despise him, as he looks directly out of the picture. Dressed ruggedly, maybe for enforced farmwork, he nevertheless sports a pink scarf that flaunts his daring to be different. Yet this 'effeminate' touch is contradicted by the no-nonsense features of a man prepared to go against his country in the name of what he believes.

This portrait of a pacifist is closely related to the apparently very different vision of No Man's Land.

It was painted by David Jagger (1891-1958), the younger brother of Charles Sargeant Jagger. These two sons of a colliery manager in South Yorkshire – together with their sister Edith, who also became an artist – are almost like characters in a novel by Ford Madox Ford or D.H. Lawrence, their different careers, values and ideas of art expressing the complexities of their age.

In his lifetime, David Jagger enjoyed financial, critical and social success. A photograph from 1941 shows him at work on a portrait of Vivien Leigh. The raven-haired actress poses in velvet, in front of a rich curtain, while the celebrated society artist, brush in hand, pauses from putting the final touches to his faithful portrait of her shadowed beauty. As an image of celebrity art, this photograph belongs to another time, a time when one of the best careers a painter in Britain might enjoy was as the careful and precise recorder of the faces of rich and famous people: actors and aristocrats, aviators and royals.

An artist like David Jagger who made his living through society portraiture – others who sat for him included Baden-Powell and Churchill, Queen Mary and Prince Philip – is the opposite of everything that is fashionable in today's art. Perhaps that is the secret of his reborn appeal, as people kick against the omnipresence of conceptual art. Something is surely drawing eyes back to Jagger's long-forgotten art. Bonhams' successful sale of The Conscientious Objector marked a mini-revival, with more good sales following, and now his fierce Self-Portrait is to be offered at the Modern British and Irish sale in London. What is it that is leading David Jagger back into the light?

Jagger has more to him than meets a casual glance. There's a toughness to this Yorkshireman that rubs oddly against the apparent superficiality of his portraits. To compare his Self-Portrait with the photograph of him painting Vivien Leigh is to see two totally different men. The photograph shows a refined gentleman, elegant and controlled, a relaxed member of the Establishment. Yet Jagger's Self-Portrait is romantic and disconcerting. Like The Conscientious Objector, this is an image of an outsider, a defiant rebel. Jagger's staring self-depiction echoes Gustave Courbet's Self-Portrait (The Desperate Man) (1844-45). It is a portrait of the artist as a dangerous man.

To get a sense of this enigmatic character – the society portrait painter who was wild at heart – it is worth looking closer at the Cain and Abel story of the two Jagger brothers. Charles Sargeant Jagger joined up in 1914, was wounded three times and won the Military Cross. His memorial sculptures are arguably the greatest British works of art that came out of the Great War. The mediaeval starkness of No Man's Land is taken to colossal, terrifying proportions by his masterpiece: the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner, with its disturbingly incongruous marble rendition of a giant howitzer gun and its wraith-like bronze soldiers.

While his older brother was both a hero and a viscerally powerful war artist, David Jagger took a different path. Instead of macho sculpture, he made sensitive paintings. He did not fight, but instead exhibited The Conscientious Objector at the Royal Academy in 1917, in what amounts to a quiet personal protest against the war.

That subversive streak stayed with him. In 1938 he painted The Refugee, today in Nottingham Castle Museum. It is a portrait of a Jewish refugee from the Nazis, painted at a time when – instead of welcoming victims of anti-Semitism – many people in the democratic nations of Europe showed similar hostility to that now aimed at Syrians. Jagger's painting is a plea for human sympathy, an attempt to unlock the hearts of his contemporaries. He does this in a very direct and accessible way: the refugee he shows us is beautiful, painted with a sexy Hollywood glamour despite her anguish.

Jagger, then, is an artist happy to work within convention – yet one who can turn conservative values upside down by using the unpretentious, unspecialised language of portraiture to celebrate outsiders, to reveal the heroism of the despised and dispossessed. This, perhaps, is the reason for his renewed appeal.

For all their differences and apparent personal tensions, the Jagger brothers are both typical of British art in the first half of the 20th century. While there is just enough avant-garde art from this period to cover Tate Britain's blushes – a Ben Nicholson here, a Hepworth there – the dominant mood and tone was traditionalist.

Artists worked not only in old-fashioned styles but on old-fashioned career paths. The fury of Charles Sargeant Jagger's war art has something in common with Otto Dix or Max Beckmann, yet it is channelled into the socially controlled genre of the war memorial, its tragedy framed by patriotism. Portraiture meanwhile flourished in England just as it has done since Holbein was here. The end of World War I saw a 'return to order' in Continental art too. Perhaps, in painting The Conscientious Objector in 1917, David Jagger was not only defying the war but leading the vanguard of a disillusioned return to plain human values in art.

On the eve of the Great War, some artists dreamt of becoming machines. Robots rose from the studios of the avant-garde, with Jacob Epstein's The Rock Drill the British answer to the erotic machinery of Picabia and Duchamp. Yet such dreams looked cruel after the trenches revealed what a mechanised age could really do to human beings.

In their different ways, the Jaggers both bear witness to modern war's lesson that "we must love another or die" (as W.H. Auden put it). Art needed to become simpler, more honest and compassionate. David Jagger's portraits are, at their best, documents of decency from an age of horrors. He stares out of his Self-Portrait with a message for us from the darkest decades of the 20th century.

Jonathan Jones is the art critic for The Guardian since 1999.

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