Boer War comments on loss and uncertainty. The subject is the artist’s sister, Margaret Glencairn, whose cousin, George, was killed in the Boer War, but Shaw may have intended her to represent a nonspecific widow or fiancée in mourning. When the painting was first exhibited, it bore the subtitle, “Last Summer green things were greener / Brambles fewer, the blue sky bluer.” An excerpt from Christina Rossetti’s poem A Bird Song, it speaks to how grief can dull one’s sensitivity to the beauty and pleasures of life.
The soldier’s death is symbolized by a solitary swan’s feather floating down the stream. The two butterflies at the woman’s back may signify her remembrance of their happy, yet fleeting union, while the ravens portend an uneasy path forward.
In addition to its emotional power, Boer War is exceptional for its accurate depiction of the natural landscape. Shaw has carefully described each leaf, blade, flower and fruit thriving in the lush English meadow, as well as the effects of light passing through trees and refracting upon the surface of gently flowing water.