Commissioned in 1917 by the Canadian War Memorials Fund as part of a commemoration of Canadian sacrifice and effort in the Great War (with still a year to go), Nicholson’s painting is a composition that, far from glorifying the officers involved, assigns them strangely detached stand-in roles. It was, the artist said in a letter to his son Benjamin (later to become better known as Ben Nicholson, the painter), “a Hell of a job.” Six brass hats, as lower ranks referred to them, are stood there, businesslike but at ease. It could be the interval or breathing space between a defense or offensive being adopted and executed. Mustaches are worn and boots are as shiny as can be.
William Nicholson had made his name as one of the two Beggarstaff Brothers (actually the other half was his brother-in-law James Pryde), designers in the 1890s of splendidly bold posters. As a portrait painter he took up more or less where Sargent had left off, and in still lifes and small landscape studies he proved himself pretty well up to Manet’s standard and Corot’s standard respectively.
Nothing, however, quite prepared Nicholson for the challenge of Canadian Headquarters Staff. He was working on the picture when, a month before the war ended, he learned that his son Tony had been killed. Others might have been moved to put mud on the generals’ boots. Not him: drawing maybe on the example set by Velázquez’s Surrender of Breda and working from a group photograph staged for the purpose, he put the figures into a holding pattern, poised to command yet conscious of the consequences. Where Velázquez laid on a vast tapestry-effect landscape of military maneuver, Nicholson did the most extraordinary thing: he inserted behind the generals a blown-up view of the shattered city of Ypres, Belgium, photographed from the air.
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