Walter Starmer War Artist

Walter Starmer War Artist by Alan Walker
Article for Programme of Proms at St Jude's June 2015 

Walter Starmer considered his murals and stained glass window at St Jude’s Church, Hampstead Garden Suburb to be the major achievements of his artistic career.  Indeed in art directories published in the 1950s he makes no mention of his previous careers as a political cartoonist, book illustrator or war artist.

Starmer came to St Jude’s as a result of meeting the first vicar, the Reverend Basil Bourchier, in Arras in 1918, and he was initially employed to decorate the Lady Chapel as a war memorial.  Bourchier presented him to the parish as an “expert artist”, but gave no examples of any previous commissions.  He said, however, that Starmer’s “success in the adornment of certain public buildings . . . marks him off as a man of remarkable artistic gifts”.  The author of an early history of St Jude’s makes it clear these public buildings were in France, and that they were places “where men and officers congregated”.  Starmer‘s decorations brought  “a little cheer and colour into their lives – a pleasant contrast to their usual drab surroundings.”

A single photograph in the YMCA archives in Birmingham shows that such decoration could take a substantial form.  On the entire end wall of a large hut set up for meetings and entertainments Starmer has placed a series of panels illustrating scenes of post war Reconstruction in agriculture, science, commerce and manufacture.  The project can be dated to 1917 when Lloyd George’s government set up a Ministry of Reconstruction, designed, at least in part, to ensure that the public desire for social change after the war be directed towards rebuilding rather than revolution.

The realistic style of the murals (which appear to be on canvas panels) is one that would reappear in later works such as The Tree of Life at St Peter’s Church, Piccadilly and show Starmer to be a more ‘contemporary’ artist than the St Jude’s scheme might suggest.  The latter are more in the tradition of the children’s’ book illustrations he was producing in the early 1900s.  In this they reflect Henrietta Barnett’s rather simplistic idea that “beautiful as is the church . . . it could be improved . . . if the great facts of Christianity could be dumbly told by those silent preachers, the artists”. Several mural schemes in the more modern style, and showing the development of his work after St Jude’s, were unfortunately all destroyed in the blitz or in later redevelopment.

Nor is any mention is made by Bourchier of the extensive series of watercolour sketches made by Starmer during his five-year service as a Red Cross and YMCA volunteer.  Eleven of these were published in 1919 in monochrome reproduction in an account of the war work of the YMCA, and, with one exception, these were all donated to the Imperial War Museum, together with a further unpublished eleven, in the same year.  The Museum was sufficiently impressed with Starmer’s work to purchase eight more directly from him in 1931.  It was, however, unable to persuade him to part with the Director’s personal favourite that shows the art gallery in Douai after it had been looted by the Germans.  This appears on the cover of my book.  A further donation in 1958 brought the total in the War Museum to thirty.  None is on display.

At first sight many of Starmer’s images of recreational facilities close to, but removed from, the Front seem to be sylvan scenes of stillness and calm, but on reflection they can be seen to be characterized as much by melancholy and absence.  Foregrounds are usually empty or occupied only by vacant chairs and benches. Only a few fighting men are portrayed, outnumbered as often as not by non-combatants, including, for example, representatives of the many Chinese workers employed by the British army as labourers.  Other, less precisely executed, images represent the devastation and destruction of areas closer to the Front, or rather the in-between spaces en route there.  These have an altogether different quality, and often seem to contain references to Christian religious imagery of death and resurrection.  

Although his pictures were used to illustrate the work of the YMCA they do so by emphasising the movement’s presence rather than its activities.  The YMCA’s red triangle emblem becomes a kind of sacramental counterpoint to the twisted crosses that punctuate the broken landscape.  If the red cross offered bodily relief and repair, the red triangle promised a more personal and spiritual source of healing.

Starmer was a shy man, and as an artist he sometimes seems removed from his subject matter.  He described himself as ‘ice-bergy’, and was clearly not at ease even in relatively small social gatherings.  Yet he was described by an old boy of his school (Norwich High), then serving as a Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, who happened to find himself next to Starmer in a YMCA hut in France in the summer of 1917, as “a thoroughly good and conscientious worker” and one who was wearing the well-deserved honour of the 1914 ribbon given only to those who had volunteered in the first few months of the war.

Walter P. Starmer Artist 1877 – 1961 by Alan Walker in on sale throughout the Proms at the special price of £15.

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