Will Longstaff the artist

Will Longstaff's Menin Gate at midnight (Ghosts of Menin Gate), painted in 1927, is undoubtedly one of the best known paintings in the Australian War Memorial's art collection. In the years following the first world war, this painting's tribute to sacrifice, combined with its spiritualist overtones, struck exactly the right chord with many Australians who had lost family and friends in the war. The painting has previously been hung in the Memorial in a darkened room, under spotlights, in an environment that somewhat resembled a church, and that inspired a meditative and spiritual response.

Will Longstaff painted Menin Gate at midnight after he had attended the unveiling ceremony of the Menin Gate memorial at the entrance of the Belgian town of Ypres on 24 July 1927. This memorial was dedicated to the 350,000 men of the British and empire forces who had died in the battles around Ypres. Longstaff is reported to have been so profoundly moved by the ceremony that during a midnight walk along the Menin road he saw a vision of steel-helmeted spirits rising from the moonlit cornfields around him. It is said that, following his return to London, he painted the work in one session, while still under psychic influence. Another account suggests that Longstaff was influenced by Mrs Mary Horsburgh, who had worked in a British canteen during the war, and who told him when he met her during his evening walk that she could feel 'her dead boys' all around her.1

The scene is painted almost entirely in hues of blue, which helps to suggest a midnight scene. It is constructed on a simple, traditional, land-sky format: the pale memorial is placed boldly on the horizon, and before it marches a host of ghostly soldiers, portrayed by an impressionistic outline of bodies and helmets. In the immediate foreground, the cornfield is strewn with blood-red poppies. In the far distance, a small, silhouetted building with windows ablaze adds a dramatic contrast to the still monument of Menin Gate.

Longstaff used well-known motifs to trigger emotion. His scarlet poppies are flowers that could be found in the Flanders fields, but they also carry the traditional connotations of shed blood, and remembrance; they represent a floral blanket covering the bloodied bodies of unknown soldiers, and at the same time, like the paper poppies worn on Remembrance Day, they are a tribute from the living to the dead.2 The portrayal of the steel-helmeted soldiers rising from the cornfields extends the range of visual emblems used by Longstaff: the plentiful harvest, the harvest of men; the steel- helmeted crosses covering the graves of many soldiers; and, as well, the helmeted bayonets raised in cheer and victory.3 These symbols add resonance to the images, but they remain isolated references, and to some extent compete with each other. Some people may see and respond to one motif, others to another. This, in its way, contributes to the wide appeal of the painting: it is many things to many people.

Will Longstaff
Menin Gate at Midnight (Ghosts of Menin gate) 1927
oil on canvas 140.5 x 271.8 cm
AWM ART09807

One drawing in Will Longstaff's wartime sketch-book depicted a mutilated human leg lying in a poppy field; a poignant conjunction of a brutal fact of war with one of the delights of nature. In another sketch he drew French children placing flowers beside a helmeted cross, the grave of an unknown British soldier at Villers-Bretonneux. Such works suggest that Longstaff's interest in the juxtaposition of war dead with floral tributes long preceded Menin Gate.

In the 1920s, when Longstaff painted Menin Gate, spiritualism was in vogue, and many who wished to communicate with relatives and friends who had died in battle found consolation in its tenets. One of Longstaff's subsequent patrons, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, visited Australia in 1920 to promote the spiritualist message, and he received many letters of thanks from mothers who had lost their sons in the war and to whom he had given courage.4

Longstaff was by no means the first artist to portray spiritualist ideas. On Anzac Day 1927, the Melbourne Herald published a cartoon by Will Dyson, A voice from Anzac: 'Funny thing, Bill - I keep thinking I hear men marching!', which depicted the spirits of two Australian soldiers seated on the shore at Gallipoli, a graphic visualization of survival after bodily death. This cartoon had a powerful emotional impact at the time and, as a result, the Herald printed a thousand reproductions which they presented to the Victorian branch of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia (RSSILA) to distribute to its members.5 In 1929, Dyson produced another variation on this theme, Xmas memories, which portrayed a swagman and his dog accompanied by two ghostly diggers.

