The Battle of Loos painting

A watercolour of the Battle of Loos by Richard Barrett Talbot Kelly that sold for £5500 at Parker Fine Art Auctions.

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The watercolour showing the morning of the first day of The Battle of Loos in September 1915 was executed by Richard Barrett Talbot Kelly (1896-1971), a teacher and artist who at the time was serving with the Royal Field Artillery.

Measuring 2ft 2in x 3ft 3in (65 x 97cm), the signed picture dated 1916 shows a British artillery unit together with injured soldiers and German prisoners at the Hohenzollern Redoubt when the 9th Scottish Division broke through the German front line.

The Hohenzollern Redoubt was a German position protecting a valuable observation point in Loos in Northern France. After successfully assaulting the position on the opening day of the battle, the six British divisions were later surrounded and forced to retreat over the following days, suffering huge casualties.

The work that was offered at Parker Fine Art Auctions (25% buyer’s premium) on July 4 was one of Talbot Kelly’s most detailed depictions of the war. The watercolour was likely derived from on-the-spot sketches which the artist worked up into finished works.

The artist was present at many major offensives including the Battle of the Somme (1916), the Battle of Arras (1917) and the Battle of Passchendaele (1917). Serving as a Forward Observation Officer, he was tasked with spotting where the artillery shells were landing, and his unique vantage point of the battlefields therefore clearly inspired his illustrations.

Writer’s provenance

Wartime scenes by Talbot Kelly are rarely available on the market. The National Army Museum hold 37 of his watercolours and drawings relating to First World War subjects including one from the Battle of Loos.

This one offered at the Surrey auction was previously owned by the writer Anthony Price (1929-2019) who specialised in crime fiction and whose novels frequently focused on military history. His well known book Other Paths to Glory relates to the battles on the western front. The work was consigned for sale by his son.

After the conflict Talbot Kelly turned to ornithological subjects primarily. Such works are much more common on the market with the auction record standing at £9500 for watercolour of eider ducks in flight that sold at Christie’s sale of the Astor collection in 2017.

Estimated at £3000-5000 at the Farnham auction, the Battle of Loos watercolour drew a lively contest and was eventually knocked down to the Royal Artillery Museum at £5500.

Major General Nicholas Eeles, the chair of the Royal Artillery Museum, told ATG that it was first wartime study by Talbot Kelly on the open market in the recent past as far as the museum was aware.

“Our collections policy highlights the aspiration to acquire paintings of Royal Artillery actions (from throughout its 300+ years history) and those completed by Gunner artists. In this case it fits both requirements, as well as being a unique record of the artillery in action at the Battle of Loos by someone who was there.”

He added that the museum intends to display the painting in its new premises once its opens on Salisbury Plain in around four years’ time.  The museum’s previous home in Woolwich in London was most recently branded 'Firepower – The Royal Artillery Museum' but closed in 2016 with much of its collection placed in storage.

‘Alleyways of death’

As well as his pictures, Talbot Kelly recorded his recollections of the First World War in his book A Subaltern’s Odyssey, a copy of which was offered with the lot at the along with a map and documentation about the battle.

He wrote: “These men had become majestic in their grime and filth of war, utterly fearless now of any horror it might hold for them, prepared to hand on, whilst consciousness lasted, to the gains they had won at such tremendous cost.

“I was witness, this day, to the devotion and self-sacrifice of the very pick of Scotland’s manhood, men whom I had so recently seen on parade in their thousands, and who now returned of their own free will, crippled and maimed, to walk down the dark, uncertain alleyways of death”.