Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (British, 1889-1946) Mule Team 63.5 x 76.2 cm. (25 x 30 in.) (Painted between September 1917 and March 1918)

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Lot 45AR
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson
(British, 1889-1946)
Mule Team 63.5 x 76.2 cm. (25 x 30 in.)

£ 250,000 - 350,000
US$ 320,000 - 450,000
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (British, 1889-1946)
Mule Team
signed 'C.R.W. Nev' (lower centre)
oil on canvas laid on board
63.5 x 76.2 cm. (25 x 30 in.)
Painted between September 1917 and March 1918

Footnotes

  • Provenance
    With Leicester Galleries London, sold 1918
    In the collection of Col & Mrs P.G. Robinson by 1952, and thence by family descent to the present owner

    Exhibited
    London, Leicester Galleries, Pictures of War by C.R.W. Nevinson (official artist of the Western Front), March 1918, cat.no.21
    London, Browse and Darby, A Critic's Choice 1900-1950 selected by Andrew Lambirth, 19 October-11 November 2011, cat.no.52 (col.ill, where lent by Col & Mrs P.G. Robinson, not for sale)

    Literature
    Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, John Ernest Crawford Flitch, The Great War: Fourth Year, Grant Richards Limited, London, 1918, pl.6 (ill.b&w, as A Mule Team)
    Michael J. K. Walsh, A Dilemma of English Modernism: Visual and Verbal Politics in the Life and Work of C. R. W. Nevinson (1899-1946), University of Delaware Press, Cranbury, 2007, p.176
    Jonathan Black, C.R.W. Nevinson, The Complete Prints, Lund Humphries, London, 2014, p.127

    War was Nevinson's great subject, and although he was adept at depicting the life of big cities (London, Paris and New York in particular), and also had a successful line in unpeopled English landscapes, war is what he is most celebrated for. His paintings and prints on the subject are increasingly sought after, and a painting of the importance of Mule Team, which has not appeared on the market for over 60 years, is indeed a welcome rarity.

    Osbert Sitwell, writing in the preface to Nevinson's Memorial Exhibition at The Leicester Galleries in 1947, called him one of the most vital figures of English art. 'In spite of the contemporary trend of aesthetic belief, and of fashionable concept, Nevinson painted with his heart, no less than with head and hand.' Sitwell observed that Nevinson's war pictures were full of pity and grief at the tragic suffering and follies the artist had witnessed, and this compassionate empathy is certainly evident in Mule Team. A soldier on horseback, depicted in profile, leads a couple of mules from right to left across the canvas. The mules have their eyes closed in exhaustion and the young man's face, though shadowed too with tiredness, is set with determination – or perhaps with simple endurance.

    Mule Team belongs with a series of paintings Nevinson made in 1917, which feature the drab downside of war: A Group of Soldiers, Paths of Glory and Reliefs at Dawn, all now in the Imperial War Museum. These are not the marching martial columns of 1914, the angular upbeat images of men returning to the trenches, or the potent pictures of bursting shells or machine gunners, all of which had captured the popular imagination with their drama. These are paintings of disillusion and despair, representing the human cost of war. Paths of Glory is particularly bleak, depicting a couple of dead soldiers sprawled in No Man's Land amid a mess of barbed wire. In fact this painting, although purchased for the National War Museum, not surprisingly ran into official disapproval and its exhibition and publication were prohibited. A dab hand at self-promotion, Nevinson exhibited it nonetheless, with a brown paper sash pasted diagonally to the canvas labelled 'Censored'.

    Mule Team is less pessimistic than its colleagues, partly because of its animal content: there is only one soldier, flanked and surrounded by horse and mules. The image is more tranquil than groups of dead or living on the front line; it has the optimism inherent in making a journey, and even suggests the pre-war rural life from which so many soldiers were conscripted. The Tommy's over-sized fist - strategically placed in the centre of the canvas - might belong to a ploughman, while the determined way it grasps the reins seems to indicate the continued sturdy defiance of the Allied Armies. Although Nevinson was celebrated for his images of mechanized violence, there is none of this here, though the angularities of outline (especially in the soldier's tunic and the cocked ears of the mules) do suggest, albeit remotely, a Futurist or even Vorticist vision.

    The composition is close-cropped, almost savagely so, with the horse's head and the mules' bodies dispensed with. This kind of cropping of an image, which owes so much to the way a camera composes a shot, not only intensifies the drama of the scene, but also augments its sense of movement. The cropping gives the image the look of a movie still and thus strongly implies onward movement when the film is allowed to recommence. This emphasis on motion recalls the fact that Nevinson was the only English Futurist, and Futurism worshipped the energy and dynamism of modern technology, and sought convincing ways of conveying speed and movement in two dimensions.

    The sky is pale with morning light, but jagged with the discord of war. In its criss-cross linearity it is reminiscent of two Nevinson paintings of 1916, Motor Lorries and Motor Transport, but doesn't match the geometrical striping of some of his more explosive pictures. Mule trains are of course associated also with Stanley Spencer, whose Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916, still possesses a memorable charge through its grand quasi-religious composition, though it was not actually painted until after the war. Nevinson's picture carries the conviction of recording an event at the time of its witnessing: there is immediacy and directness here, and a powerful sense of authenticity.

    Nevinson also made a drypoint print of the subject in 1917, a fairly straight copy of the pose though slightly more two-dimensional and caricatural in execution. It seems likely that the drypoint came after the painting was begun, as it was Nevinson's habit to try out a subject first in oil, pastel or watercolour, before making a print of it. Undoubtedly, Mule Team was an important image to Nevinson and helps to illuminate a less obvious aspect of war, while suggesting the emotional complexity that all warfare must entail.

    We are grateful to Andrew Lambirth for compiling this catalogue entry and to Dr Jonathan Black for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.
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