By Paul Hurley
Sir Muirhead Bone was born in Glasgow on the 23rd March 1876 and died on the 21st October 1953. He is buried with his wife and son in the cemetery at St Mary’s Church at Whitegate near Winsford in Cheshire. He is the foremost war artist with connections to Cheshire and brief details of his life are as follows. Muirhead Bone was a Scottish etcher, drypoint and watercolour artist who became known for his depiction of industrial and architectural subjects and his work as a war artist in both the First and the Second World War. He was an active member of both the British War Memorials Committee in the First World War, and the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in the Second World War. He promoted the work of many young artists and served as a Trustee of the Tate Gallery, the National Gallery, and the Imperial War Museum.
His brothers included the journalist James Bone, and the author and mariner Captain Sir David Bone. Muirhead Bone qualified as an architect before turning to art and studying at the Glasgow School of Art, originally at evening classes. He began printmaking in 1898, and although his first known print was a lithograph, he is better known for his etching and drypoint. His subject matter was principally related to landscapes and architecture, which included urban construction and demolition sites, Gothic cathedrals and Norman buildings.
By the early 1900s, Bone’s paintings were colourful, but with unusually high regard for detail, such as one might expect from a draughtsman. It was about this time that Bone moved to London, and from good reviews of his exhibition work, his reputation and circle of influential friends began to grow. Having established himself in London, Muirhead Bone married Gertrude Dodd, the sister of his best friend, Francis Dodd, who was also a prominent etcher. Gertrude was later to become a well known author. The couple had 2 sons: Stephen who was born in 1904 and Gavin who was born in 1906. In 1905, his drypoint of Ayr Prison was highly acclaimed, but it was his fine showing at the Franco-British Exhibition in 1908 that considerably enhanced his reputation in Europe.
During the First World War, the head of the British War Propaganda Bureau, MP Charles Masterman, appointed Bone as Britain’s first official war artist in May 1916. Bone had lobbied hard for the establishment of an Official War Artists scheme and in June 1916 he was sent to France with an honorary rank and a salary of £500. At 38 years old at the outbreak of war, this appointment spared Bone from certain enlistment. His small black and white drawings, and their realistic intensity, reproduced well in the government-funded publications of the day. Where some artists might have demurred at the challenge of drawing ocean liners in a dry-dock or tens of thousands of shells in a munitions factory,
Bone was commissioned as an honorary Second Lieutenant, and served as a war artist with the Allied forces on the Western Front and also with the Royal Navy for a time. He arrived in France on 16 August 1916 during the Battle of the Somme, and produced 150 drawings of the war before returning to England in October 1916. Over the next few months Bone returned to his earlier subject matter: drawing pictures of shipyards and battleships. He visited France again in 1917 where he took particular interest depicting architectural ruins. Two volumes of Bone’s wartime drawings were published during the war, The Western Front and With the Grand Fleet. He was an active member of the British War Memorials Committee and helped select which artists received commissions from the Committee.
After the Armistice in 1918, Bone returned to the type of works he produced before the war. He received a knighthood in 1937 for services to art. In early 1940, at the age of 64 years, Muirhead Bone was again appointed as a war artist, but was this time commissioned as a major in the Royal Marines, and placed with the Admiralty. He soon made drawings of the parade of sailors from the Ajax and Exeter, the ships which had cornered Germany’s Admiral Graf Spee in the Battle of the River Plate, and he drew the last of the troops returning from Dunkirk. Muirhead tackled the Second World War rather differently to the First, his work being on a much larger scale. In London he drew St Paul’s Cathedral from the ruined roof of St Bride’s Church and the destruction in the East End docks. In Coventry he drew the ruined Cathedral and in Manchester he drew Dunlop’s balloon sheds. In Scotland he drew battleships, the shattered hulls of torpedoed merchant ships and minesweepers at work in stormy seas. The latter he converted into a large oil painting. His great mass of drawings and paintings, from both wars, forms one of the most important sections of the Imperial War Museum.
Muirhead Bone’s son Gavin was plagued with recurring bouts of Tuberculosis, which became a major factor in Muirhead’s life, and particularly in that of his wife Gertrude’s, who often had to nurse her son. In the late 1930s, whilst still living in Oxford, Gavin Bone’s TB became increasingly more severe; he was admitted to a Sanatorium on the Norfolk coast and then moved to Vale Royal Great House, also known as Vale Royal Abbey the former seat of the Barons Delamere, at Whitegate in Cheshire. This had been requisitioned as a sanatorium during the war years.
Unfortunately, in April 1942 Gavin succumbed to his illness and the funeral and burial took place at St Mary’s Church, Whitegate. During his latter days, Sir Muirhead Bone and Lady Gertrude regularly visited their son. After Gavin’s death, Sir Muirhead gave up his appointment as war artist and the vacant position was filled by his son Stephen, also well respected in the field. Sir Muirhead died of leukemia in 1953 in Oxford and was buried in the same grave as his son at St Mary’s. Lady Gertrude later saw her husband commemorated by a tablet on a wall in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. Following the death of her son Stephen in 1956, she went on to live a rather lonely life until her death in 1962 when she was similarly buried at St Mary’s Church, Whitegate, Cheshire. The grave has two joined headstones dedicated to Sir Muirhead and Lady Bone and a second dedicated to their son Gavin.
An autobiography of Sir Muirhead Bone was published in 2009, called Muirhead Bone, artist and patron, written by Sylvester Bone.