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Hughie O’Donoghue’s Seven Halts on The Somme
Image Credit: Hughie O'Donoghue, photo © Kevin Moran

Hughie O’Donoghue’s Seven Halts on The Somme

29 July 2016 Tom Faber

This year marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. In order to commemorate that tragic loss of life, British artist Hughie O’Donoghue has painted a suite of seven paintings. The works combine figuration and abstraction, and will be shown at Leighton House Museum until October. O’Donoghue gave London Calling a tour of the works and told us about his research and inspiration.

London Calling: So the seven different images are symbolic of seven ‘halts’?
 
Hughie O’Donoghue: I visited the Somme over many years. I first went fifty years ago on a school trip as a child. These stopping places are significant, places one might stop and contemplate. Places where the army halted. Places where lives were halted. The paintings tried to respond to the battle a hundred years on in a poetic way.
 
The area is still a dangerous place. There are warning signs because of the amount of unexploded ordnance that’s still there. It just looks like rolling countryside now, but it isn’t. They say in parts you can still smell rusting metal, from 100 years ago.
 
LC: When you’re walking there now, does it feel like a conflict zone?
 
HO: Not until you walk into any of the military cemeteries. The soldiers were buried where they fell. They made that decision early in the war, not to bring people back. The numbers were unimaginable. Nearly 20,000 soldiers were killed before 9am on 1st July. 60,000 were injured. It’s staggering. They say that they went into the battle of the Somme preparing for half a million fatalities. It was Kitchener’s army, the Pals divisions – people were recruited from their locality and they’d all be on the battlefield together. They didn’t foresee that whole towns’ young male populations would be wiped out in one day.
 
LC: Your uncle fought in the battle. Does that affect how you chose to paint the pictures?
 
HO: I’ve always approached things from the point of view of the personal. I looked for individuals that were connected to places because I feel you can only understand massive events through the particular, not the universal. If you read a book about the Somme you get figures - remote, distant. I looked for points of connection. I found the story of two Etonians. One died in battle and the other one went into the battlefield looking for his body. It was terribly moving. I’m always trying to find a way in.
 
In Trônes Wood I saw a photo of a young man with a sign that says ‘died here 1916, body never found’. These are memorials that people have made themselves. It’s very relevant now, particularly now when we’re turning our back on Europe in 2016. This fight was such a powerful commitment to Europe’s sanctity and its future.
 
LC: Does it seem we’re now choosing to move away from some hard-won achievements?
 
HO: I do think that. The Treaty of Rome was about long-term ideals about the plate tectonic forces of Europe.  Not about narrow focuses on immigrant quotas or economics. And the first and second world wars were fought for a free Europe.
 

Three of the Seven Halts on the Somme. Photo © Kevin Moran.
 
LC: Though your paintings deal with war, they aren’t aggressive.
 
HO: They’re about the activity of meditating on a place rather than evocative of the battle. Flatiron Copse is a beautiful place. It’s idyllic, quiet, there’s nobody there. The painting is about being in this gorgeous place and trying to remember, trying to recall.
 
LC: Do you feel that a place holds memories?
 
HO: No I feel we hold memories. The place has to be a trigger. So I think about remembrance as a creative activity. People tend to think memory is just something you have, that it’s static. It isn’t, it’s a creative thing. You have to work hard at memory. It’s like literally re-membering, putting limbs back on. Something’s been broken and you’re trying to construct an equivalent or something that holds this idea. These cataclysmic events of a hundred years ago - if we forget them we’ll end up doing them again.
 
LC: That’s the importance of history – to learn from. And yet we don’t seem to.
 
HO: We don’t. And history is partial. If you read different books you get different versions of events. I’m in the business of a poetic response to history. It’s not about the facts and figures of who died on the Somme, it’s about the impossibility of remembering. Things slip from our grasp. But the hundred years is significant – before things are totally forgotten they tend to flare up one last time.
 
LC: You mentioned that over the course of a painting you often change your mind.
 
HO: Painting is a series of decisions that are being made. It’s a very physical process that tries to embody an idea. That process of putting things down, changing your mind, is very particular to painting. You can see it in paintings throughout history. You see it fabulously with a painter like Titian, his late paintings. These incredible changes of position and composition. He’s struggling for the right form. All great painting goes through that struggle. Cezanne is a classic example, he’s trying to fix something down. You see the brushstrokes trying to form around the mountain or the figure. This hesitancy to fix something. That’s particular to the art of painting.
 
LC: There’s a quality of suggestion and unconscious process in your paintings. It’s not didactic. It allows a free interpretation and an emotional entry into a work.
 
HO: That’s why not knowing what to do is important. There’s an element of the subconscious about what you’re doing in painting, and those things can be picked apart after the event, but when you’re doing it you don’t know why things are the way they are. You try to move forward to get something that feels right. And you can articulate it later. But you can’t articulate it before you’ve done it. Otherwise why bother doing it?
 
Hughie O’Donoghue’s ‘Seven Halts On The Somme’ are on display at Leighton House Museum until 2nd October.

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