By Laura Brandon
On the occasion of the 100th Anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, this article sheds light on the background and history of a virtually unknown 1918 Canadian War Museum painting by English artist, David Jagger (1891-1958). Entitled The Bolshevik, it is an impressive if anomalous canvas in the museum’s war art collection. The circumstances surrounding this artwork’s creation, acquisition, limited exhibition, and publication raise questions about art’s role in history. If the subject and event were so important in 1917-18, why, in 2017, has this painting not been seen since 1924?
““The Bolshevik,” Sensation at the Canadian War Memorials Exhibition” was the headline that greeted readers of the Toronto Star Weekly when they opened their weekend newspapers on Saturday, 16 February 1924.[i] Above the headline, they could view a reproduction of a painting depicting a furious, wild-haired young man with a white scarf casually draped around his neck. Taking up half the background was a huge flag imprinted with Cyrillic lettering and below it, a crowd of gun-toting revolutionaries. Not what one might expect to see in one’s newspaper on a regular 1924 Saturday morning in Etobicoke, Rosedale, or York Mills.
The Bolshevik is not a well-known painting and the Ottawa exhibition that featured it was the last time it was publicly shown and the only time it has been exhibited in Canada. The occasion was the Second Exhibition of the Canadian War Memorials paintings at the National Gallery of Canada, which was on view from 18 January to 30 April 1924. The Bolshevik was shown alongside 240 other works by British and Canadian artists whose work had been acquired by the Canadian War Memorials Fund during and just after the First World War.
The Canadian War Memorials
The Bolshevik is part of the Canadian War Memorials, Canada’s First World War art collection, which consists of nearly 1,000 works by over 100 artists, a third of them Canadian, and two thirds British and a smattering of other nations.[ii] This collection was the brainchild of Sir Max Aitken (1879-1964), later Lord Beaverbrook (hereafter referred to as Beaverbrook). Born in Canada, he made a fortune as a businessman in the country’s years of economic boom under Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier. After moving to Britain, he became financially involved in 1911 with London’s Daily Express, buying this newspaper outright five years later and using it as a vehicle for his ideas and to extend his influence. By this time the First World War had been ongoing for two years. Always a Canadian at heart, Beaverbrook’s genuine nationalist fervour contributed to his decision that same year to initiate and take personal responsibility for a project to record the war from Canada’s point of view. The result was the creation of the Canadian War Records Office.
Beaverbrook’s media interests made him ideally suited to the task of documenting the war in film, photograph, and print. His experience with a mass circulation daily paper meant he also knew what engaged people’s interests. The horrific German gas attack on the Canadians during the Second Battle of Ypres in April and May 1915 was such an event, especially since it was never photographed. Convinced that the battle should be documented by art, Beaverbrook’s new organization, the Canadian War Memorials Fund, a spin-off from the Canadian War Records Office, commissioned a huge 3.7 x 6-metre painting from British society artist Richard Jack (1866-1952), in November 1916.[iii] The success of this venture, combined with the prevailing belief at that time that the life-span of photographs was no more than 25 years, as well as the long tradition of commemorating battles in painting, contributed to Beaverbrook’s decision to commission more artists to record Canada’s war. Alongside commissions, he also purchased some already completed, one of which was The Bolshevik.
As the war drew to a close, Beaverbrook produced designs for a monumental war memorial art gallery to be constructed in Ottawa. However, a decade of lobbying did not result in the building’s construction. Beaverbrook consequently lost interest in the project, feeling generally that his wartime work for Canada had been under-appreciated. By default, the National Gallery of Canada was left with custody of the artwork that he had commissioned or purchased and which he intended to be displayed in this gallery. One of these works was The Bolshevik.
The Bolshevik came from the brush of David Jagger. Born near Rotherham, Yorkshire, in 1891 Jagger was just beginning to establish himself in London as a portrait painter and also a painter of themes that dealt with topical subjects.[iv] His brother was the celebrated First World War English sculptor Charles Jagger (1891-1958).[v] David had been apprenticed at 14 to a large commercial print workshop in Sheffield. On the strength of his accomplished draughting and illustrating skills, he won a scholarship to Sheffield Technical School of Art (1906-1912) where he received medals in mural design and painting. There he met Frederick Varley (1881-1969) of the future Group of Seven, who painted his wife’s portrait.[vi] Jagger subsequently spent two years earning a living as a watercolourist, producing views of the Derbyshire countryside near Sheffield as well as commissioned portraits in pastel.
