In many respects, Anthem created the template for what was to become my recognisable style. So many of the things that I now do as a matter of course, I did for the first time in this painting which is based loosely on the poem Anthem for Doomed Youth by World War I poet, Wilfred Owen. I took elements of the poem and reassembled them on the canvas to produce my own interpretation.
Rather than depicting young men going to war, I chose to paint young children to represent innocence, which heightens the poignancy of the narrative. Substituting children for adults was a device that I went on to use in many paintings, especially the mythological and religious works. It was also the first time I had used my own children in a painting.
One boy is holding a WWI drum, one is playing a WWI bugle and the girl is carrying a white lily which is symbolic of death, but you have to look carefully as the flower itself almost disappears into the pale grey of the horizon. Essentially it is a procession of three children and a dog. In this instance, it was my old dog, which was long dead, so it was a joy for me to include my children with this much-loved animal they had never met.
The dog, which gazes out of the painting with an expression of sorrow, is symbolic of home and fidelity. Its knowing look combined with the earnest expressions of the little boys gives the painting a sense of foreboding. It is all held together by the use of red – the bright pattern of the older boy’s shorts and the colour of both boys’ jumpers contrasts sharply with the muted tones of the girl, the dog and the background. The way it all came together was like a bomb going off in my head. In terms of what came after, this was the painting that pointed the way for what would become my mature style.