Life on the frontline
Sargent’s habits of looking and painting served him well when he was invited to work as an official War Artist during the last year of the First World War. He spent four months on the Western Front, doing the research for a large-scale painting that had been commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee, but he also made dozens of watercolours reflecting the battered landscape and the life of the troops, having immersed himself in both.
His liaison officer recorded in one letter: ‘Sargent has taken up his abode in a German Prisoner of War cage… [and] reports that he is very happy and that bombs are coming from all directions, which is “just what he likes”.’ It was a spirit that readily endeared him to the soldiers. His images of random devastation and of the camaraderie among the men during their moments away from the front capture both the banality of war and its connectedness to life, whether they show squaddies stealing fruit from an orchard or the twisted wreckage of a blown-up tank.