THE CAMP IN THE OATFIELD

BOURGOURG 1915

Ten oil paintings by Victor Tardieu (1870-1937)
recording the tented hospital established and run by
Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland (1867-1955)

Thes paintings were exhibited in 2012 by
ABBOTT and HOLDER JV
(Tom Edwards and Philip Athill)

The paintings were sold to the Florence Nightingale Museum, London

Within five days of Britain’s 4th August declaration of war Millicent Sutherland had persuaded the French Minister of War to exempt her from those regulations forbidding foreigners from serving in French Military Hospitals and was attached to a French Red Cross contingent urgently requested by Brussels. With the exception of very brief fund-raising visits back to Britain she nursed in and administered her various hospitals throughout the War. 8,000 men were treated in Sutherland’s hospital in its various locations, with considerably more of the wounded transported via her ambulances. The philanthropic traditions and emotional needs compelling the Duchess to undertake what she described as ‘an insistent duty’ are intelligently described in her biography*, and there is only room here to briefly set her, Bourbourg, and Tardieu in context.

The tented hospital camp recorded in these paintings existed for only three months, metamorphosing out of one wartime situation and into another. Sutherland had spent the first six weeks of the War in Belgium organising, at the request of the Belgians, the ‘Millicent Sutherland Ambulance Unit’. The first of such units to be established by a British woman, it initially consisted of a surgeon from Guy’s Hospital, eight trained British nurses and a stretcher-bearer. It saw immediate service during the siege and fall of Namur and was behind German lines for three weeks, gaining a great deal of experience coping with the rapidly evolving military situation. Only the contacts and panache of the Duchess assisted the Unit’s escape through Holland and across the Channel on 18th September. Pausing briefly to write Six Weeks at the War, a vivid, fund-raising account published both by The Times and, significantly, in the U.S.A, and to enrol Winston Churchill’s support in overcoming entrenched Royal Army Medical Corps opposition to her plans, Sutherland was back in France with surgeons, nurses, drivers and eight cars by 23rd October. They were immediately needed to carry wounded French and Belgian soldiers from the crucial Battle of the Yser to hospitals at Dunkirk and the hospital ships which ferried them to Cherbourg.

Sutherland also established a temporary hospital with 100 beds at nearby Malo-les-Bains. During the German shelling of Dunkirk in the spring of 1915 the French decided that this hospital should move to the safety of nearby Bourbourg. There it became ‘the camp in the oat field’, as we see it here, recorded as a seemingly idyllic respite from the horrors of the Front for wounded French and Belgian soldiers. Once the war of movement gave way to the war of attrition it became safe to return to the coast and, from 15th October 1915, the hospital acquired a changed identity as ‘No.9 Red Cross Hospital (Millicent Sutherland Ambulance)’ nursing, significantly, British rather than French or Belgian soldiers in wooden huts among the sand dunes at Calais. Sutherland’s Red Cross status and the excellent work she had done for the French had enabled them to agree the British request that she should transfer her services to the British troops in the area. Despite the increasing presence of the British, Calais was not yet recognised by the French as a British Military base and no official British army hospitals could be established there.

Victor Tardieu is an interesting example of an artist who really benefitted from the French system of art education. The son of a silk designer and merchant he was trained at the Ecoles des Beaux Arts in Lyon and in Paris and in the studio of Leon Bonnat (1833-1922). Early in his career he was not only designing stained glass and painting large scale murals but working on a portrait practice. With a series studying port life around the Mediterranean and with the informal, brightly coloured plein-air panel paintings executed during the pre-war decade his work reflected fashionable, if not innovative, practice.

Although well over age he enlisted in 1914 as a ‘simple soldat’. The dedication on No.2 suggests that this series, which has remained together, entire and unremarked with the Duchess’s descendants, was painted as an expression of patriotic gratitude for what the dedicatee had done for his countrymen. It does not feel like an official commission, but it may well be the sort of record that the Duchess, justifiably proud of her camp and sympathetic to the arts, would have most appreciated. It was felt at the time that the tented, outdoor existence during those beautiful summer months speeded the soldiers’ recovery, and while Tardieu captured the hospital specifics of the scene; the metal beds, medicine bottles and bandaged wounded, his painter’s eye relished the fall of light through the stripy beach tenting additions to the army canvas and the glimpses of garden and fields that would have been so restorative to a wounded ‘simple soldat’.

