I really enjoyed Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy so it was a bit of a no brainier to read Life Class when I picked this up in my local library.
Barker’s story follows three young artists studying at the Slade School of Art: Paul is a working class student who produces mediocre landscapes. Elinor is an unusual and detached upper class beauty who wins art prizes. And Kit is an acclaimed artist, a little pompous and in love with Elinor.
We watch them in Edwardian London, as their lives tangle and interweave, and follow them through the outbreak of WWI all the way to the front.
The actual plotting and love triangle is pretty conventional. But through these characters, Barker subtley explores the relationship between art and war. Should artistic endeavour give way to the practicalities of wartime life? Is art a selfish individual pursuit or a search for a higher truth? Can war ever be aesthetic?
My favourite detail is that of Professor Tonks, formidable art master at the Slade. The afterword states he was a real person who used his artistic skill to draw the faces of injured soldiers for reconstructive plastic surgery. A fascinating and tragic intersection of art and war.
Read: If you want a new perspective on WWI