In February 1927, however, before either Dyson or Longstaff created their images of existence after death, Stanley Spencer caused a sensation in London with Resurrection, Cookham 1924-26. (He was also at this time working on Resurrection of soldiers, based on his experiences at the front.) Spencer's version of life after death shows newly resurrected villagers arising from their tombs in a Cookham churchyard. It differs from Longstaff's and Dyson's works in that the scene was intended as a metaphor, to suggest that paradise can be experienced on earth: it is an affirmation of the joys of life after the horrors of war. Nonetheless, Spencer's painting was a product of a period of intense interest in spiritualism, the same environment that fostered Longstaff's painting. As Longstaff lived and worked in Britain at this time, and maintained a studio in London, he may well have seen Spencer's painting and known of the acclaim it received.6

In 1930, Bohdan Nowak, a Polish engineer and architect, produced a series of twelve lithographs, Vox Mortuum (The voice of the dead). Vox Mortuum 4 (The unknown soldier) is particularly reminiscent of Menin Gate: it shows the ghostly figure of a soldier on a cross floating before an arc de triomphe, in front of which marches a host of soldiers on military parade. Longstaff was thus not alone in depicting this subject.7

Longstaff's painting was purchased by Lord Woolavington in 1928 for 2,000 guineas and was immediately presented to the Australian government.8 The price was considerable: Streeton's celebrated Golden Summer, Eaglemont of 1889 had been sold just four years earlier for half the price of the Longstaff painting9; and Stanley Spencer's Resurrection, Cookham was purchased by the British government for the national collection in 1927 for £1,000.

After Menin Gate was displayed in London, by royal command viewed by King George V and his family at Buckingham Palace, and shown in Manchester and Glasgow, it was sent to Australia. It was placed on display during 1928-29 in capital and regional cities around Australia, where it was seen by record crowds.10 One thousand reproductions of the painting were made in 1928 under Longstaff's direction, and signed by the artist. He retained two hundred of these to cover his costs and presented four hundred to the RSSILA for sale through the Australian War Memorial. He gave the remaining four hundred to the Earl Haig Fund, all to be sold at 10 guineas each. The four hundred allotted to Australia were sold by October 1929, at which time the Memorial produced a cheaper version which was distributed widely, door to door, through a marketing company. The salesmen were provided with a text learnt by heart which reminded those who had friends and family that 'He is not missing. He is here'.11

Following the success of Menin Gate, Longstaff painted several other works on a similar theme. Immortal shrine (Eternal silence) [1928] depicts ghostly soldiers marching past the cenotaph in London on Remembrance Day 1928. This work was presented to the Memorial in 1943 by Mrs Trevor Hedberg and the Misses Winifred and Hope Kellow, daughters of the late Mr Charles Brown Kellow, who was a schoolboy contemporary of Longstaff's in Ballarat. Immortal shrine is closely based on a watercolour by Longstaff held in the Imperial War Museum that depicts the cenotaph on a rainy day: the bold structure of the cenotaph, the reflections in the street, and the glimmering lights are similar, but the watercolour is peopled by the silhouetted figures of ordinary men and women, rather than by ghostly soldiers, and in Immortal shrine the cenotaph itself has a ghostly presence, gauntly white in front of the sombre blue-black buildings that dissolve into the horizon.

Another work on this theme, Ghosts of Vimy Ridge [1931], portrays the spirits of servicemen of the Canadian Corps. It clearly resembles Menin Gate in its composition: the memorial on Vimy Ridge stands dramatically on the summit beneath which the shimmering spirits of Canadian soldiers gather in the silvery moonlight. A fourth work, Carillon [1932], is said to show the ghosts of New Zealand soldiers on the beaches of Belgium listening to carillon bells in their own country. Ghosts of Vimy Ridge was presented to the Canadian government by John Dewer in 1931. Carillon was presented to the New Zealand government by Lord Wakefield in 1934-35.

Longstaff is also said to have painted two other works depicting phantom soldiers near the coast: The rearguard (The spirit of Anzac) [1929], a ghostly array of soldiers lining up near the beach at Gallipoli in the bleak dawn, with departing transports and warships barely visible on the misty horizon12; and Drake's drum, reputedly painted in response to the evacuation of British troops from Dunkirk, and which is said to show the Sussex coast haunted by the spirits of servicemen rising to answer 'Drake's drum'.13

The fame accorded Menin Gate did not spread to Longstaff's other spiritualist works, partly because they were not publicly displayed. Ghosts of Vimy Ridge remained in seclusion for many years in a parliamentary committee room and was only recently placed on public display in the Canadian War Museum. Carillon, given to the National Gallery of New Zealand, was kept in storage for over thirty years until recently exhibited at the Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum at Waiouru.

For a variety of reasons, including political expediency, financial depression and a waning public interest in war, the Canadian government did not fund the display or restoration of its remarkable collection of war art, which had been assembled principally through the inspiration and sponsorship of the newspaper barons Lord Beaverbrook and Lord Rothermere.14 The New Zealand government demonstrated little interest in supporting war art during or after the war.

