Completed British 20th C, except portraits, Continental European after 1800, Military History 27 Can anyone identify the arch and its location in this unfinished panel by Lawson?

Topic: Subject or sitter

The figures are military and most of his topographical oil subjects relate to the First World War, though more likely painted after than during his service in it (in which he was a soldier not a war artist – initially in the Middle East and only on the Western Front towards the end) despite the general Imperial War Museum datings of those it holds. His Second World War subjects tend to record incidents relating to specific regiments, so this is probably First World War period rather than later.

Pieter van der Merwe, Maritime Subjects, Entry reviewed by Art UK

Completed, Outcome

This discussion is now closed. This previously untitled work has been titled ‘The Unicorn Gate, Portsmouth’, the date has been changed from c.1916–1918 to c.1919–1921, and more information about the artwork is now available on Art UK.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the discussion. To anyone viewing this discussion for the first time, please see below for all the comments that led to this conclusion.


The Curator of First World War and Twentieth Century Art has ordered up the IWM’s file on Cecil Constant Philip Lawson, but is unable to access the work itself at the moment.

Osmund Bullock,

A pretty much perfect match, I'd have thought; well done, Portsmouth.

I wonder whether it wasn't painted at the same time and place as this view of tanks waiting to be loaded on board ship at an unidentified dockside, and dated c.1917:

It, too, is unfinished, and painted in the same palette on a piece of (?hard)board of virtually identical size (11¾ x 16 in.) and colour. Both are in the IWM collection, but puzzlingly the Art UK image of the tanks has a usefully higher resolution - 50% more pixels in both dimensions than our one. Why is that?

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That view of the ship loading could be Portsmouth, but hard to tell without any other landmarks in the background. I wonder what is in the background on the right hand side, could those be chimneys? Would need a detail to see more clearly.

Back to Unicorn Gate, most of our images show it in its original position within the town fortifications. When the fortifications were demolished it was moved to the entrance of the dockyard. This view captures how busy it was.

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Bravo Portsmouth: confirms my view to Marion this week, prompting the very long-delayed posting of this from when I first raised it, that waiting for holding collections to supply background information before raising a public question can often be short-cut by simply asking it. Its also a demonstration of the value of local recognition, given the gate itself is now resited inside the Naval Base security perimeter (as is the Lion Gate) so not as obvious as it once was.

What's in the picture record would still be useful if it can help on a better date, though I agree with Osmund that the 'Line of Tanks' image looks like a pair in size and painting terms (and therefore perhaps also Portsmouth?).

The dating question applies to all Lawson's WWI oils: i.e. there is so far no evidence they were done during the war, given he was (as far as we yet know) in front-line service, not an official war artist. That being so its hard to see how he could have done more than private sketches converted to ils only post-war, either when in the Middle East or on the Western Front, let alone subjects like this at home 'c.1917'.

Jacinto Regalado,

Yes, Pieter, waiting for collection response can consume a great deal of time, and a response is not guaranteed. I would favour waiting for a reasonable period and, if that fails, then moving ahead.

Osmund Bullock,

Portsmouth, in the 'Line of Tanks' painting I think the two furthest RH side 'chimneys' are in fact the funnels of another ship, along with its mast - so not much help. The other, lower shapes just peeping above the RH tank are harder to interpret, and given the sketchy nature of the scene, probably impossible. See attached, tweaked detail.

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Thanks both: as far as I can see The gate still seems to be in at least a semi-public area within the perimeter of HMS Nelson to be specific. Listing description here:

The tall and close-set twin funnels in the tanks picture and apparent dress of the three sketched figure suggests a warship and military/naval ones: that at right in silhouette could be a sailor in a flat cap and peajacket. That amounts generally to 'naval base' rather than 'civilian port' so at least 'possibly Portsmouth'.

I don't think this needs to go any further as regards identification.

When the IWM has retrieved the Lawson file perhaps it could express a revised view on the general painting date of their group of his WWI oils (i.e. when probably done, rather than the dates they represent). Taking this one as an example it might just be 'c.1917 or later'.

It's excellent that the answer was found so fast – thank you Portsmouth, and thank you, Pieter, for prompting on it.

There are c.1,890 open submissions in addition to the discussions open to the public, and once each has been answered it will not re-appear on my feed unless the collection responds or the contributor prompts again, so I encourage anyone who has a stalled submission to do that (it's not the first time I've said it). However, last month 125 new submissions left little time to look at old ones.

The submissions portal will be closed 21 December–2 January inclusive.

Even if not, both this and the related picture of tanks are now easily wrapped up. The bigger question of when Lawson really painted any of his undated WWI oils (i.e. reassessing what are probably misleading ones at present ascribed dates based on what they show) is not going to be resolved here. Until it is, however, some element warning to the unwary in current record would be useful.