In 1914, Jagger moved to London to work in a commercial art studio. He avoided conscription in 1916 on health grounds although it seems likely, if unproven, that he was a pacifist, as is often claimed. He first showed at the Royal Academy Summer Show in 1917, which brought him quickly to public attention and initiated a subsequent career as a society portraitist. This was despite his reputation for relying on photography, at the time considered a form of cheating, as artists were expected to work from life.[vii] The Bolshevik clearly shows his indebtedness to this medium resembling, as it does, innumerable published photographs of Boshevik leaders during the Russian revolutionary years. Jagger also produced a number of military portraits, including an evocative study of his brother, Charles, who served first with the Artists’ Rifles and, subsequently, with the Worcestershire Regiment.[viii]
In London Jagger came to eventually specialize in portraits of royalty. But he also painted the less well respected and the topical, a decision that currently is transforming his previously less than stellar reputation. In 2015, his painting The Conscientious Objector sold for more than 23 times its pre-sale estimate of £5,000-8,000 at Bonhams auction house.[ix] The painting (which can be seen here) depicts a British First World War “conchie”, possibly inspired by the artist himself, who did not enlist. Those eligible who did not enlist had to appear at local tribunals set up under the provisions of the Military Service Act following Britain’s introduction of conscription in 1916. During the first six months of the Act’s existence, out of the hundreds of thousands of cases the tribunals heard, only 16,000 men were recognized as legitimately driven by conscience. In 1917, when he painted this portrait Jagger could not have been more topical.
The Bolshevik Revolution and Canada
One can assume that Beaverbrook acquired The Bolshevik for the Canadian War Memorials in August 1918, although evidence suggests that he originally meant it to become part of the British War Memorials program, of which he was also in charge.[x] Why he subsequently changed his mind and assigned it to the Canadian program is not known. In any event, the seizure of power by the revolutionary Bolsheviks in Russia in October 1917 and their cessation of the Russian war with Germany in March 1918, were circumstances that were very much on the minds of the western allied nations at the time. Certainly the painting served to personalize these events and to caricature the fanaticism of what had become a new enemy.
The Bolsheviks had made peace with Germany in March 1918, plunging Russia into a bloody civil war.[xi] The so-called Red Russians led by Lenin, fought to hold power against so-called White Russian forces representing the recently deposed Romanov dynasty and other conservative and nationalist forces. From mid-1918, Tsarist Russia’s former allies sent troops into northern Russia to support the White Russians and to guard supplies previously given on credit to the Tsarist government, and to assist in re-opening an eastern front against the Central Powers. The Canadian government sent roughly 600 troops to assist the anti-Bolshevik effort in northwestern Russia early in 1918, and 4,000 troops later that year to Siberia as part of a larger Allied intervention.
Canada, like most Western countries, viewed Bolshevism as a long-term threat to its own government but, in the short term, merely wanted Russia back in the war against Germany and Austria, and so supported the Whites. Allied involvement in Siberia was short-lived and, ultimately, unsuccessful. In most areas, more numerous and highly motivated Red Russian forces gradually gained the upper hand over the disorganized, badly led White Russians while war weary Western governments, after the Armistice on the Western Front on 11 November 1918, lost interest in the fighting and brought home their troops. The Siberian Expeditionary Force returned to Canada by June 1919, having suffered 24 casualties.
Jagger exhibited The Bolshevik at the 150th Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London, England, between 6 May and 10 August 1918, less than two months after the Bolshevik leadership signed the unanticipated peace treaty with Germany. Certainly by May 1918, however, the ferocious and threatening protagonist depicted in Jagger’s painting would have expressed for many very real fears that an Allied victory, and even democracy itself, were under threat.[xii] Ironically and, perhaps, subtly, the words on the banner behind the figure translate as the partial French Revolutionary slogan, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity,” themselves representative of democratic values. The average viewer, of course, would likely not have known this and would simply have responded only to the painting’s extraordinary visual impact.
