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The Great Sacrifice: Grief and Spiritualism in Great War art

Dying and the Dead module

This post continues our series from students on ‘Death, Dying and the Dead', an MA history module at the University of Leeds. This post, by Liam Gorman, focuses on the comfort art, and one particular painting, brought to those bereaved in the First World War.

Painting, depicting a deceased soldier in the First World War overlooked by a Jesus Christ figure.

James Clark, ‘The Great Sacrifice’, 1914. Published from Wikimedia Commons

Upon hearing that an unknown, provincial English painter produced what would become one of the most widely disseminated pieces of British art during the First World War, you may be inclined to think that the painter had struck gold with a fair amount of luck. In reality, though, the painter in question, James Clark, had not chanced his way to national acclaim. Rather, his painting The Great Sacrifice spoke directly to the hearts of the 1914 public as they wrestled with immense grief and uncertainty.

The painting also represented key tenets of spiritualist practice and contributed to an intensification of interest in communications with the dead and ideas of ethereal and eternal life among the British public that would grow following the war.

So, then, how did the man later credited with having created "the most popular painting of the war" come to paint it?

Perhaps what distinguishes Clark’s story most and makes the large-scale resonance of his painting so striking is precisely how little we know about the artist’s background. Much of what we do know about him was gleaned from a 2008 retrospective at his hometown gallery, the Hartlepool Art Gallery. Clark began as a painter in the north-east and was living in London when The Great Sacrifice won national acclaim. Little more has been recorded of the artist’s life prior to this painting.

Clark’s inspiration to paint it, and its immense popular resonance, is understandable given the period in which the piece was created and disseminated. The painting’s depiction of loss on the battlefield was presented to an audience gripped by the threat of personal and national loss. Such losses occurred as stories returned from the front, telling of supernatural visions and occurrences in a place some soldiers compared to 'Hell on Earth'.

The piece came to national prominence after Clark donated it to a Red Cross War Relief exhibition in 1915, where it was purchased by Queen Mary, who allowed Clark to send copies to others in the royal family who had been directly touched by loss in the war. Already, then, we see how the piece connected to the hearts of Britons connected to the war, often those mourning or fearing for their sons. When the piece was widely circulated in the magazine The Graphic, its national reputation was secured.

The best way to understand the emotional impact and spiritualist connections of The Great Sacrifice, which gave it its mass appeal, is to analyse the content of the painting itself.


Spiritual sanctuary

The painting depicts two ‘great sacrifices’, that of Jesus and that of the soldier. The power of this image is in its implication that the soldier’s death was valorous and profoundly important. By including Christ, and emphasising the physical contact between the two figures, Clark deepens the sense of consolation by suggesting the idea of a safe passage to Heaven, transporting the soldier from this ‘Hell on Earth’.

The image of the soldier himself, appearing almost in quiet repose rather than dead, also shows why the piece resonated. Clark individualised the death by focusing on one soldier amid many dead, lending the painting a personal dimension that each family or individual could connect their own experiences to. Clark’s choice of the ‘common man’ – an ordinary private – also gave the piece broader popular relevance. By painting the soldier in a notably unviolent and peaceful manner, Clark provides further meaningful comfort and reassurance to the audience.


Spiritualist connections

It is helpful to situate the content of this painting into the context of a rising interest in spiritualist practices across Britain after the war. This allows us to better understand the content and popularity of the painting and why the war more broadly increased public interest in spiritualism.

The painting presents a visualisation of the popular spiritualist concept of ‘the ether’ by combining the human experience of the soldier with an uncanny spiritual image. This suggests that the deceased occupy a sort of liminal space and have a presence in this ethereal dimension, which is presented as existing in the human world and thus aligning with the spiritualist idea that the departed were close to their loved ones and sustaining their connections to them.

The impact of this ethereal image is bolstered by the use of the crucifixion, given the connotations it has with eternal life, resurrection and return. During and after the war, stories of the return of the dead or their continued spiritual presence were common in Britain and this painting effectively and movingly portrays what historian Jay Winter calls "a kind of spiritualist embrace" between the dead and the grieving.


Whilst one key element of the spiritualist movement in interwar Britain was the tension between it and more traditional religious practices, this painting reflects a shared search for solace and comprehension between those drawn to either practice’s means of connection with the dead. Part of this painting’s mass appeal is in how it dually resonates with those whose religious faith deepened in wartime, and saw consolation in the Christian imagery, and those who had had their faith challenged and diminished by loss yet were still afforded the consolation of the ethereal world their lost loved ones now occupied.

The Great Sacrifice also attests to the value and popularity of what historian Peter Harrington calls "people's art" in wartime, because it provided access to consolation for masses who otherwise had little access to art, which was traditionally academic and restricted in this period. As it was one of few paintings that achieved the degree of wide dissemination and praise that it did, it allows us to understand what feelings were widely shared and well-received by the public.

The painting was found in many forms throughout Britain during and after the war, and remains on display in several places, often connected to local Great War memorials. Reproductions of the painting transformed the spaces in which they were installed, including in several town halls and churches, such as St. Mary Magdalene's in Enfield. These spaces became sites of communal and individual mourning for the war dead, and sites of consolation for the grieving in a period that transformed Britain’s relationship with death and the dead.

The Great Sacrifice was one among many artistic representations of the grappling with death and grief that occurred in Britain, and all across Europe, following the war. These pieces were popular because they provided support and comprehension to populations affected by trauma, consolation which would contribute to a post-war rise in spiritualism and profoundly shape the national understanding of the war.