Of the four Scottish Colourists, Cadell was perhaps the most adept at drawing. In particular, a series of drawings he made at the beginning of the First World War stand out as a strong body of work in their own right and predict how his painting would develop in later years.
Cadell was the only Colourist to fight in the war. After the declaration of war in 1914, he immediately volunteered but was pronounced unfit. Determined, he gave up his pipe and worked on a farm at Kirkconnell in Dumfries and Galloway until he passed the necessary medical tests and, in 1915, he joined the 9th Battalion, The Royal Scots, and later was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 5th battalion of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. He served on the French front until he was decommissioned in 1919. He was wounded twice and was awarded the General Service and Victory medals. Throughout the war he corresponded with fellow Scottish Colourist, S.J. Peploe who kept him abreast of events in Edinburgh.
Before he was sent to the trenches, Cadell captured aspects of life in the army and navy in a vibrant series of drawings in ink and watercolour. In 1916 about fifty were exhibited in Edinburgh, whilst twenty were published in a book entitled ‘Jack and Tommy’. These witty, quickly executed images, depicting soldiers and sailors on duty and on leave, had titles such as ‘Delicate Banter’ and ‘Tommy the Flapper’. The brisk, economic brush-and-ink technique of these drawings are in sympathy with illustrations the Dutch Fauve painter, Kees van Dongen made in the early 1900s for journals such as ‘L’assiette au beurre’ and ‘Gil-Blas’.
Many of these works were included in an annual exhibition of The Society of Eight, a private art society, comprising eight members. Cadell’s drawings were widely praised and the critic of the arts magazine, ‘The Studio’, declared: “The novelty of The Society of Eight exhibition in their galleries in Shandwick Place was a series of clever cartoons of soldiers and sailors. About fifty in number, these bold sketches, in which, with a minimum of line in black, with sometimes a dash of colour introduced, a marvelous completeness of effect is produced.”
This series revealed Cadell’s sympathy with the rank and file of the army. With minimal use of line, Cadell succeeded in capturing the essence of a scene, such as in ‘The Parting’, where he depicts a couple walking away from each other. He deftly indicates the woman’s body with half a dozen inky marks. Red touches highlight her lips, which appear slightly downturned, adding a sombre tone to the already tangible tension. The man’s hat and socks are also decorated in red, denoting the uniform of The Royal Scots.
Cadell is best known for his paintings and, interestingly, he achieved significant professional success during the war. However, this series of vibrant, captivating drawings show a different, and at times humorous, side to the war and demonstrate his ability in capturing a fleeting moment. Moreover, the illustrations anticipate the clean lines and flat colour of his work of the 1920s.
Adapted from essay in the FCB Cadell Exhibition Catalogue by Alice Strang.