Aspects of Submarines, Eric Ravilious, 1941. Courtesy the Towner Art Gallery.
Photographic images and television reports beamed by satellite tend to make up our vision of warfare today. The institution of war artist, then, sounds a little antiquated – the Bayeux tapestry, Goya, engravings from the Crimea and large oils of cavaliers and roundheads spring to mind.
Indeed paintings of war scenes take on a timeless appearance and this was one of the reasons why the British government officially commissioned art in both the First and Second World Wars. As artist John Keane has pointed out, the war artist has the same relationship to the war photographer as the poet does to the journalist.
It was with propaganda in mind that the Foreign Office initially asked Scottish artist Muirhead Bone to provide eyewitness illustrations of the Great War. However, when the Department of Information took over the commissioning, taking on ‘soldier-artists’ such as CRW Nevinson, Wyndham Lewis and John Singer Sargent, their violated landscapes conjured the futility of the front line.
Coventry Cathedral, November 15, 1940, John Piper, 1940. © Manchester City Galleries. Presented by HM Government War Artists' Advisory Committee.
Come 1939, a new war art scheme was set up, initiated by Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery. Before the end of the year, the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), on a budget of £5000, had assigned prominent artists to the Admiralty, the War Office and the Air Ministry.
Over the next six years, it would buy and commission work from more than 300 artists, amassing a collection of more that 5,500 works which was split between the Imperial War Museum and museums and galleries around the country. In addition, the IWM would come to own diaries and letters that war artists kept, which give personal and intimate glimpses of their varied experience.
Although artists were commissioned to record the suffering of people in Britain while under attack, much of the art produced for the WAAC evoked a picture of a defiant and united country, working towards the war effort at home and sending its industrial might out by air and by sea, fending off invasion and eventually crushing the enemy. The first part of this trail concentrates on artists who were chiefly based in Britain.
Welders by Sir Stanley Spencer, 1941. Courtesy IWM.
Anthony Gross, Edward Bawden and Edward Ardizzone were sent out to document the theatre of war, sketching and painting events in North Africa, Europe and the Far East. The second part of the trail will look at their experiences.
In the early stages of the war, artists found little to excite them, being kept away from the action. The war artist’s job sounds a little tame when you think that Kenneth Rowntree ended up painting the Women’s Institute making jam in 1943! Towards the end, though, no phase of fighting was off limits to war artists. Neither were they protected from that hazard of war, death.
By employing war artists, Clark and his committee were not only looking for a record of the war in paint, but hoping also to save a generation of artists. Indeed, when war broke out, many found themselves without the livelihood they had been relying on.