For Jagger, a young, emerging artist, the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition’s perennial popularity was critical to his career. The numbers impress: 128,684 people visited the exhibition and 1,622 works were displayed.[xiii] Based on extant correspondence we can piece together what happened next. On 10 June, Jagger received a letter from the British Ministry of Information (MOI) requesting a reproduction of The Bolshevik, asking if it was for sale, and requesting he telephone them.[xiv] It would appear that all further negotiations occurred by phone as it is not until 24 July that the MOI declared it could not make use of the painting but that a member of the committee, (in fact, its Minister, Beaverbrook) was prepared to buy it for £75.[xv] Jagger was disappointed writing that “it had quite some historical value” and that he would like an extra £25 for the copyright.[xvi] Judging by a letter Jagger sent to it on 29 July, the MOI did not capitulate and the price remained £75 including copyright.[xvii]
With his letter of 29 July, Jagger included another he had received from Joseph Bibby, the editor of Bibby’s Annual, requesting an image of the painting for publication purposes. Joseph Bibby (1851-1940) was a successful British miller, soap manufacturer, animal feed merchant, editor and publisher. A Christian and a theosophist, Bibby wrote extensively about social issues and was a strong critic of Bolshevism, touting instead the benefits of capitalism.
The Bolshevik was reproduced in the 1918 edition of Bibby’s Annual in an article entitled “Socialism, or Equality and Equity” written by Bibby’s fellow soap manufacturer, philanthropist and Liberal politician Lord Leverhulme (1851-1925).[xviii] The lengthy caption under the reproduction makes it quite clear that Leverhulme understood the portrait to be of a man who espoused the socialist ideologies that he loathed.[xix] The prominence accorded The Bolshevik by this article may well explain why Jagger renewed his interest in selling the copyright to the MOI, this time for £50.[xx] It was to no avail as on 2 August 1918, Beaverbrook purchased the painting and its copyright for £75.[xxi] At the time Jagger did not know he was the purchaser.[xxii] Within weeks, the painting was delivered to Beaverbrook’s home in Surrey.[xxiii]
The Bolshevik was not included in the first exhibition of Canadian War Art in London in January 1919. Nor was it exhibited when the exhibition was remounted in in 1920 in Canada. Indeed, it remained in England at this time with a number of other Canadian War Memorials paintings. It was subsequently, however, transported across the Atlantic with other residual works to the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Here, in 1924, it was exhibited as part of a tenth anniversary of the start of the war exhibition for the second time in its existence. To quote the Star Weekly, it was a sensation. But it was never shown again at the National Gallery or, following the transfer of the war paintings to the Canadian War Museum in 1971, at this institution either.[xxiv]
It is possible that by then, contrary to seeing any historical value in the painting, its custodians recognized The Bolshevik for what it was—an overheated piece of western propaganda meant to depict the Bolsheviks as ferocious, bile-spitting, fanatics. A well-painted but naked and over-the-top piece of propaganda, it had few redeeming historical qualities and had had its time. Useful perhaps for an exhibition on First World War era fears about the Bolshevik menace, potentially of art historical interest, but not much more than that.
On the 100th anniversary of the earth-shattering world event that was the Bolshevik Revolution, it is interesting to reflect on the nearly one-hundred-year absence of this painting from the public sphere, a painting with a complicated genesis that sought to capture a sense of revolution as it happened in a period that feared it greatly. One hundred years later, is this still the case?
I am particularly grateful to my former Canadian War Museum colleague Dr. Cameron Pulsifer for his helpful input and careful editing of this essay.
Laura Brandon was the Curator of War Art at the Canadian War Museum from 1992 to 2015. She taught at Carlton University and has published a number of books, including Art or Memorial? The Forgotten History of Canada’s War Art (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006). Find her at http://www.laurabrandon.ca/.
ActiveHistory.ca is featuring this post as part of “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on ActiveHistory.ca”, a multi-year series of regular posts about the history and centennial of the First World War.
[i] ““The Bolshevik,” Sensation at the Canadian War Memorials Exhibition,” Toronto Star Weekly, 16 February 1924.
[ii] This section is a shortened, edited, adapted and revised version of my Canadian War Museum article: Canada’s War Art. http://www.warmuseum.ca/learn/dispatches/canadas-war-art/#tabs (Accessed 2 July 2017).
[iii] http://www.warmuseum.ca/collections/artifact/1017198/ (Accessed 17 September 2017).
