"The Long range bombardment of Dunkirk" by Ernest Proctor ARA

Wednesday, 07 June 2023 - Friday, 16 June 2023

17 Duke Street St. James's
London SW1Y 6DB United Kingdom

"Long range bombardment of Dunkirk" is one of the most significant examples of wartime painting, one of relatively few, composed and painted in February and March of 1918 on the outskirts of Dunkirk from sketches made on the spot, actually painted under the continual threat of shelling and bombing.

It is worthwhile looking at Procter’s experiences in France in the 18 months prior to his embarking on painting such a major work.

For servicemen on the Western Front life was a combination of boredom, moments of enjoyment, fear and absolute terror. There were long periods of time with desultory shelling, or sniping in the trenches, periods of resting in the back areas with sports drilling and exercises, visits to the local towns and, infrequently, leave. For Procter as a ‘conscientious objector’ enlisted in the Friends’ Ambulance Unit (FAU) life was not too dissimilar. As we know from his letters to his wife, Dod, there were periods training as a motor mechanic, of farm work helping with the harvest soon after his arrival in France on 12th June, long bouts of filling sandbags, building dug-outs for the hospital, and painting and decorating the staff recreational huts, named “The Cat and Fiddle” and “The Pig and Whistle”. There were also air raids, long-distance shelling, from land and sea, and visits to the Front on ‘ambulance convoys.’

The FAU had been set up by The Quakers to enable members of the movement to assist in the war effort without compromising their principles. Ernest Procter had declared himself a ‘conscientious objector’ in 1914, attending a tribunal in 1915, and following the introduction of conscription with the Military Service Act, had joined the FAU on 11th April 1916. His certificate of exemption stated: “occupation Friends Ambulance Unit, exempted from the provisions of the military service act 1916. Exemption absolute, grounds on which exemption granted, conscientious objector”.

Procter trained at the British Red Cross training centre at Jordans camp near Beaconsfield in May 1916, a Spartan regime, before being posted to France the following month. The FAU was divided into four parts: a civilian division, hospitals, ambulance train and ambulance convoys. The latter was made up of 20 ambulances, a further 2 in reserve, and a staff of 56 made up of drivers, mechanics, orderlies and cooks; the whole convoy was self-sufficient, with staff allocated as and when required. The headquarters of the FAU, closely aligned with the British Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance, was a camp on a deserted esplanade at Malo-les-Bains on the outskirts of Dunkirk. Procter was enrolled as a mechanic, learning car maintenance “grovelling in its interior, very dirty but rather interesting” to a background of “guns booming, sound beastly depressing”.

Dunkirk, the third largest port in France, had been subjected to air raids and long-distance shelling from April 1915, 7500 shells and bombs fell on the town, over 1500 soldiers were killed and an unknown number of civilians, and 400 buildings were destroyed. In September, though expecting to go out on an ambulance convoy, Procter is recorded in his service record as an ‘artist’ and worked as such decorating and producing works for the huts, one panel for which he later submitted to the magazine ‘Colour,’ alongside sketches of the hospital and town.

Procter continued to work and sketch throughout the winter of 1916 and spring of the following year, continually exposed to the casualties of the war in his visits to the town and hospital. His letters to Dod were frequent, they corresponded every few days, and both sought and gave advice on their respective paintings. Dod would also respond to his requests for artists’ materials, conte crayons, ink and paints. He also received canvases, among them one for the present painting, stamped “Reeves & Sons LT” along the inside of the selvedge turnover, and numbered 1163, corresponding to the stamp used post-1912. He was also touchingly reassuring in describing a bombardment, of which she had read, writing “anything is unlikely to happen here”, despite his proximity to the shelling; and in a letter of 15th May 1917 he sent a letter describing his love for her, knowing that he was off to the front.

Procter joined a convoy serving with the French Army to which the FAU had been allocated, Service Sanitaire Anglaise 13 and 14, to collect casualties from the front, a long trip during which he saw widespread destruction, the miles of churned mud, vast conglomerations of equipment, munitions, soldiers and prisoners. He was exposed to the true horrors of the front line, saw bodies half-buried in trench parapets, the quagmire of the roads the shell holes and “a shell burst and a column of earth 150 ft high with half a tree in it ¼ of a mile away”. He saw the charred remains of an ambulance and many square miles of the country reduced to desolation. He was billeted in the cellars of a house that had received six direct hits, his experience of the dangers real and tangible, the FAU lost a number of servicemen killed.

