Portraits of the Great War: Searching for descendants through art

By Jane-Frances Kelly
BBC business reporter

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image source, Museum of the Legion of Honour
image captionAny relation? A selection of Eugene Burnand's pastel portraits.

A retired British doctor is hoping to trace the descendants of allied soldiers and nurses portrayed in a celebrated collection of World War One pastels.

Doug Jenkinson, 70, became aware of the work of Swiss artist Eugene Burnand while exploring his own family history.

From 1917-21 Burnand scoured three French cities finding sitters from over 40 nations. Not only did he seek out decorated officers, but ordinary soldiers, nurses, stretcher bearers and labourers.

His portraits hang in the Museum of the Legion of Honour in Paris which is planning a centennial exhibition.

image source, Museum of the Legion of Honour
image captionA portrait of Algerian horseman Mohamed Osman is Shirley Darlington's favourite work

A friend of Dr Jenkinson, Shirley Darlington, was so captivated by the images she wrote a book about the artist.

"When you look at the portraits you can see their individual characteristics and their humanity. I think if their relatives knew of these portraits they would be so interested and proud of their ancestors." she added.

Eugene Burnand's wife, Julia Girardet, would help him look for potential sitters by approaching people in uniform on the Paris Metro.

His friend, Louis Gillet, who was an art historian and critic, described the sittings as "resembling a confessional", with Burnand sitting knee-to-knee with his subjects at his home.

image source, Museum of the Legion of Honour
image captionSikh soldier Sunder Sing Haldice, with the artist (far right) refused payment for the sitting because he thought it was an honour

Burnand was quite well known at the time and the French military allowed him to visit barracks, where soldiers would be either recuperating or resting from action on the front line.

Australian soldier Robert Hamilton later wrote in his diary about being approached by the artist while he was having breakfast.

"Thought I was a typical Aussie, so more out of curiosity and to break the monotony of sightseeing I went. He treated me well and for two days I was well dug in at his home."

image source, Museum of the legion of Honour
image captionAustralian soldier Robert Hamilton sat for Burnand for two days

The great-great granddaughter of French Alpine infantryman Fernand Ruan contacted Dr Jenkinson after finding her relative's picture on his website.

The family sent him a photograph of Mr Ruan taken in 1973 (below right). He died seven years later.

image source, Legion of Honour Museum
image captionFernand Ruan in later life with his great-granddaughter Celine Bayarri-Sanchez as a little girl

I tracked down the descendants of one of Eugene Burnand's British sitters, Rear Adm Sir Edward Heaton-Ellis.

His great-great niece, Charlotte Chichester, had no idea about the portrait and said that despite his calm air of authority he had a tough life.

image source, Museum of the Legion of Honour/BBC
image captionCharlotte Chichester (C), great-great niece of Rear Adm Sir Edward Heaton-Ellis with the artist's great-granddaughter, Francoise Witheridge (R)

Rear Adm Heaton-Ellis lost his parents as a small child and was brought up by his grandmother before going to a naval college at 14 and was sent to sea soon afterwards. He was decorated for his bravery and daring as Captain of the Inflexible at the Battle of Jutland.

Despite surviving World War One he lost both his sons, one in action and the other to the flu epidemic of 1918.

image source, Museum of the Legion of Honour

Eugene Burnand's great-granddaughter Francoise Witheridge said the portraits were his way of recognising the sacrifice made by so many different nationalities.

"There were people coming from completely different countries to save France. I think that is what is most moving.

"You see the portrait of the Sikh, the man from Baluchistan, the New Zealander, the Fijian.

"Really it was his way of wanting to remember them all and thank them and the way he drew them was knee-to-knee and he must really have looked at them and talked to them and understood them."

After the artist died in 1922, a limited number of books were published with prints of the portraits.

image captionChristopher Barnett, Headmaster of Whitgift School with an original Burnand portrait

The headmaster of Whitgift School in Croydon, Christopher Barnett, has put on display a collection of original prints in an exhibition entitled Remembering 1916. While the portraits have been exhibited in France in Switzerland he says they have never been shown in the UK.

"They have a freshness in their pastel and pencil drawings and are representative of the men and women who suffered at that time," he said.

He unearthed an original Burnand portrait not included in the Paris collection which he found in a book he bought at auction.

It is thought just 12 of those first edition books had a unique original portrait and Dr Barnett would love to trace them.

While the stories of some of the sitters have emerged, there are hopes that their descendants will come forward to reclaim a little of their family history.

Portraits courtesy Museum of the Legion of Honour

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