Robert Spence – artist and ambulance service hero in France in World War 1

TWCMS_2014_1019 detail200aNorth-East artist Robert Spence (1871-1964) joined an ambulance unit in France as soon as possible after the First World War broke out. This scene shows a first-aid post on the front line near the village of Mesnil-les-Hurlus. In 1915, French troops were advancing against the German army there. TWCMS_2014_1019 redu whole200As a result of his bravery rescuing soldiers under fire, Robert Spence was awarded the Croix-de-Guerre medal in 1915.  At this time, he was about 44 years old, which made his brave actions on the battlefield even more of an achievement. The fighting around Mesnil-les-Hurlus was so heavy that the village was destroyed (some details here).

Spence’s picture is an etching, which he created after the war from his memories and sketches made at the time. The full view of the scene is on the right. The wood and corrugated iron used to build this first-aid post all had to be carried into the trenches by the soldiers. The stretcher bearers would do the best they could here before moving wounded soldiers to safer first-aid posts and field hospitals.

TWCMS_2014_1018 loading ambulance185This ambulance post is a bit further back from the fighting. The image is the central part of Spence’s etching titled Field of Action, Souvenir of War, August 1918. In August, the tide turned in the war, with victories by the British and French armies and their allies on the Somme battlefield. It was this campaign that led to the end of the First World War in November 1918. However, success was accompanied by massive loss of life. Many survivors would have wounds that would be a permanent reminder of the war. In this scene, soldiers are being loaded into an ambulance. The uniforms show the men are French.

TWCMS_2014_1018 reduced 3-200

The full view of the ambulance scene (right) reveals that the unit appears to have taken over a large cave for their depot. Its original use may have been for storing wine, as they were in a wine-making region.

Robert Spence was in an ambulance unit organised by the Society of Friends (Quakers), working with the French Red Cross. The unit treated all wounded soldiers, friend and enemy alike. (A history of the British involvement in the French Red Cross during the war can be read here.)

Robert head & shoulders 2

This photo shows Robert Spence as a young man of about 19, at home in North Shields. He trained as an artist in London and Paris, and worked both as a painter and etcher. He came from a local banking family, with a strong Quaker background. These two original etchings were given by the Spence family and are on show in the Laing Art Gallery’s First World War exhibition until October 19th 2014.

Visit the Wor Life website for more about our events and exhibitions relating to the First World War.

4 Responses to Robert Spence – artist and ambulance service hero in France in World War 1

  1. Caroline Westgate says:

    Thanks to help from Newcastle Quaker Meeting, who keep the originals, I have been able to make digital copies of some Robert Sence drawings. They are in chalk and charcoal on paper and I think they may have been done as preliminary sketches for the Robert Spence etchings on your website. Would you like me to send them to you? In my opinion they are very strong indeed.

    • John O Flynn says:

      To Caroline Westgate,
      I have just returned from a weekend with the Quaker Arts Network at Swarthmoor Hall. I had been intrigued to find that “Quaker” & “Arts” had any relationship at all and as a “convinced” figurative-realist artist/illustrator myself (and a Quaker) I was even more impressed by the Robert Spence etchings I found exhibited there – a Quaker and an accomplished figurative artist to boot. Where is the primary collection of his work – or is it scattered in collections around the north of England? I presume there is no monograph etc on him. A bio I read on the net said little was know of his later life etc…
      Any guidance much appreciated!
      In Friendship
      JOHN O FLYNN
      Dublin
      joflynn@eircom.net

      • Sarah Richardson says:

        Dear John,

        I have forwarded your message.

        The two prints illustrated in the blog are part of a gift from the Spence family of prints by Robert Spence, and other artwork by his father Charles James Spence and brother Philip Spence. Quite a few have digital images, which you can view on our collection website-http://www.twmuseums.org.uk/collections.html.

        Apart from the Newcastle Friends drawings by Robert Spence, there’re some artworks held by the Friends House London, and one or two in the National Gallery, Ashmolean and similar locations. There are a number of works at Swarthmoor, Brigflatts and other Quaker buildings, though I don’t have further information about these. Robert Spence was certainly talented but isn’t a monograph on him.

        Hope this helps, Sarah

  2. Sarah Richardson says:

    Dear Caroline,
    Thanks for your comment. I look forward to seeing the drawings, and have replied to you by email.
    Regards, Sarah

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