Even had the Canadian and New Zealand works been on display, they might not have evoked a strong public response. Menin Gate incorporates stronger composition and more powerful imagery than do Longstaff's later paintings. His evocative means of depicting the war dead gradually became little more than a formula.

The particular recognition and remembrance of Australian war dead and the service of Australian soldiers that fostered the creation of the Australian War Memorial meant that Menin Gate was available for viewing. Moreover, the Anzac tradition, the belief that the First World war was a watershed in Australian history, the baptism of a nation and the creation of a national hero, and that those who died on foreign soil did so to create a greater Australia, gave this painting an added, almost religious, significance. Within this context, the painting's dramatic display at the Memorial and the publicity it received during its Australian tour, as well as the wide distribution of colour reproductions in aid of charitable causes, contributed to its reputation. The spiritualist interest gave these works an immediate appeal, but it was the particular emotional climate in Australia that made Menin Gate a favourite with the public.

The appeal of Dyson's A voice from Anzac and Xmas memories was much more short-lived than that of Menin Gate. Further reproductions of Menin Gate were produced once the initial one thousand were sold, and have continued to be demanded up to this day; the Dyson reproduction was limited to one thousand copies. Dyson's work has a period flavour: he created specific characters rather than an anonymous mass of ghostly figures. Dyson's figures are too clearly perceived to be successful as spirits: they are ghosts because the text tells us so, but they could be taken for living beings. By contrast, Longstaff's painting is like a dream; the impressionistic shadows of soldiers that hover in the cornfields are like a mirage. Because the figures are not clearly delineated, because it appears that they may be a quirk of perception, they really seem ghostly.

Menin Gate at midnight has undeniable power: it brings to life the many nameless heroes, the men on whom the Anzac legend was based, and who exist as part of our national memory. It has understandably remained popular with a large portion of the Australian public for sixty years, and has become a national icon.

Further Information

    1. 'Menin Gate, Mr. Longstaff's Inspiration', Sydney Morning Herald, 11 June 1932
    2. Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory, New York and London, 1975, pp. 246-8
    3. 'Armies of the dead and the living: Coincidence in Two Scenes of Uplifted Helmets -A Notable Memorial Painting and a Memory of Armistice Day', The Graphic, London, 23 December 1927
    4. Humphrey McQueen, The Black Swan of Trespass: The Emergence of Modernist Painting in Australia to 1944, Sydney, 1979, p. 98
    5. Ross McMullin, Will Dyson, Sydney, 1984, pp. 247-8
    6. Maurice Collis, Stanley Spencer, London, 1962; Richard Carline, Stanley Spencer at War, London, 1978; Richard Carline, Stanley Spencer RA, London, 1980
    7. D. J. R. Bruckner et al., Art against war, New York, 1984
    8. This was the first of two Longstaff paintings so given by Lord Woolavington; the second, Australian artillery in action at Péronne, was accepted by the Memorial in 1932.
    9. R. H. Croll (ed.), Smike to Bulldog: Letters from Sir Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts, Sydney, 1946, pp.115-16
    10. McQueen, The Black Swan, p. 98, estimates that more than one million people, of a total Australian population of six million, saw the painting on its tour. However, exact figures are difficult to obtain. The Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of Western Australia recorded in its annual report for the year ended June 1929 that the estimated total attendance during its showing in Perth from 3 to 30 July 1928 was 105,281. The Melbourne Argus, 1 March 1929, in an advertisement for its display at the Town Hall (14 February to 9 March 1929) noted that 50,000 people had already seen the work, which suggests that in total around 100,000 saw the painting in Melbourne. It was also shown in Adelaide and Sydney and toured to country centres.
    11. Australian War Memorial, AWM315 895/001/065. These reproductions are inscribed 'Published by the artist' and 'Original presented to the Commonwealth of Australia by Lord Woolavington'.
    12. Sydney Morning Herald, 29 March, 9 May and 15 September 1928, and 4 October 1929. The present location of this work is unknown. Although some newspaper reports identify this work as being the same as The eternal march, another Longstaff painting from the same period whose present location is also unknown, the descriptions of these two works are quite different: ibid., 15 September and 3 November 1928.
    13. Drake's drum was presented by the pupils of Buckingham College to Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip on their wedding day.
    14. Maria Tippett, Art at the Service of War: Canada. Art and the Great War, Toronto, 1984

Last updated: