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A BEACON OF LIGHT
Louis Raemaekers: A commemorative painting for Brigadier-General James Foster Riddell
In this article, Kelsey Graham writes about her research into twentieth-century cartoonist, Louis Raemaekers, and his St George and the Dragon artwork in the Cathedral…
Who was Louis Raemaekers?
Newcastle Cathedral is home to a painting created by famous Dutch cartoonist, Louis Raemaekers.
Raemaekers, who was born in Roermond in The Netherlands in 1869, became one of the most influential propaganda artists during The First World War. He was most predominantly known for his anti-German artwork which portrayed Kaiser Wilhelm and other German politicians as ‘allies of the Devil’. The contents of Raemaekers’ work soon became known by the Dutch government, and Raemaekers was prosecuted for endangering the neutrality of Holland, although he was later found not guilty by a jury.
In 1916, Raemaekers fled to England after the German government offered a reward of 12,000 Dutch guilders for his body, dead or alive. Whilst in England, his work was published in The Times and he had an exhibition of over 500 pieces of art at The Fine Art Society in London.
Raemaekers’ work was incredibly influential in uplifting and maintaining public morale. So much so that he was sent by request of Britain’s war propaganda bureau, Wellington House, to the United States of America in 1917. During this time, his work was circulated amongst the public in hopes to sway them in favour of America’s involvement in The First World War.
Following the end of the First World War, Raemaekers settled in Brussels where he produced artwork advocating for the League of Nations and the unity of Europe. Before the start of the Second World War, he moved to America where he produced several pieces of artwork attacking the Nazi regime. In 1949, Raemaekers was made an honorary citizen of his home city, Roermond in The Netherlands. Assuming it was safe to do so, he returned to The Netherlands in 1953 where he died in 1956.
Brigadier-General James Foster Riddell
The large painting of St George and the Dragon, which is displayed in Newcastle Cathedral’s North Aisle, was produced by Louis Raemaekers in the early 20th century. The painting commemorates Brigadier-General James Foster Riddell who died in action on 25 April 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium.
James Foster Riddell was born in 1861 and at the age of 19 had his first appointment in the army. In 1881, he was made Lieutenant in the Northumberland Fusiliers. He served in the Hazara Campaign in 1888 in what is now Pakistan. From this campaign, he received a medal and a clasp. A clasp is a metal bar that carries a ribbon to indicate service in a particular campaign or battle. Riddell also served with the 2nd Battalion in the Boer War between 1900 and 1902 from which he gained a Queen’s Medal and three clasps. For some time, he was in command of the 3rd Battalion of the Northumberland Fusiliers which was disbanded in the early 1900s, but whose Colours are hung in the Cathedral.
Riddell was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in 1904 and raised to the rank of Colonel in 1911, after he was appointed Brigadier, commanding the Northumberland Infantry Brigade. Riddell, with his Brigade, was sent to France on 20 April 1915, where he soon came into close contact with German soldiers on 25 April in the village of Saint-Julien in Belgium.
Brigadier-General James Foster Riddell was fatally shot whilst commanding his men on the front line. Riddell is acclaimed as “one of the most gallant officers that ever lived”.
St George and the Dragon Painting in Newcastle Cathedral
The St George and the Dragon painting, which is hung in Newcastle Cathedral, was commissioned by Brigadier-General Riddell’s wife, Margaret Christabel Scott, as a memorial piece dedicated to her late husband.
Margaret, who was born in 1873, came from a wealthy family. It is no surprise that she was able to approach Louis Raemaekers, who was in England during 1915, about producing a painting to commemorate Riddell, as they likely held mutual connections within the upper classes of society.
The painting itself depicts St George standing above a slain dragon, with a ruinous Ypres Cloth Hall in the background. Ypres Cloth Hall was one of the largest commercial buildings in Belgium during the late 13th and early 14th centuries and was the main warehouse and marketplace of the city’s booming cloth industry. The hall was a prominent target during the First World War and was severely damaged by German artillery fire during this period.
The image below depicts the Ypres Cloth Hall in ruins in 1920. This is the same image that Raemaekers portrays in his painting, which ultimately captures the location of Riddell’s death, in the Second Battle of Ypres.
The image of St George and the Dragon is a direct reference to the emblem of the Northumberland Fusiliers, in which Brigadier-General Riddell served for 35 years. Riddell died commanding his Brigade from the front lines.
The use of St George and the Dragon resembles his bravery during the Second Battle of Ypres, but also encapsulates Riddell’s devotion to his men and the Northumberland Fusiliers. It is also known that Riddell bred two horses named St George and Dragon, who saw active duty during The First World War. They both returned to Riddell’s wife, Margaret, once the war was over.
This image therefore not only resembles the Fusiliers of which Riddell was a part of, but his bravery, devotion, and tenacity during The First World War.
Why Newcastle Cathedral?
Margaret personally requested that the painting be hung in the Cathedral. Standing as the most northerly Anglican cathedral in Britain and an iconic landmark in the city of Newcastle and the North East in general, the Cathedral seemed a fitting home for this large commemorative piece. The Colours of the Northumberland Fusiliers are also hung in the Cathedral, and its North Aisle is home to a vast array of war memorials. The painting, therefore, has a meaningful home and stands as Newcastle’s connection to two remarkable individuals: Louis Raemaekers and Brigadier-General James Foster Riddell, who both held significant roles during The First World War.