Allowance for Tardieu’s skills and age appears to have been made, as after painting this series he was, in 1916, attached to Section 1 of the American Ambulance Field Service. His paintings recording the work of the American volunteers were used to great effect in publicising the American propaganda film Our Boys in the European War (Triangle Film Corporation, 1916). The fostering of Anglo-French-American relations was taken extremely seriously, Millicent Sutherland for example, depended on generous American donations, and Tardieu became usefully associated with that aspect of the war. With Peace Tardieu discovered a revived career when, in 1920, he won the Indochinese Award. While painting large murals commissioned by the colonial government in Hanoi he became fascinated with Vietnam; with the landscape, the culture and the arts. Allying with Vietnamese artists he successfully lobbied the French Republican and Colonial Governments to establish in 1925 the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de l’Indochine in Hanoi. The motivating principle for this school was the fusion of all that was best in French and Vietnamese painting, sculpture, architecture and the applied arts. It was a remarkable success under Tardieu, its Director until his death in 1937.

*Denis Stuart, ‘Dear Duchess: Millicent Duchess of Sutherland (1867-1955)’, London, 1982.

  • Tardieu, Victor (1870 – 1937)
    The tented field hospital established and run by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland (1867-1955) at Bourbourg, 12 miles southwest of Dunkirk. Oil on panel. Signed and dated, 1915. Provenance: The Dunrobin Estate. 8.5×10.75 inches.
  • Tardieu, Victor (1870 – 1937)
    The tented field hospital established and run by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland (1867-1955) at Bourbourg, 12 miles southwest of Dunkirk. Oil on panel. Signed and dated, 1915. Provenance: The Dunrobin Estate. 8.5×10.75 inches.
  • Tardieu, Victor (1870 – 1937)
    The tented field hospital established and run by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland (1867-1955) at Bourbourg, 12 miles southwest of Dunkirk. Oil on panel. Signed and dated, 1915. Provenance: The Dunrobin Estate. 8.5×10.75 inches.
  • Tardieu, Victor (1870 – 1937)
    The tented field hospital established and run by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland (1867-1955) at Bourbourg, 12 miles southwest of Dunkirk. Oil on panel. Signed and dated, 1915. Provenance: The Dunrobin Estate. 8.5×10.75 inches.
  • Tardieu, Victor (1870 – 1937)
    The tented field hospital established and run by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland (1867-1955) at Bourbourg, 12 miles southwest of Dunkirk. Oil on panel. Signed and dated, 1915. Provenance: The Dunrobin Estate. 8.5×10.75 inches.
  • Tardieu, Victor (1870 – 1937)
    The tented field hospital established and run by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland (1867-1955) at Bourbourg, 12 miles southwest of Dunkirk. Oil on panel. Signed and dated, 1915. Provenance: The Dunrobin Estate. 8.5×10.75 inches.
  • Tardieu, Victor (1870 – 1937)
    The tented field hospital established and run by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland (1867-1955) at Bourbourg, 12 miles southwest of Dunkirk. Oil on panel. Signed and dated, 1915. Provenance: The Dunrobin Estate. 8.5×10.75 inches.
  • Tardieu, Victor (1870 – 1937)
    The tented field hospital established and run by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland (1867-1955) at Bourbourg, 12 miles southwest of Dunkirk. Oil on panel. Signed and dated, 1915. Provenance: The Dunrobin Estate. 8.5×10.75 inches.
  • Tardieu, Victor (1870 – 1937)
    The tented field hospital established and run by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland (1867-1955) at Bourbourg, 12 miles southwest of Dunkirk. Oil on panel. Signed and dated, 1915. Provenance: The Dunrobin Estate. 8.5×10.75 inches.
  • Tardieu, Victor (1870 – 1937)
    The tented field hospital established and run by Millicent, Duchess of Sutherland (1867-1955) at Bourbourg, 12 miles southwest of Dunkirk. Oil on panel. Signed and dated, 1915. Provenance: The Dunrobin Estate. 8.5×10.75 inches.
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