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The conscientious painter

Percy Horton was born in 1897 and so reached conscriptable age in the middle of the First World War. He, however, refused even to put on army khaki and he suffered grievously for it.

By Michael Prodger

The story of Britain’s war artists, so often told, is a narrative of witness. In it, the likes of Paul Nash, Percy Wyndham Lewis and CRW Nevinson in the First World War, and Henry Moore and Eric Ravilious in the Second donned uniform the better to show the many realities of conflict, at home and abroad. Percy Horton was born in 1897 and so reached conscriptable age in the middle of the First World War. He, however, refused even to put on army khaki and he suffered grievously for it.

Horton was born in Brighton into a working-class family – his father was a bus conductor and his mother had been in service since the age of 11 – and he imbibed strong socialist convictions from a very young age. In 1913, at 16, just a year after he started at the Brighton School of Art on a scholarship (he won a scholarship to attend school too), he joined the Labour Party, and when war came he saw it not from a national perspective but as abuse of the working man, manipulated by capitalism into dying in a struggle that was not his. When conscription was introduced in March 1916, Horton joined the local branch of the No-Conscription Fellowship.

When it was his turn to be called up he refused to report for duty. Conscientious objectors were presented with three alternatives: non-combatant service, under which they joined the military but without bearing arms and served as field engineers, medical assistants, porters and the like; civilian service, usually spent in munitions factories, road building or working on farms; or, for absolutist objectors who refused to help the war effort in any way, jail. Horton was an “absolutist” and while many of those who shared his stance were granted exemption on religious grounds he was not. The Military Service Tribunal rejected his appeal, he was handed over to the Army, court-martialled and sentenced to two years of hard labour at Calton Prison in Edinburgh.

Conditions for the absolutists were not just harsh but brutal and Horton’s were exacerbated by being court-martialled twice more while in prison. A leaked article from an anonymous prisoner, who was probably Horton, described how at night and even in winter their clothes – except for shirts and undershirts – were confiscated; meals consisted of porridge and soup, and potatoes once a week; conditions were primitive and unsanitary; the work they were made to carry out was punitive rather than useful. Horton spent long periods in solitary confinement and also suffered from the lack of drawing materials: when forced to use Church of Scotland Young Men’s Guild notepaper for his drawing, he wrote defiantly on one sheet of sketches: “Artist Percy Horton, a socialist conscientious objector, who would accept no compromise in his anti-war stance, has to accept the use of this unsuitable notepaper for illustrations of ­fellow prisoners.”

Nevertheless, the conditions eventually broke him: he was put on a list of “at risk” prisoners, hospitalised and, to avoid the adverse publicity of his death in custody, eventually released, a wrecked figure, “to the care of his friends” in December 1917. One of those who agitated on his behalf was Lydia Sargent Smith, the fiancée of Horton’s friend and fellow conscientious objector Royle Richmond, who died in prison. Smith, 11 years older than Horton, was a suffragette and a Quaker, and the pair formed an alliance that led to marriage in 1921.

[see also: The aqueous scenes of Julia Beck]

Even after the war, conscientious objectors had a bad time of things, being disenfranchised and consequently blocked from many avenues of employment. Horton resumed his artistic training, and in 1922 gained a place at the Royal College of Art where he distinguished himself among a cohort of students that also included Ravilious, Moore and Edward Bawden. On leaving he became a part-time drawing master at Bishop’s Stortford College, a school with a non-conformist tradition and sympathetic to conscientious objectors, whose headmaster had ceased military training for the boys at the war’s end. It was the first of the teaching positions that were to sustain him for the rest of his life.

Horton would return to the Royal College of Art in 1930 as a teacher and he stayed there for 19 years while also giving art lessons at the Working Men’s College in St Pancras on a voluntary basis. Then, in 1949, he was appointed master of drawing at the Ruskin School of Art in Oxford. Among his pupils there were two distinguished Americans, RB Kitaj and John Updike. Kitaj remembered Horton as “a gentle English Cézannist who could bear down if needed on rough-hewn American ex-soldiers from whom he could not tolerate too much neurotic art-jargon and half-formed modernity in practice”, while Updike, who was at that time hoping to become a cartoonist, ­included his Ruskin experiences in a short story, “Still Life”.

Alongside his teaching, Horton maintained both his painting career and his socialist convictions (which underlay his dislike of the surrealists: “It was damned cheek of André Breton and Co to pose as Marxists”). His active anti-Nazism led him to join the Artists’ International Association in the 1930s and as a member of its advisory committee he supported artists fleeing Germany: one of the refugees, Edmund Mehimann, would marry his daughter Katherine. His empathy with the working man expressed itself in a series of sympathetic portraits of the unemployed during the Depression; a trip to Yugoslavia in 1947 (with the St Trinian’s illustrator Ronald Searle among others) to record a 150-mile railway being built by a voluntary labour force; and, during the war itself, his ameliorated stance in the face of the fascist threat, which allowed him to accept sporadic commissions from the War Artists’ Advisory Committee for portraits and scenes of factory work.


There was, however, another side to this relentless commitment to others. He and Lydia bought Pump Farm in the Suffolk village of Assington, close to John Nash’s home at Wormingford, and Horton also rented a gamekeeper’s tower on the Firle estate in the lee of the South Downs. These were restorative places where he could forget people – their struggles and their beastliness – and turn to the landscape and paint.

The Downs were familiar from his childhood and had a strong 20th-century artistic history. William Nicholson painted them, while within touching distance of Firle were both the Bloomsbury provincial epicentre at Charleston farmhouse and Furlongs, the small house belonging to one of Horton’s Royal College set, Peggy Angus, where Ravilious painted so memorably in the 1930s.

This painting, now in a private collection, depicting the Downs massing behind the tree line like a gigantic green wave, shows both the Cézanneism mentioned by Kitaj and the pared back, dry palette favoured by Ravilious. It shows too Horton’s traditional approach to landscape: the scene has been squared up from a drawing, the main features laid out in blue paint before being worked over, the short diagonal dabs learned from Cézanne dominate rather than more fluid lines.

The painting is neither dated (Horton used a similar colour range and style in his landscapes from the 1920s into the 1960s – he died in 1970) nor indeed finished, though why he put it aside having gone so far is not obvious, since the picture was working at the point it was abandoned. It was working as a study in greens and working too as a composition: the middle-ground screen of trees is an invitation to walk into the picture, through the undergrowth and ascend to the heights above with their endless views of the Channel to one side and the Sussex landscape to the other. If the farm building gives human scale, the ridgeline offers infinity.

There are more picturesque views to be found nearby but Horton rarely painted the obvious scene – in this too he took after Ravilious. His landscapes are often glimpses through trees rather than panoramas, as if the desired destination – here those sunlit uplands – could only be reached after obstacles had been overcome. It gives his landscapes a hint of yearning that perhaps, just perhaps, goes back to his time in prison when a view such as this would have seemed impossibly distant, the stuff of dreams, a vision of Heaven.

In 1940 John Piper, a rather more successful artist, singled Horton out as someone who painted the “kind of picture that would keep the art alive if all the more experimental painters failed in their experiments, or got permanently mislaid”. The summation recognised Horton’s technical excellence, what it didn’t acknowledge though was the understated poetic sensibility that had survived the most harrowing of times.

[see also: David Hockney: The Arrival of Spring is undermined by the artist’s digital medium]

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This article appears in the 02 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Return of the West