This major work is the long-lost The Long Range Bombardment of Dunkirk which has recently come to light in a private collection. As Elizabeth Knowles has explained ‘Ernest [Procter] made relatively few major oil paintings of war subjects, perhaps the most notable being The Long Range Bombardment of Dunkirk from sketches and notes made on the spot. (Elizabeth Knowles, ‘Ernest Procter ARA 1886-1935’, Dod Procter RA 1892-1982 and Ernest Procter ARA 1886-1935, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1990, p. 32).
Ernest Procter was born in Tynemouth, Northumberland into a Quaker family. He trained at Leeds Art School and then under Stanhope Forbes in Newlyn, where he met the artist Doris ‘Dod’ Shaw (1890-1972). They furthered their studies at the Académie Colarossi in Paris and married in 1912; Dod was thereafter known by her married name and their son Bill was born the following year. The couple worked and exhibited together, most significantly on the decoration of the Kokine Palace, Rangoon, Burma in 1919-20 and in joint exhibitions held at The Fine Art Society and the Leicester Galleries in 1913 and 1926 respectively.
Following the Procters’ return from Burma, Ernest established an art school in Newlyn with Harold Harvey (1874-1971), which they ran until the mid-1920s. Procter played a leading role in the Cornish art world, whilst maintaining a high profile in London. He was a member of the St Ives Society of Arts and Newlyn Society of Artists, joined the New English Art Club in 1929 and was elected an Associate Member of the Royal Academy three years later. He was best known for the allegorical figure compositions and landscapes which were regularly shown in group exhibitions such as those at the Royal Glasgow Institute, Royal Hibernian Academy and the International Society of Sculptors, Painters & Gravers. In 1934, Procter was appointed Director of Studies in Design and Craft at Glasgow School of Art, but he died the following year. Memorial exhibitions were mounted at the Leicester Galleries and Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle.
In line with his religious beliefs, Procter declared himself a conscientious objector on the outbreak of World War One. The Friends' Ambulance Unit was established soon afterwards by a group of young Quakers, as a means for civilian volunteers to contribute to the war effort in a non-violent way. The Unit travelled to Dunkirk in October 1914 under the auspices of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Procter’s personnel records reveal that he joined it on 11 April 1916, arrived in Dunkirk on 12 June 1916 and served until his demobilisation on 2 February 1919. His duties included care of the wounded, ambulance maintenance and quartermaster tasks. He also designed and decorated Red Cross huts and camp entertainment, whilst recording his experiences in sketches, drawings and paintings as circumstances permitted.
Towards the end of the war, Procter applied to the Ministry of Information for a permit to depict the work of the Red Cross on the Western Front. He was engaged under Scheme 3 of the British War Memorials Committee, whereby in return for facilities, Procter was to offer the first option on all the work he made to the committee, with no salary or expenses. His permit was granted in November 1918. This gave him just a few months before demobilisation to produce the work he carried out for the Royal Army Medical Corps section and was presented for approval in February 1919; six watercolours were acquired and are now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum. They are held alongside a significant number of Procter’s World War One drawings and one of his sketchbooks from the period (see https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/search?query=ernest+procter&pageSize=30&media-records=all-records&style=list accessed 1 April 2022).
Long Range Bombardment of Dunkirk is thought to be an extraordinarily personal and direct account of the major German offensive against the French city which took place over 20 to 23 March 1918, culminating in the use of a German long-range gun situated twenty miles away. Indeed, the painting could act as an illustration of the diary entry for 24 March 1918 written by Procter’s friend Molly Evans (1890-1974), who served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse with the Friends’ Ambulance Unit based in the local Queen Alexandra Hospital. This concludes ‘unending stream of sorting people, carrying bedsteads, personal belongings, mixed up. Glorious sunny day. Queer scene. Frenchmen, lunatics, Chinese carrying things on bamboo sticks, nuns, English sisters, patients, officers, orderlies, all collecting ‘goods’, a procession of Chinese carrying 7 coffins through it all. Crashing shells at intervals. A weary & never-to-be-forgotten day.’ (see https://www.morganfourman.com/articles/hospital-evacuation-under-fire-dunkirk-20-23-mar-1918/ accessed 26 March 2022).
Seen from the point of view of the fleeing civilians whom Procter was in the region to aid, he depicts the nearby dunes strewn with refugees and members of the military, streaming away from the city which burns in the background. The towers of the church of Saint Éloi and the town hall are visible in the skyline – of which an annotated sketch is in the Imperial War Museum’s archive (War Artist Archive: Ernest Procter, ART/WA1/298, 'Belgium misc’ portfolio). The image is full of sensitively observed human relationships, between adults and children of all ages, interspersed with animals. Children play whilst grown-ups survey the scene before them, overlooked by a cross on a dune to the upper left, which may refer to Christ’s crucifixion at Calvary. Sunshine and shadow are captured over the flow of the dunes, whilst a use of bold colour, including red, green, pink and orange, attracts the eye throughout the complex composition.
The importance of Long Range Bombardment of Dunkirk was recognised immediately. It was reproduced in colour and singled out for extensive praise in an article about Ernest and Dod Procter in Colour of April 1919, in which its author wrote that, despite the tragedy of its subject matter:
‘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 at once is 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 Brueghel in his incidents, but Peter Brueghel could not have reached him in composition. This Bombardment I say again is a remarkable picture.’ (“TIS”, 'About Dod & Ernest Procter', Colour, April 1919, vol. 10, no.3, p. 51 (illustrated) & p.52).
Procter was to develop the narrative richness, orchestration of complex figure groups and skilful use of colour seen in this work in further major paintings created after his return to Cornwall, including On the Beach at Newlyn, 1919 and Cornish Beach Scene, c.1922, both in private collections. His work is held in numerous public collections.
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