Paintings in which you can really smell terror and death: War in the Sunshine, Estorick Collection, review

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War in the Sunshine
Detail of Sydney Carline's British Sopwith Camels Leaving Their Aerodrome on Patrol over the Asiago Plateau, (1918) Credit: Imperial War Museum

Trained at London’s Slade School of Fine art and a close friend of Paul Nash, Sydney Carline was unique in being equally gifted as pilot and painter. He is probably the last to be discovered of the extraordinary generation of British artists – including Nash, Stanley Spencer and William Roberts – whose careers were given a challenging, and in some cases permanently damaging, start by the First World War. Carline’s paintings from the cockpit form the focus of this fascinating view of one of that war’s forgotten conflicts, and are the nearest most of us will get to a vicarious experience of aerial combat.

The Italian theatre of the First World War remains little known from the British perspective. Indeed, it will probably be news to some that Italy was involved in that war at all, and on the Allied side. But the struggle against Austrian forces on Italy’s harsh, mountainous north-eastern border claimed hundreds of thousands of Italian lives, before the intervention of British and French forces following Italy’s disastrous defeat at Caporetto in October 1917.

Sydney Carline's The Destruction of an Austrian Machine in the Gorge of the Valley of the Brenta (1918) Credit:  Imperial War Museum

A former art teacher, Carline enrolled in the Royal Flying Corps in 1916, and was acclaimed as a natural pilot before being shot down over the Somme. While he was declared fit for Home Service Duties only, by February 1918 he had been posted to a squadron near Vicenza, in the Veneto. Flying escorts for reconnaissance missions, he made sketches from his cockpit, looking down on spectacular Alpine landscapes and the planes soaring above them. Made an official war artist in July 1918, he worked these sketches up into oil paintings that give an exhilarating sense of the land tilting with the shifting perspective of an aircraft.

In the two examples shown here, the forbidding ramparts of the Dolomites seem to loom towards us, captured in a dolorous evening light, with the interweaving forms of other planes seeming to mark out the layers of space below. In British Scouts Leaving their Aerodome on Patrol over the Asagio Plateau, the campanile of a village on the Venetian plain is glimpsed through cloud, while in The Destruction of an Austrian Machine in the Gorge of the Valley of the Brenta, it’s as though we’re following a British plane in pursuit of an Austrian aircraft as they swoop between jagged mountain escarpments.

Sydney Carline's Sopwith Camel Patrol Attacking an Austrian Aerodrome near Sacile (1918) Credit: Imperial War Museum

Even more remarkable are two frantically executed and barely finished paintings in which you can really smell terror and death, with the artist’s view hurtling alarmingly landward and the smoke of his own gunfire rising towards him. In Sopwith Camel Patrol Attacking an Austrian Aerodrome, columns of smoke rise from blasted buildings as British planes career above them, with the carnage on the adjacent road reduced to a devastated blur.

In Sopwith Camel Patrol Strafing Austrian Troops Retreating down the Road to Udine, you’re looking directly down on a British plane tilted almost vertical over the enemy troops, who are seen as a mass of huddled green brush strokes. The raw pencil and pen and ink sketches from which these works were created are shown alongside. While it’s impossible to imagine anyone could have been drawing in these circumstances, they give a remarkable visceral sense of the reality of combat.

After the war, Carline suffered from depression, traumatised by what he had seen and nagged by the thought that he would never again encounter images that would “blaze in the mind’s eye”, as he put it. Paul Nash described him as a “war without a war”, and in a handsome self-portrait from 1922, when he was drawing master at Oxford’s Ruskin School, he appears romantic, but troubled, as though still engaged – in his own mind at least – in a heroic role. He died of pneumonia in 1929, two weeks after the opening of his first solo exhibition: a retrospective victim, you can’t help feeling, of the War to End all Wars.

Ernest Brooks' Two Gunners in the Royal Field Artillery in a Donkey Cart, Asiago Front (c. June 1918) Credit: Imperial War Museum

In comparison, the two photographers featured in the exhibition struggle to maintain strong identities. While the exhibition makes much of their contrasting personalities – Ernest Brooks was an ageing daredevil with a contemptuous attitude towards the Italians; William Joseph Brunell, a civilian out of his depth in the world of the military – these qualities aren’t apparent in their relatively rudimentary photographs.

We get the impression of two competent snappers stuck miles behind the lines, filling in the time by taking quirky images of co-operation with the locals: a bunch of British tommies chatting with some rather non-plussed women road menders, by Brooks, or Italian women unloading barrels of rum from a truck, by Brunnell. The war is seen very much from a distance, in occasional images of convoys proceeding down mountain passes.

This is an intriguing, but perhaps surprising choice of exhibition for a gallery devoted to modern Italian art, which is re-opening after extensive refurbishment. Based around the collection of art dealers Eric and Salome Estorick, the Estorick originally opened in 1998, to considerable fanfare. But despite important exhibitions, notably on the great futurist sculptor Umberto Boccioni and the postwar Arte Povera movement, slender promotional resources have left it struggling to maintain visitor levels. The refurbishment provides a new conservatory for the handsome Georgian building, and a more capacious entrance gallery.

Detail of William Joseph Brunell's A Young Italian Woman Employed by the British Army in Italy (November 1918) Credit: Imperial War Museum

If regular visitors won’t notice huge changes – most of the exhibition spaces are essentially the same – it makes an excellent excuse for a visit to a gallery that has all the makings of a jewel in London’s art crown. The room on Futurism, the original modernist bad-boy movement, alone justifies the cost of admission, with bona fide masterpieces by each of the key figures. There are excellent paintings by the iconic figures of 20th century Italian art Amadeo Modigliani and Giorgio de Chirico, and a whole mini-exhibition’s worth of drawings and etchings by that understated master of the everyday, Giorgio Morandi.

But perhaps the most charming aspect of the Estorick is the way the domestic character of the Georgian townhouse has been maintained with its original cornices and fireplaces. This might appear to limit the place’s potential as a showing-space, but it gives a visit to this special gallery a very personal and intimate feel.

Until March 19. Details: 020 7704 9522; estorickcollection.com

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