Colin Gill (1892 - 1940)

Study for Heavy Artillery; Portrait of a Forward Observing Officer

SKU: 11703
oil on panel

Height – 25cm
Width – 21cm


The Artist’s Family

In December 1914, four months after Britain had declared war on Germany, Gill suspended his scholarship at the British School of Rome to volunteer for the Royal Garrison Artillery and by October 1915, he had been sent to the front in France as a Second Lieutenant of the 17th Heavy Battery. In 1916 he was seconded to the Royal Engineers to work as
a camouflage officer before being invalided out with severe gas poisoning in April 1918. After spending several months convalescing at the Hospital for Officers on the Isle of Wight, Gill was appointed an Official War Artist to the Ministry of Information. While the few extant letters that Gill sent to his sister Marjory from the front only hint at the hardships that he endured, his later war pictures are evidence that he had in fact witnessed the horrors associated with active service. Heavy Artillery, 1919, was one of a series of paintings commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee as part of a scheme to build a Hall of Remembrance.

This portrait is a study for the The Forward Observing Officer, who is shown signalling away from the battery, in the top right-hand corner of the composition. The picture, which has as its subject a view of a heavy artillery position, depicts the impact of industrialised warfare; the imposing, camouflaged 9.2 Howitzers, the scattered sheets of corrugated iron, and the ruined village and bomb-damaged walls are set within a war-torn landscape, like the one Gill had witnessed on his return to the front at Mons in November 1918, hours after it had been retaken by the Allies at the end of hostilities: ‘desolate and encumbered with the debris of battle’. The broken roadside Calvary, which has been overturned by a shell-explosion, is a metaphor for the fallen soldier, a theme explored by Wilfred Owen in his poem ‘At a Calvary near the Ancre’, 1918. When the painting was exhibited at an an ‘Exhibition of the Nation’s War Pictures at Burlington House, (December 12, 1919-February 7, 1920), the critic P. G. Konody described it as ‘a Paolo Uccello with Howitzers’ and ‘a decorative scheme of massive design, elaborate but not confused, rich and sober at once in colour’. He found it fortunate that Gill, ‘who has already gained the Prix de Rome, was given this great opportunity at the beginning of what promises to be a brilliant career’.

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Colin Gill
1892 - 1940

Decorative and genre painter, born in Bexley Heath, Kent. He was a cousin of the sculptor and printmaker Eric Gill. He studied at the Slade School, and in 1913 won a scholarship to the British School at Rome. His scholarship was interrupted by the First World War: he served in France 1915-18 and was appointed an Official War Artist. From 1922-25 he was a member of staff at the Royal College of Art. He died in South Africa in 1940, while working on a series of murals for the Magistrates Court in Johannesburg. His work is held in the Tate Gallery and the Imperial War Museum.

Gill can lay claim both to being the first painter to win a scholarship to the British School at Rome and to have produced its most iconic image: Allegory, 1921. He also started the fruitful tradition of scholars taking up residence in the small village of Anticoli Corrardo, just south of Rome, during the hot summer months. However, like many of the Rome Scholars who came after him, there is a sense that Gill never fulfilled the remarkable promise of his early work. After returning from Italy his paintings appear to be caught uncomfortably between two desires: on one hand, to continue in the nineteenth-century tradition in which he had been trained, and, on the other, to embrace something more contemporary and avant-garde. He was a keen photographer and also a novelist.


Colin Gill (1892 - 1940)
Study for Heavy Artillery; Portrait of a Forward Observing Officer
Colin Gill (1892 - 1940)
Portrait of Winifred Knights, 1921
Colin Gill (1892 - 1940)
Self-portrait, 1910
Colin Gill (1892 - 1940)
Self Portrait (?) 1913
Colin Gill (1892 - 1940)
Flora, 1912
Colin Gill (1892 - 1940)
Allegory, 1920-1921
Colin Gill (1892 - 1940)
Study for L’Allegro, circa 1920