Louis Musgrove,

Just one thing—. the tanks on the docks- I have had great difficulty identifying what sort of tanks they are- a bit impressionistic—. My best guess so far is Vickers Mk1 - which would give a date of 1920/1921 ish . Which might affect the date of our paining here. Any other AFV anoraks out there?

I think this discussion can be brought to a close at this point subject to acceptance or rejection by the Imperial War Museum Art Department. Having failed myself to be able to identify the architectural feature in question, I am greatly impressed by and grateful for the insertion of local knowledge which has led to so rapid and satisfactory a resolution. Clearly more work needs to be done on when Lawson was able to paint this and the associated work of lined up tanks and I might suggest that the latter shows vehicles brought back from France in 1919, rather than those waiting to go out at some earlier date. Lawson was commissioned into the Army Service Corps on 13.3.1919 and therefore may have had duties relating to the return to England of all sort of military equipment which the ASC had to receive and account for wherever it was landed at Portsmouth or the major military logistics port of Shoreham in East Sussex. See Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research, Autumn 2019, pp. 213-221 for Lawson's Great War service. The tanks lined up beside the ship are all of the classic rhomboid Heavy Tank configuration of WWI tanks, not any later types.

Congratulations and thanks to all contributors. Andrew Cormack

Marion already has (from me) draft new titles and brief linking 'more information' for both these pictures, subject to IWM view.

Though I have suggested (roughly) 'Mark 1 tanks awaiting embarkation on a quayside' - and 'possibly at Portsmouth' for that image, Andrew's point about Lawson's immediately and brief post-war officer service in the RASC (March 1919 to May 1921) is a good one. In that case, 'Mark 1 tanks on a quayside, probably after return from the Western Front' might be a more likely alternative and the date for both unfinished pictures changed from 'c.1917' to 'c.1919-21'.

The likelihood of the tanks one also being 'possibly Portsmouth' is (a) in sharing the size and palette of the Unicorn Gate one; (b) in the tall twin funnels in the right background and the three figures on the quay. The height and close set of the funnels suggests a warship and the figures, though sketchy, look uniformed, especially that at right who may be in a naval sailor's flat cap and pea-jacket.

Thank you for all the contributions to this interesting discussion. I have not heard any more from the Imperial War Museum today and I am on leave now until 3 January.

Osmund Bullock,

I hope you have a splendid and very happy Christmas and Hogmany, Marion. And thank you for all the fine work, usually in very challenging circumstances, that you've done in the last year for us, for Art UK and most importantly, for the collections. What *we* do would amount to so much less without what *you* do to make it count where it matters.

Osmund Bullock,

...and I somehow managed to misspell 'Hogmanay' amidst all that, sorry. Should've stuck to 'Happy New Year'!?

Thank you, Osmund, for the very kind send-off for Christmas (and Hogmanay!) – and the same to you. I'm always amazed by the discoveries made here and I'd be no match on the other side of the fence...

Happy Christmas and best wishes to all for 2024,

Osmund Bullock,

Louis, it is indeed interesting that the AFV you suggest, the 1921 Vickers (Light) Infantry Tank No.1 (and its close variant the 1922 No.2, armed with a serious 3-pounder gun instead of just machine guns), has the same rhomboidal track outline as the famous early heavy tanks of WWI. But they nevertheless cannot be of that type.

It is hard to know exactly what the splodges of paint on the top of the tanks are meant to represent - they look to me far less substantial (and too far back) than the full 'cupola' turret of those Vickers tanks. But that is arguable in an artistic context, especially if the artist made only rough sketches on site, and might well have been prevented from getting too close on security grounds. An assessment of their size (heavy/large or light/smaller) is also difficult for the same reason, and because it's unclear how close the depicted human figures are meant to be to them.

However, what is not arguable is that those two designs quickly turned out to non-viable and never went into production. Just two prototypes were made and trialled by the Army's Military Vehicles Engineering Establishment (MVEE), and they were later returned to the manufacturer. So a line of six or eight of them (perhaps more) on a quayside could never have happened.

See (as well as Louis' link above)

Louis Musgrove,

Back from Christmas. Yes Osmund- only a few prototypes of Vickers Mk 1 made,Only an illustration as to what the blobs on the top of the tanks might be. I still cannot identify the tanks. The shape and marks on the side of the nearest tank - do not match anything I can find.It's the subtle differences that count. The triangular mark-in brown -probably a vent for mud from the tracks- towards the left ,back end of the first tank, just does not fit any of the WW1 tank MKs.
.The MarkV* females did have a rear cuppola,but that was smaller than the blobs we see- but the shape of that tank is slightly different-the side panel different- and also they did not really get into the war,being developed late 1918.
There is a book in our library that has lots of the weird and wonderful AFVs trialed in the early 1920's ,but nothing I can find in that either?????

Louis Musgrove,

BTW. Is our artist the same Cecil Constant Philip Lawson who wrote books about British Army Uniforms? Some one who would be accurate with detail???
Something does not feel right here--possibly ??????