In July he was at work on the enlargement of the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Dunkirk, in reality a collection of huts, prior to the offensive at Passchendaele, The Third Battle of Ypres. In the autumn he was helping fortify dugouts and fill sandbags before, in November, going up to the front past pill boxes on their sides. He wrote of hearing the soft explosion of gas shells over squelching roads made of logs to the Poste de Secours (Aid Station), to “load up with blesses” and walking wounded. November 27th saw Procter unloading logs with Chinese labourers, and on the 29th he wrote to Dod of whether Harold Knight should take on a war commission, “shouldn’t think his pictures will stir people very deeply in either direction, wouldn’t mind the job myself”.

It is against this backdrop at home, his experiences at the front with the French Army, and his passion for painting alongside the constant need to raise funds, that he embarked on "Behind the lines", his first major wartime painting.

In a letter to Dod on 18th December, enclosing a sketch, he described the work:

“of the soldiers washing that I am thinking of, composition is about fixed for a 24 x 20. Do you think it is amusing? Central figure drying himself, behind quite a crowd of little figures, darker than the front ones, patches of blue uniforms round the main figure and a green cast over the ruins, a few bits of orange an oil stain and red on the towel. Water with reflections and a little bridge thing behind the main figure.”

Procter continued with the painting over Christmas, “composition is rather good I think…..but the mens trousers are verging on the indescretion” (sic). He returned to the front early in January and continued with his painting later in the month, on the 20th writing “spent my day on the soldiers, pretty well bound for a reasonably decent conclusion! decent not the right word considering the picture”. On 19th February having worked on the painting for a number of Sundays he writes “my washing painting is done its quite good”.

That same day, 19th February, inspired by the success of this work, Procter wrote to Dod:

“I am already meditating one of all the inhabitants out on the dunes watching a bombardment of the town. I don’t suppose it will ever get done – it would have to have 100’s of tiny figures in it and I should want to do them all in detail like a ‘Brouwer’, you remember the peasants dancing? It’s in that book of yours! ”. It would be very interesting though, thinking out the actions of all the figures and combining them ‘what sport old Frith must have had’ ” - a reference to William Powell Frith and the likes of The Derby Day (Tate Britain).

Procter was interested not only in the works Frith and Brouwer but also in Italian Renaissance painting. On 1st June 1917 he wrote of having a print by Bellini, "St. Francis by his cell" with a great stretch of country and a town behind, almost certainly a print of the painting by Giovanni Bellini, "St. Francis in the Wilderness", in the Frick Collection New York, and to which, in compositional terms, our present work bears comparison.

The idea took hold, and on 25th February he wrote to Dod “being Sunday I worked all day on my new idea which forms very well at present, I think rather extra well. But little figures from 8 inches down to ¼ inch will take some doing, 100’s of them”. In a further insight into his working practices he writes “I am getting more deliberate in my methods of beginning a thing…..I have made a very elaborate drawing …. I shall trace it onto canvas or indian ink the outline, so I shan’t quite lose the drawing in the paint. It will be a good plan and lead to rather more free work later”. As further evidence of Ernest asking Dod her view, he continued “Have you ever tried composing a great number of small figures on one canvas? – it is very interesting setting good lines and spaces in them and distributing them in groups which play into and through each other. I have got my figures on several different levels”. The painting is clearly coming on apace, on 2nd March, “Sunday tomorrow - another day on my pic with which I am very bucked still.’ Procter quite possibly sends the painting to Dod along with other unstretched canvases, referred to in a letter of 6th March, as there are no further references to the painting.

Dunkirk had suffered shelling since April 1915, but the subject that Procter chose was prescient as on 21st March the German offensive on the Western Front commenced days later, and the town was heavily shelled. A friend of Procter’s, Molly Evans, a nurse with the FAU working at the Queen Alexandra Hospital, described the exodus from the town in her diary entry of 24th March: “unending stream of sorting people, carrying bedsteads, personal belongings, mixed up….”. Ernest attempted to reassure Dod over the naval and land bombardment in a letter of the same date, but despite his reassurance, owing to the bombing, the Queen Alexandra hospital was evacuated to Chateau de Petite Synthe, a medical institute outside the town.

