Henry Tonks: A Strange New Art

“I have decided that I am not any use as a doctor. I don’t think the government very clever at using people’s services. Munitions, anything in fact, I am ready to take up,” wrote Henry Tonks in 1915. It would be pastel and paintbrush with which Tonks, 52 and an assistant professor at the Slade School of Fine Art when war broke out, would most memorably contribute to the war effort, first by drawing the patients of the pioneering plastic surgeon Harold Gillies and then as an official war artist, in which capacity he painted An Advance Dressing Station In France, 1918. 

Tonks had been a surgeon before he was recruited by Frederick Brown, founder of the New English Art Club, to teach at the Slade in 1892. His pupils included Stanley Spencer, Wyndham Lewis, Rex Whistler and Paul Nash. In 1916 he found himself working in the orderly room at Gillies’s new specialist centre for facial wounds. Gillies described “the great Henry Tonks” (20 years his senior) in his junior officer’s uniform as like “the Duke of Wellington reduced to subaltern’s rank”. 

“Soldiers with Facial Wounds”, 1916-18 

Tonks’s anatomical knowledge and draughtsmanship were needed by Gillies; his drawings could capture the faces of patients in a way photographs couldn’t. Gillies called his surgery a “strange new art, and unlike the student today, who is weaned on small scar excisions and gradually graduated to a single harelip, we were suddenly asked to produce half a face”. It is not just technical breakthroughs, such as the first skin grafts, for which Gillies is remembered. Doctors before him had insisted that their job was to do no more than restore as much functionality as they could to a patient’s face; surgery, they said, was not to be cosmetic. For Gillies, a face was more than something to see, smell, eat and talk with; it was a physical portrayal of the self. Appearance, in short, was function. 

Gillies reconstructed the faces of 11,572 soldiers during the war. His and Tonks’s contribution was immense. Yet the public was uneasy with the work done first at Aldershot and later at the Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, Kent. The respect, even glamour, associated with many front-line injuries eluded the facially disfigured. The Sunday Herald described Tonks’s subjects as “the loneliest of all Tommies” and the Manchester Evening Chronicle said facial injury was “the worst loss of all”. Tonks described his drawings as “dreadful” and not fit for public consumption. He insisted they were medical illustrations, not art. He was wrong. The drawings are done with the compassion of the human eye, not the mechanical detachment of the camera lens. The stoicism of his subjects is heartbreaking. Four of them currently hang in the National Portrait Gallery as part of The Great War in Portraits.  

“An Advance Dressing Station in France”, 1918 

In 1936 Tonks became only the second British artist to be the subject of a Tate retrospective in his lifetime. As a teacher, he was universally respected. Nash remembered drawing while “with hooded stare and sardonic mouth, [Tonks] hung in the air above me, like a tall question mark of a derisive rather than inquisitive order”. 

D.S. MacColl, the Scottish watercolourist and art historian, said of his friend Tonks’s switch from surgeon to artist, “An unlooked for gate was opened him into a foreign land. His joy in that deliverance from hospital practice to the world of natural beauty and painting never flagged.” The First World War delivered Tonks back to a version of the hospital practice he had fled. Though he hid them from public view, his drawings of Gillies’s patients may have been the most important work of his life.  

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