The Tragic Group: The Russian Invasion of Finland

The Tragic Group: The Russian Invasion of Finland 

Artist: Merlyn Oliver Evans

With the Ukraine Russian War taking place Roger Cucksey, who was Keeper of Art In Newport Art Gallery over a period of over thirty years, has reminded us of the relevance of this painting.

The Winter War, also known as the First Soviet-Finnish War, was a war between the Soviet Union and Finland. The war began with a Soviet invasion of Finland on 30 November 1939, three months after the outbreak of World War II, and ended three and a half months later with the Moscow Peace Treaty on 13 March 1940.

The painting shows a large desolate landscape with a group of people in attitudes of despair in the foreground. It was first exhibited in 1956. It is tempera on a board. 

Born in Cardiff, Merlyn Oliver Evans (1910 -1973) studied first at the Glasgow School of Art and later at the Royal College of Art, where he would go on to teach at the end of his career. A gifted painter and graphic artist, Merlyn’s work became associated with the Surrealist movement, after he exhibited in the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition, held in London.

Merlyn served as an engineer with the South African forces during the Second World War. This period had a profound effect on Merlyn’s artwork, which became dominated by anti-war subjects. The Tragic Group was one of his early anti-war paintings, inspired by the invasion of Finland by Russia in 1939. It is harrowing scene, depicting a group of civilians in complete despair, in a stark and desolate landscape.

The painting is a rare survival from Merlyn’s early period, as many of his early works were disposed of by his parents when he was called up. In 1983, Roger Cucksey (Newport Museums and Art Gallery’s Keeper of Art) was fortuitously introduced to Merlyn’s widow – Marjorie Evans. Marjorie invited Roger to her house in Hampstead, where the Tragic Group was hanging on the sitting room wall. Roger asked Marjorie if she would be willing to sell the painting. She was, and with grant aid from the V & A Purchase Fund, the painting was acquired for Newport Museum and Art Gallery.

Another painting not in our collection, but relevant at the moment re the conflict in Ukraine, is The Refugees, 1946, in National Museum Wales collection.



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