William Francis (Will) Longstaff (Australian, 1879-1953)
'The rearguard (The spirit of ANZAC)' signed 'WILL LONGSTAFF' (lower left) oil on canvas 136 x 270cm (53 9/16 x 106 5/16in).
PROVENANCE: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, purchased directly from the artist for his own collection, 1928
EXHIBITED: London, Australia House library, circa March 1928 Melbourne, Town Hall, September 1929 Sydney, Grace Bros. Ltd., October 1929
LITERATURE: 'New picture. "The rearguard." Longstaff and Gallipoli Evacuation', The Brisbane Courier, 9 March 1928 'Longstaff's work. The evacuation of Gallipoli', The Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March 1928 '"The rearguard." Picture of the year. Longstaffs painting', The Brisbane Courier, 29 March 1928 '"The rearguard." Picture of Gallipoli. Sir A. Conan Doyle's Purchase', The Argus, 9 May 1928 '"The rearguard." Will Longstaff's work', The Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May 1928 'Psychic force: noted painting Sir A. Conan Doyle buys picture', The Brisbane Courier, 9 May 1928 '"Psychic" picture. Novelist and artist at variance', The Brisbane Courier, 15 September 1928 'Australian painter Canvasses for Home', The Canberra Times, 6 July 1929 'Longstaff paintings. Exhibition in Australia', The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 July 1929 'Longstaff pictures. Coming to Australia', The Brisbane Courier, 6 July 1929 'For Australia: another Longstaff picture', The Brisbane Courier, 10 July 1929 'Paintings shown. Mr. Longstaff's Exhibition To-day', The Argus, 4 September 1929 'Striking pictures. Painted by Will Longstaff. TWO WAR SUBJECTS', The Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 1929 Anne Grey, 'Will Longstaff: Art & Remembrance', exh. cat., Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 20 November 2001 to 10 February 2002
The present lot is an iconic image, believed missing until now, by the Official War Artist, Will Longstaff. It is one of a series of only six paintings which represent the pinnacle of the artist's career, beginning with his best-known work, Menin Gate.
Longstaff had attended the unveiling ceremony of the Menin Gate memorial in Ypres on 24 July 1927. He was so moved by the ceremony that, during a midnight walk along the Menin Road, he imagined a vision of steel-helmeted spirits rising from the moonlit cornfields. It is said that, following his return to London, he painted Menin Gate in one session. He may have been influenced by Mrs Mary Horsburgh, who had worked in a British canteen during the war. She had met him during this evening walk, and told him that she could feel "her dead boys" all around her (Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 1932). Spiritualism was very much in vogue in the 1920s, and many who wished to communicate with relatives and friends who had died in battle found consolation in its tenets.
The rearguard was reported to have been painted under similar psychic influence: "Mr. Longstaff says that he felt an uncanny 'urge' to paint the picture, which formed itself with lightning tapidity in his brain. He began at 7 o'clock in the morning, working unceasingly in the dim light. He had experienced a sensation not felt in any other work, and he was surprised and delighted.
"Sir Arthur Conan Doyle said 'It is one of the most remarkable pictures I have seen. The artist worked for 11 hours with the fury of inspiration. Genius has always been on the edge of psychic influence.'" (The Argus, 8 May 1928)
Lord Woolavington purchased Menin Gate in 1928 for 2000 guineas, a remarkable sum at that time, and immediately presented it to the Australian Government. The painting was displayed in London, Manchester and Glasgow, and in 192829 the Australian War Memorial toured it to capital and regional cities around Australia, where it was seen by record crowds.
Following the success of Menin Gate, Longstaff painted several other works on a similar theme. In Immortal shrine (Eternal silence), 1928 (collection of the Australian War Memorial), he depicted ghostly soldiers marching past the Cenotaph in London on Remembrance Day 1928. In Ghosts of Vimy Ridge, 1931 (Canadian House of Commons Collection), Longstaff portrayed the spirits of servicemen of the Canadian Corps. In a fourth work, Carillon, 1932 (collection of the New Zealand Government), he showed the ghosts of New Zealand soldiers on the beaches of Belgium listening to carillon bells in their own country.
These four paintings were brought together for the Australian War Memorial's exhibition Will Longstaff: Art & Remembrance, (20 November 2001 to 10 February 2002). Although the series is often referred to as containing five paintings, the present lot had been recorded (although its whereabouts were unknown). Anne Grey, curator of the AWM exhibition, commented:
"Longstaff is also said to have painted two other works depicting phantom soldiers near a coast. The first, The rearguard (The spirit of ANZAC), presents a ghostly array of soldiers lining up near the beach at Gallipoli in the bleak dawn, with departing transports and warships barely visible on the misty horizon. The second, Drake's drum [Royal Collection, UK], is said to have been painted in response to the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk in 1940, and to show the Sussex coast haunted by the spirits of servicemen rising to answer "Drake's drum". As the present whereabouts of The rearguard are unknown, and given the similarity of the descriptions of the image of the two works, it is possible that Longstaff changed the title from The rearguard to Drake's drum; that is, it may be that the two works are one and the same. (Such re-titling of works was common among Longstaff's contemporaries)."
Of course, we now know there was another painting, presented here on the open market for the first time. The painting caused quite a stir when exhibited in London as The Rearguard (it was renamed The spirit of ANZAC by the time of its exhibition in Australia one year later): "It depicts a bleak dawn on the rocky, drab, green shore of Gallipoli. The departing transports and warships are hulldown on the misty horizon. Wooden crosses are rising ghostwise above the windswept grass and hillsides. Companies of Australia's dead line the beach facing the enemy. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle says that if it were shown in the Academy it would be the picture of the year." (cable from Australia House, as reported in The Argus, 8 May 1928)
The subject is probably the most poignant of the series: Longstaff enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at the outbreak of the First World War and was himself injured at Gallipoli. The ANZAC tradition; the belief that the First World War, and the Gallipoli Campaign in particular, was a watershed in Australian history, and that those who died on foreign soil did so to create a greater Australia, gave this painting an added, almost religious, significance.
We are extremely grateful to Diana Brooks, daughter of the artist, who points out that Longstaff and Conan Doyle both had rooms in the same building on the Buckingham Palace Road. She also notes that, in response to Conan Doyle's suggestion that Longstaff painted under a kind of spiritual influence, Longstaff is reputed to have told a group of friends that the only spirits that influenced him came out of a bottle.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: 'Menin Gate, Mr. Longstaff's Inspiration', Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 1932