One of my treasures ~ introducing Kapp 1890-1978

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I stumbled on this print almost literally. It was years ago and I was treading warily around a rackety riverside warehouse in Shrewsbury. The place called itself an Antiques Centre, and as I climbed the stairs to the ‘showroom’ the chances of sudden building collapse loomed large. Having reached the first floor, I remember creeping around on tiptoe, trying not to challenge the timbers. So it was, in mid negotiation with  uneven floor boards, my hand reached down to an old picture frame. It was propped against a cardboard box underneath a table. When I turned it round, there it was – a caricature of The Rt. Hon. Viscount Cave, signed by Kapp.

I’d never heard of either the subject or the artist, but who cared. It was love at first sight – the colours, the ‘cut-out’ two-dimensional form,  that two-thirds frowning, pasty face of the viscount.  The whole thing made me smile, inside and out. Best of all, the price tag said £2.50. What luck – to find something so pleasing for such a paltry sum.

My tracking down of information about the work and its creator has continued off and on ever since. I discovered first (and long before the days of Google) that my ‘print’ is an offset lithograph, and one of a series called Ten Great Lawyers  created in 1924 for The Law Journal. I also learned that Edmond Xavier Kapp was an artist, and caricaturist of note, born in London in 1890, and a Cambridge graduate.

I came across him again when reading poet, Edmund Blunden’s World War 1 memoir Undertones of War. Kapp, already well known for his drawings and short stories before the war, was serving on the Western Front, a 2nd Lieutenant, in the Royal Sussex Regiment. He provided some of Blunden’s lighter moments in the trenches. Blunden himself was only twenty years old at the time of their encounters, and newly arrived at the Front:

Second in command, Edmond Xavier Kapp appeared, ready with scribbles and charcoal drawings not unworthy of his reputation as a satirical artist…[He] was a lively hand to have in a dugout; his probably imaginary autobiography, peeping out at intervals and enriched by other versions, was also a diversion; but one day he was called away to an interview with the Colonel, and soon he disappeared into the irrelevant air of GHQ, far beyond the stars.

Kapp was twenty-four when he enlisted and, until his promotion to Intelligence and the rank of Captain on General Haig’s Staff, had withstood three nightmare years in the trenches. In Time Will Tell: Memoirs  his first wife Yvonne Kapp says that he witnessed the wipe out of his own platoon twice over, and never was able to lay the ghosts of lost comrades.

That he survived at all is remarkable. Because he spoke German fluently, he was sent out alone to occupy a dug-out in No Man’s Land, the objective being to interrogate German prisoners as they were brought in. On one occasion, in the bloody chaos of shifting lines, Command forgot he was out there. Under constant bombardment and gas attacks, he survived for several weeks on tins of bully beef. When he was finally rescued he was deaf and half blind, and almost dead, and thereafter spent several months in hospital. Later, he apparently relished his senior officers’ less than whole-hearted commendation of his military service: “his zeal sometimes outruns his discretion.”

In the light of all he must have endured, and in what he described so sparely as those “five long dreadful years”, it is astonishing that he went on to serve as Official War Artist in the World War Two. Between the wars he produced many drawings of well known personalities, both for periodicals and exhibitions. He also ventured into oil painting after working with American artist, Maurice Sterne. Then in the 1930s he deployed his lithographic skills to produce portraits of the twenty five members of The League of Nations, and this led to his meeting and friendship with Picasso who sat for him in 1938.

Kapp himself disliked being called a caricaturist . He considered himself to be a “character-portraitist”, producing works of psychological rather then satirical intent (Chris Beetles Gallery ). And perhaps, now  that I look again at The Hon. Viscount Cave, this is the quality I most admire. After all, the stuffy old gent is rendered with such gentle humour. It speaks, I think, of the artist’s humanity, and of a good, and kindly eye.

copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

Post inspired by Jennifer Nichole Wells One Word Photo Challenge: Melon

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36 thoughts on “One of my treasures ~ introducing Kapp 1890-1978

  1. What a beautiful story Tish. Remarkable…seems so many figures like this, large and small (I think of Alan Turing) vanish and then re-emerge. Like us I suppose…vanishing and re-emerging. Lovely short story. Thank you for sharing — Bill

    1. I can tell you it truly was a very grim place to find such a thing. But yes, that makes it all the better – like finding Cinderella’s glass slipper in the garbage. well not quite lie that 🙂

  2. Great story, Tish! I think I’ve heard of Kapp (or maybe I’m confusing with Andy 😦 ) but it’s such a fine-looking cartoon. I’m going to have to hunt down some more of his work. What a lucky find, and poor man- what a life he led! Amazing just how resilient some people can be. Fun to go to the pub with, I expect. 🙂

      1. I loved the way you wove your personal story in as a way of introducing the history, the artist’s story, and including the very charming visual! I have a feeling that you could lead a very interesting tour of your home, with many interesting stories inspired by your treasures.

      1. And so we learn …

        My dad had an ancient set of signed, framed prints of all the characters from Dickens Pickwick Papers.
        For some reason, with the moves we made when dad was in the RAF, while I was growing up, they seem to have disappeared.
        One must look after such mementos!
        And treasure them as well.

      2. Yes, they are like touchstones: opening up hidden pathways, sparking stories. As time goes on and we acquire more STUFF it’s easy to overlook the things that a real resonance in our lives. This may explain/or not, why I have an old yellow weaver bird’s nest on my sitting room shelf. If I were a true blue medicine man/woman I would start my practice by choosing from the landscape special items – stones and bones that hold some kind of particular ‘energy’ that my senses respond to, and keep them in my medicine basket. As I said to you the other day – it’s all physics (and some imagination) 🙂

  3. This article is so interesting, Tish — both the story and the artwork. It’s such a delightful experience to learn of an amazing creative individual that we don’t know at all — or know from such a great distance away that the person hardly seems real — and then to learn the details of his life that bring him so close we realize that, not only is he real, but very, very much a human being like ourselves. It always makes me feel enriched when I have such an experience. Thank you for this one.

  4. Hi Tish,
    I just stumbled across your article when doing a bit of research on Kapp – it was a lovely read and what luck finding a print for £2.50! I’m sorry to be a bother, but I think some of the last paragraph is taken from my 2013 paper on Kapp and was hoping that you would be so kind as to cite me please, as I intend to submit some academic work on the artist in the near future and, as it stands, this may mean it would not pass the clever electronic plagiarism checkers in place nowadays. Thank you for your understanding.
    All the best,
    Emalee

    1. Hi Emalee. Sorry. I didn’t read your article. I would have cited it if I had, because it is very interesting. The source of the comment in the last para is gallery blurb from the Chris Beetles Gallery, and I have now made that clear. I didn’t cite it at the time because the tone of the piece suggested the content was common knowledge. There were also Yvonne Kapp’s comments too. All the best with your work. Tish.

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