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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