The Nuremberg Trial by Dame Laura Knight RA, 1946, now part of the collection at the Imperial War Museum © IWM. Original
A letter Sylvia Maxwell Fyfe wrote to her husband in May 1946 describes a painting of the Nuremberg Trials by Dame Laura Knight, which she had recently seen at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Sue Casson explores the story behind the painting, which is now part of a collection at the Imperial War Museum.
…I went to see Dame Laura’s Nuremberg. It is tremendously impressive I think, and her portraits of the prisoners are terrific – so frightfully characteristic. Maybe it is more interesting if one has been there and knows the position in which they sit. The symbolic backcloth effect seems right to me. I felt all that distinction so much a part of the court. Unfortunately, no lovely picture of you…Sylvia Maxwell Fyfe to her husband 4th May 1946
Sylvia Maxwell Fyfe was amongst the first to see the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy which opened on 4th May 1946. Amongst the paintings was Dame Laura Knight’s picture of the Courtroom at Nuremberg, a realistic portrayal of the defendants, prosecutors and court proceedings that dissolves at its’ edges into scenes of destruction that define the purpose of the trial – a ruined city with fires still burning and heaps of bodies reaching for retribution.
Ten years earlier, Dame Laura Knight had been the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy, and was part of the hanging committee for their annual exhibition in 1946. During the war, she had created several works for the British War Artists’ Advisory Committee including a series of memorable portraits and wartime scenes depicting women at work – land girls, officers of the WAAF, and groups tethering barrage balloons or mending parachutes. As the war ended, she proposed the Nuremberg war crimes trials as a subject to the Committee. They agreed and Dame Laura duly travelled to Germany in January 1946 to spend 3 months observing the trials. She later described her experience of the courtroom to the BBC :
‘A dial is … beside every chair, by which one can switch on to immediate translation into whatever language one understands. From my box I only get a vague impression of what is being said – the headphones there are the kind one must hold to one’s ears, and my hands are busy. With my natural ears I am aware of scraps – confused as the tower of Babel.’Laura Knight
If the soundscape in the courtroom was indistinct, her observational skills were sharply honed, and attending day to day, she was attuned to the ‘atmosphere’ generated by the defendants, depending on the statements of the witnesses. This is clear from the diary she kept whilst she was there, which records her responses to what she is seeing, around revealing pen and ink sketches of what was in front of her. This fascinating personal record of the proceedings is now held in the National Archive (Nottinghamshire). What she notices reveals her skill as a portraitist. For example, she writes of the physicality of Hermann Goering :
‘His great mouth stretched across his face, his nostrils pinched…He must take eights in hats and his face also is enormous…’Laura’s Knight description of Goering from her Nuremberg diary
Such attention to detail is the mark of each of the depictions of the Nazi war criminals sitting in the dock which are the centrepiece of what became the large oil painting she was working on, that Sylvia later saw – The Nuremberg Trial. In this respect, they are as realistic as her earlier wartime portraits. The painting departs from this in their setting – the rear and side walls of the courtroom are missing to show a still ruined city. She explained this composition in a letter to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee :
“In that ruined city death and destruction are ever present. They had to come into the picture, without them, it would not be the Nuremberg as it now is during the trial, when the death of millions and utter devastation are the sole topics of conversation wherever one goes – whatever one is doing”.Laura Knight, in a letter to the War Artists Advisory Committee
In his autobiography David Maxwell Fyfe echoes the truth of this description :
‘The old walled town was a heap of ruins. Machine-gun cartridges littered the streets… There were even some in the precincts of the courthouse and the adjacent prison. People peeped at us from bunkers under partly shattered houses…’David Maxwell Fyfe, in A Political Adventure published 1964
Had there been a similar ‘lovely picture’ of her husband as Sylvia Maxwell Fyfe hopes in her letter, what would be the images on its’ ‘symbolic backcloth’ that might define Maxwell Fyfe’s world on a canvas of his life? Their grandson, Tom Blackmore makes this suggestion:
Fyfe was born in 1900, so there are early photographs of the late Victorian Age, of early improvements in the urban landscape. Here are pictures of the barbarity and destruction of the two great wars, followed by huge material change in communication, transport, comfort and convenience. There are hospitals built by a national health service for the first time. There are figures returning imperial colonies to independence. Then there is protest, as satire, sex and strides in technology empower the booming population of young people to seize their freedom and turn the spotlight onto their own needs, identities and ambitions. There is a modern courthouse for the European Court of Human Rights designed by Richard Rogers on the fringes of Strasbourg and opened in 1998, and a copy of the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the European Convention into British law in the same year.
Just as Laura Knight’s ‘symbolic backcloth effect’ contextualises the significance of the Nuremberg courtroom, Maxwell Fyfe’s canvas reflects the century of change in which he lived.
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