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Conference Papers
Conference Papers

Paul Gough
Invited Paper,
'War, Art and Medicine' conference, held at University College London., National Portrait gallery, London, November 7–8th 2002

‘Rob all my comrades’
– the Pictorial Value of the Front-line Medical Orderly and Stretcher Bearer in the Iconography of the Western Front
Between them the Royal Army Medical Corps, the British Red Cross Society, Order of St. John of Jerusalem, and other medical units commissioned a large number of artists during the Great War, 1914 - 1918. Much of the work is still unexamined largely because many of the commissioned works were distributed in 1922 to hospitals such as the Royal Herbert, the Cambridge and Connaught, and the Netley in Southampton. Few of these paintings, prints and watercolours appear to have survived though a number can be found in reproduction and copy.

Of those pieces that are known, the pictorial role of the stretcher bearer is of great importance. The stretcher bearer offered the artist an opportunity to depict the standing figure in iconic and heroic mode, at a time when the conditions on the western front required the soldier to be prone, stooped and concealed. Much of British figurative painting of the period lacked a visual code for lassitude or semi-concealment; by contrast medical artists found, in the stretcher-bearer and front-line medic, an image that was sufficiently heroic, and iconic to

The paper has two themes:
Firstly, through an examination of the work of Gilbert Rogers, David Baxter, Austin Spare, Adrian Hill and others the paper will explore the representation of the front line medic with particular reference to the stretcher-bearer. Comparisons will be drawn between the representation of the medical services in the popular press of the day – such as Matania, Villiers, Begg - and their depiction by front-line artists.

A second (and more speculative) theme examines the pictorial role of the medical services in offering directional consistency to the visual language of the Western Front. Whereas many of the representations of the western front have a left to right/west to east ‘fighting axis’, the medical services (stretcher bearers, ambulance units, etc) are nearly always shown moving from right to left, from ‘dangerous east’ to ‘safer west’.

This notion is supported by images drawn from the work of Cyril Barraud, David Baxter, Walter Starmer, and Walter Spradbery.