[iv] Michael Tooby, Mappin Art Gallery, Sheffield, to Hugh Halliday, Canadian War Museum, 1 September 1986 (Canadian War Museum Artist File, Jagger, David).
[v] See, for example, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Sargeant_Jagger (Accessed 3 July 2017).
[vi] Katerina Atanassova, F. H. Varley: Portraits Into the Light (Toronto: Dundurn, 2007): 28.
[vii] Tooby to Halliday, 1 September 1986 (Canadian War Museum Artist File, Jagger, David).
[viii] David Jagger, Charles Jagger, 1917, oil on canvas, 60.1 x 49.6 cm, Museums Sheffield VIS. 1998.
[ix] https:// https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/22810/lot/46/ (Accessed 17 September 2017).
[x] Alfred Yockney, Ministry of Information, to David Jagger, 10 June 1918, Imperial War Museum, First World War Artists Archive, 243/6, Jagger, David, 10 June – 28 December 1953.
[xi] The historical background in this section is based on Canadian War Museum online material. http://www.warmuseum.ca/firstworldwar/history/battles-and-fighting/land-battles/siberian-expeditionary-force/ (Accessed 3 July 2017).
[xii] For more on this, see Daniel Francis, Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918–1919, Canada’s First War on Terror (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2011).
[xiii] http://sculpture.gla.ac.uk/view/event.php?id=msib7_1217943636 (Accessed 3 July 2017).
[xiv] Alfred Yockney, Ministry of Information, to David Jagger, 10 June 1918, Imperial War Museum, First World War Artists Archive, 243/6, Jagger, David, 10 June – 28 December 1953.
[xv] Alfred Yockney, Ministry of Information, to David Jagger, 24 July 1918, Imperial War Museum, First World War Artists Archive, 243/6, Jagger, David, 10 June – 28 December 1953.
[xvi] David Jagger to Alfred Yockney, Ministry of Information, 24 July 1918, Imperial War Museum, First World War Artists Archive, 243/6, Jagger, David, 10 June – 28 December 1953.
[xvii] David Jagger to Alfred Yockney, Ministry of Information, 29 July 1918, Imperial War Museum, First World War Artists Archive, 243/6, Jagger, David, 10 June – 28 December 1953.
[xviii] Lord Leverhulme, “Socialism, or Equality and Equity,” Bibby’s Annual, 1918, 13.
[xix] The caption reads, “This is a study of an idealist, who is out of touch with realities, and who, ignoring the Laws of Karma and Reincarnation, reaches conclusions which are false. Posing as a righteous and single-minded advocate of democratic reform, he has succeeded, in a few months, in bringing his country into a state of helplessness and anarchy. The outworking of his ignorance of the true principles on which human welfare and prosperity rest, has been marked by a red trail of ruin and tyranny, infinitely worse than that which it has superseded. Instead of giving the country peace, bread, and freedom, as promised, his half-baked theories have resulted in internecine war, hunger, and famine. His methods of pillage under the garb of freedom, have culminated in an orgy of murder and rapine. His contempt for the established order of Society has ended in selling his country to a relentless enemy. Our own idealists may study the picture with advantage, if only to remind themselves, that no social changes can be effective which are not inspired by the desire for the welfare of all classes of the community.”
[xx] David Jagger to Alfred Yockney, Ministry of Information, before 2 August 1918, Imperial War Museum, First World War Artists Archive, 243/6, Jagger, David, 10 June – 28 December 1953.
[xxi] Alfred Yockney, Ministry of Information, to David Jagger, 2 August 1918, Imperial War Museum, First World War Artists Archive, 243/6, Jagger, David, 10 June – 28 ember 1953.
[xxii] David Jagger to Alfred Yockney, Ministry of Information, before 11 August 1918, Imperial War Museum, First World War Artists Archive, 243/6, Jagger, David, 10 June – 28 December 1953.
[xxiii] Alfred Yockney, Ministry of Information, to David Jagger, 13 August 1918, Imperial War Museum, First World War Artists Archive, 243/6, Jagger, David, 10 June – 28 December 1953.
[xxiv] It is impossible to easily piece together the publication history of this painting during its first 90 years as the National Gallery of Canada and Canadian War Museum publication records no longer exist.