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Frank O. Salisbury (1874-1962)

The Passing of the Unknown Warrior, King George V as Chief Mourner, Whitehall, 11 November 1920 Signed and dated 1920

Oil on canvas | 71.7 x 147.8 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external) | RCIN 404458

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  • A view of the procession to the Unknown Warrior passing Lutyens' Cenotaph in Whitehall, 11th November, 1920, with King George V, the Chief Mourner behind the gun carriage.

    This painting, commissioned by King George V to hang in Buckingham Palace, is a study for a larger painting in the Government Art Collection. It records an event of national significance and today's Armistice Service developed out of this occasion. A committee was established to devise a fitting ceremony to mark all those who had died in the Great War. The Dean of Westminster suggested that one of the unknown men who fell and were buried in France should be exhumed, conveyed to England, and be given an imposing military funeral in Westminster Abbey on 11 November 1920, the date of the unveiling of the permanent Cenotaph memorial.

    The ceremony was masterminded by Lord Curzon, and it was to be an understated, low-key event, lacking in ostentation. It was decided that the National Anthem should be played when King George V arrived in Whitehall; that he should unveil the Cenotaph 'without ceremony'; that there should be two minutes silence at 11 o'clock; and that then the 'Last Post' should be then sounded. Here was a low-key, understated ceremonial; totally lacking in ostentation, and it was Curzon who insisted that 'fashionable society would be excluded', and that widows, ex-servicemen and members of the armed forces would be allowed to gather in Whitehall.

    'The Times' reported that: 'The first thundering strokes of Big Ben boomed out, louder it seemed than ever one heard it in the stillness of dawn. The King turned to face the Cenotaph and by the touch of a button, released the flags… They fell away, and it stood, clear and wonderful in its naked beauty. Big Ben ceased, and the very pulse of time stood still.'

    Salisbury, who had recently completed his painting of the Thanksgiving Service at St Paul's, (RCIN 404459), attended the ceremony and recalled: 'I made two sketches, one of the unveiling of the Cenotaph, the other of the service in the Abbey, and in a few days took them to the King, who called in the Queen to have a look at them. He said I must paint both pictures to hang in a public building, and in time for the Academy; and he desired me also to paint a smaller picture of the unveiling of the Cenotaph for Buckingham Palace.'

    Salisbury's painting of the Burial of the Unknown Warrior, Westminster Abbey, is in the collection of the Palace of Westminster. A study for the painting was presented by the artist's grandson in 2014 (RCIN 935046).

    Commissioned by King George V

  • Medium and techniques

    Oil on canvas


    71.7 x 147.8 cm (support, canvas/panel/stretcher external)

    95.5 x 163.7 x 5.5 cm (frame, external)