The offensive continued throughout April, “some convoys in risky surroundings, sort of fighting going on now the Poste de Secours are of a very temporary kind liable to constant change”, and Dunkirk sustained further heavy bombing in May.

Procter continued to sketch at the hospital and in the town and referred to a hospital being bombed ‘miles away’. These were particularly unsettled times, and certainly not conducive to uninterrupted periods of painting.

Procter continued with the painting over Christmas, “composition is rather good I think…..but the mens trousers are verging on the indescretion” (sic). He returned to the front early in January and continued with his painting later in the month, on the 20th writing “spent my day on the soldiers, pretty well bound for a reasonably decent conclusion! decent not the right word considering the picture”. On 19th February having worked on the painting for a number of Sundays he writes “my washing painting is done its quite good”.

It was in July 1918 that Procter wrote to 'Colour' magazine suggesting a joint article on himself and Dod, and this came to fruition in the April issue of the magazine the following year, in which this present work was illustrated, along with Behind the lines.

The painting, “Long Range Bombardment of Dunkirk”, was reproduced and described by the author ‘Tis’ as follows:

“I… consider his ‘Long Range Bombardment of Dunkirk’ a really remarkable picture. To begin with, it is extraordinarily attractive at the first glance. The eye taking in the whole picture is at once fascinated by its arrangement of colour patterns: there is something Japanese in its composition and even in its colour. Once attracted the eye begins to inform the mind and the mind browses over every square inch, taking in every anecdote, every pictorial detail, wondering how it was possible to combine so much pure art with so much pure story – and every artist must be delighted with the ingenious manner in which he has contrived to make the many figured whole hang together as one thing. He comes near to Peter Breughel in his incidents, but Peter Breughel could not have reached him in composition. This Bombardment I say again is a remarkable picture’. (Colour Magazine, April 1919, Vol. 10)

Procter was of course a deeply religious man, he painted a number of altar pieces, and the cross on the summit of the dunes is a likely reference to Christ’s crucifixion at Calvary. The ‘100’s’ of figures that he writes of including in the composition are made up of French soldiers, walking wounded, in their blue uniforms with whom he would be so familiar, attached as he was in the FAU to the 87th Division, and from his work at the Front at the Poste de Secours. A number of garrison troops with mounted officers look on at their wounded comrades and the smoking town in the distance, the towers of the Town Hall and that of St Eloi silhouetted against the skyline. Among the civilians, made up of the aged and infirm, women and children, Procter has created some touching and moving scenes. We see an old couple labouring up the dunes, a grandfather waving to his daughter with her two children, children playing with a dog, and in the foreground a particularly touching scene of a young child watching over her sibling. In the distance from the safety of the dunes, crowds turn and gaze at the further destruction of their town.

In direct contrast to the artist Christopher Nevinson, an important painter of machine-like war subjects, Ernest Procter shows the very human side of these tragic events.

ERNEST PROCTER, ARA (1885 - 1935)
The Long Range Bombardment of Dunkirk
Signed, dated and inscribed, lower right: ERNEST PROCTER 1918 FRANCE
Oil on canvas
20 x 24 in – 50.8 x 61 cm
Acquired in Scotland by the family of the previous owner c.1948
London, Leicester Galleries, Ernest Procter Memorial Exhibition, January 1936,
no.3, with incorrect date of 1917
Colour magazine, April 1919, Vol. 10, no.3, p.51, illustrated in colour,
Elizabeth Knowles, Ernest Procter ARA 1886-1935,
Dod Procter RA 1892-1982 and Ernest Procter ARA 1886-1935
Exhibition catalogue, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1990, p.32

Elisabeth Knowles, Dod Procter, Ernest Procter, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle, 1990
Tate Archives, Letters from Ernest Procter to Dod Procter, 1916-1919
The Flagstaff issue no.44, Winter 2019, Lamorna and the War
David Tovey, Cornish artists and authors of War (1914-1919)
Colour Magazine, Vol. 10
Catalogue of The Memorial Exhibition of Works by Ernest Procter, Leicester Galleries, January 1936
Blond Fine Art, 1986, Ernest Procter drawings from the trenches
Morgan Fourman, Ernest Procter’s WW1 drawings