Scottish National Portrait Gallery reveals the painting that inspired Wilfred Owen

By Richard Moss | 31 July 2014

A painting that impressed Wilfred Owen as he recuperated from shell shock is one of the treasures going on display in a new exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

a painting of four angelic figures lifting a prone warrior into a cloudy sky on a stretcher
Henry Lintott RSA (1877-1965), Avatar, Oil on canvas, 1916© Royal Scottish Academy of Art & Architecture (Diploma Collection)
When Wilfred Owen first encountered Avatar, an elegiac and ethereal meditation on the fallen of the Great War painted by Henry Lintott in 1916, it impressed him profoundly.

It was the summer of 1917 and the young poet and Second Lieutenant was being treated for shell shock at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh. He described Lintott’s depiction of Angels carrying the body of a fallen warrior towards the heavens as the “finest picture now in the Edinburgh Gallery”.

Owen, who during his time in Craiglockhart met Siegfried Sassoon and later penned some of his most famous works including Futility and Strange Meeting, returned to the trenches in the summer of 1918. He died on November 4 1918 - just one week before the Armistice. The painting he so admired during his recuperation has been seldom seen since.

Now it is about to be unveiled as one of the highlights of a new exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, marking the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

It has been loaned by the Royal Scottish Academy, and has been specially conserved ahead of the show, called Remembering the Great War, which aims to reflect the stories of a wide range of people, from famous figures to ordinary men and women.

As well as Lintott’s mawkish and rather Victorian depiction, which today seems at odds with the innovations his fellow artists were forging in the face of war, the exhibition features an array of sitters, from senior statesmen and military figures to writers, poets, painters and musicians, together with photographs of servicemen and women.

Among the women represented are Flora Drummond, a militant figure in the Suffragette movement which on the outbreak of hostilities put on hold its demands for emancipation to support the war, and the poet and children’s author Lady Margaret Sackville, who published The Pageant of War, a collection of anti-war poems in which she declared that women who supported the war were betraying their sons.

The wide-ranging exhibition also looks at famous Scots such as music hall star Harry Lauder, who lost his only son at the Battle of the Somme, artist William McCance who was imprisoned as a conscientious objector, and Lord Reith, later the Director-General of the BBC, who fought with distinction for the 5th Scottish Rifles and was shot in the face by a German sniper, sustaining the famous scar clearly visible in his portrait by Sir Oswald Birley.

A series of black and white images of the former Somme battlefields in France as they stand today shifts the wartime reflections to the present and pinpoints the spot where Owen fell - so tragically close to the Armistice.

Remembering the Great War is at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh from August 4 – July 5 2015.
Admission free.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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Without a doubt, one of the most impressive paintings from The Great War. The emotional impact I felt was incredible. Thanks for putting this on exhibit.
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