Nugent Herrmann Welch was New Zealand’s first ‘war artist.’ The 32 works that he made as an official war artist stand as a unique and highly personal record of New Zealand’s involvement in the First World War from the perspective of a soldier who served within the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF).
Akaroa-born but raised in Wellington, Welch was interested in art from an early age. Educated at Newtown School, he probably attended evening classes in art at the Wellington Technical School, taught by Arthur Riley, James Nairn and others. After a stint as an accounts clerk with the Wellington Harbour Board, Welch resigned in 1907 to became a full-time artist.
Welch's career was interrupted by the First World War. He enlisted with the NZEF in March 1916, was sent to the Western Front and spent almost two continuous years in the trenches, including service in the horrific Passchendaele offensive.
In February 1918 Welch responded to the call for official artists and was accepted by the War Records Office in London on the basis of his exhibition history in New Zealand and Australia. This new role gave him the freedom to paint again after years of soldiering and the time to process the difficult memories of his war experience. Welch revelled in the opportunity, declaring in a letter to his mother that: ‘you can rest assured that I am throwing my whole heart into it, and I do hope that I shall produce something of real worth to my own dear land.’
Welch was given the title of Divisional Artist and assigned the basic task of recording the ‘depots, hospitals, and camps, special appliances’ used by the New Zealand Division. His official war paintings are mainly soft-toned watercolours that focus on the aftermath of fighting and the debris of battle.
Descriptions of Nugent Welch by colleagues and friends invariably refer to his profound love of nature. Throughout his life he was most likely to be found painting or sketching outdoors, particularly around the rugged landscape of the Wellington region.
Welch was a true protege of early New Zealand landscape artists Petrus van der Velden and James Nairn, who both strove capture the essential beauty and power of nature in their paintings. Welch was therefore deeply affected by his confrontation with the complete devastation that years of heavy artillery bombing and trench warfare had wrought on the famously beautiful landscapes of France and Belgium. Many of his paintings of the Western Front accentuate the extreme unnaturalness of an environment denuded of trees, pockmarked by shell craters, riddled with trenches and covered in twisted debris.
By Caroline Lord