Bomb Disposal Service at the Circus, Norma Bull. Courtesy Victoria Art Gallery, Bath.
While recording events close to home fell to such important artists as Paul Nash and Dame Laura Knight, war artists were also embedded in army units on far flung campaigns, where they went through the same extremes as soldiers, from tedium to tension, equatorial sun and freezing winters.
Albert Richards was just three months into a scholarship at the Royal College when he was called up. He was four years into this service, in the paratroops, when he was given the chance to be an official war artist. In this, he shared much with the soldier-artists of the First World War – he was not simply an observer, but close to everything that filled his canvases.
He was excited by parachuting and came up with some lively paintings of paratroops training. The Drop (1944) and Parachute Jump near Tatton Park (1943) are both brilliant action scenes of falling figures gripping parachute straps in with feet close together or in jack-knife position.
The Drop, Albert Richards, 1944. © IWM.
Richards really was in the thick of things, parachuting into Normandy with the 9th Battalion, 6th Airborne Division on D-Day, which resulted in his work The Landing Hour minus six (1944). He then followed the Allied armies closely through to Holland. His work gives a truly front-line view: gliders landing or crashed on the ground, paratroopers dropping from the sky, the detritus left behind by the Germans.
More than most other war art, there is a sense of death and exhaustion in Richards' work, the litter of retreat and the devastation of advance. However, it is conveyed by dead livestock and homeless civilians more than human corpses.
Most other war artists had a body of pre-conflict work behind them, but young Richards’ only real subject was war. It is sad that after he was released to be an artist rather than a soldier, and months away from the end of the war, he was killed in a jeep driving across a minefield.
Thomas Hennell was another artist casualty, who had replaced Ravilious in Iceland before travelling to Normandy and then the Far East. It was here, in Java in late 1945 that he was last seen. He was a prolific worker who experienced many battlefronts – his works tend to deal with the aftermath.
Edward Ardizzone's diary, as seen online. Courtesy IWM.
On a rather different note, of all the official war artists, Edward Ardizzone must be the joker in the pack. Prior to the war, he was known for his bibulous watercolors of bars, cafes and streetlife as well as illustrating children’s books. Given this, it is rather surprising he made it to all the war zones he did.
Ardizzone produced hundreds of drawings and watercolours, largely done in great haste and difficult conditions – he travelled to France, Italy and North Africa. Nevertheless, he managed more than anyone to capture the comic side of every situation. He wrote: “A maddening war – only the dead and the dying stay still for you to draw.”
He retained his intimate, almost caricaturist style in much of his work, rather than evoking the tedium or tragedy. Priest Begging a Lift (Louvain, 1940), has a portly priest looking more comical than desperate; Difficulties of Language is like a cartoon, with two uniformed men gesturing to a moustachioed shopkeeper. In his journal, which begins with the invasion of Sicily, death is a merely a smelly backdrop to the good life on board ships and in the mess.
A scene in the tribal area of Sheik Al-had, head of the Bani Hutuil Tribe, Iraq, Edward Bawden, 1944. © Crown.
Edward Bawden was impressed by Ardizzone’s ability to see they both lived on the best available when they were both stationed at Arras in 1940. The two must have got on well, for Bawden wrote home that when Ardizzone was laid up with lumbago, Bawden held a pot for him to urinate into.
Bawden worked in war zones rather than battle arenas, concentrating on the topography rather than drama. Veterans will therefore recognise the places in his work, which covers North Africa and the Middle East. His responsiveness to place makes his watercolours of the Sudan, Eritrea and Iraqi marshes his most engaging.
He did experience drama, though. After two years abroad, he set sail for home from Cape Town. The ship was torpedoed 600 miles from Lagos; survivors were picked up after five days in a lifeboat by a Vichy warship and interned in Casablanca. When rescued by Americans, he was taken to Virginia, eventually arriving back home in 1943.
He had told his wife that war had changed him and there were only a few people he wanted to see when he got home. There were two that were not immediate family – Eric Ravilious (killed 1942) and Thomas Hennell (killed 1945).
A view of Karpenision, Edward Bawden, 1945. © Crown.
War took soldiers to distant shores they would probably never have otherwise seen; artists too. Anthony Gross was in his element when despatched to Africa and India, making studies of nomad and tribal soldiers, camel regiments and Arab legionaries.
In the Arakan, he wrote that a battery of Sikhs, when they realised he was drawing them, phoned their commander for permission to stop firing at the Japanese so they could arrange themselves more decorously.
Gross recorded as many exotic peoples as he could, working on the spot, rather than from memory or notes. There is therefore a lack of pretension in his art, faces and apparel as he saw them, without profound comment.
Deuxieme Compagnie de Meharistes at Night in the Syrian Desert near Deir ez Zor, Anthony Gross, 1942. © Crown.
There are, of course, hundreds of artists that cannot be discussed in depth here, like Leonard Rosoman, RV Pitchforth, Charles Pears, Barnett Freedman and Frank Wootton, who was favoured by the Air Ministry over Paul Nash.
The bravery and perseverance of the war artists under the faithful direction of the WAAC produced a rich and varied record of the Second World War that we are lucky to have, given our reliance on the cold realism of film footage in the last century.
It is somewhat disappointing that so little of the collection is on permanent display in our museums and galleries outside London. However, in honour of the 60th anniversary of the end of the war, some institutions are holding exhibitions of official and unofficial war art.
Fire seen over Pulteney Bridge, Bath, William Stanley Haines, 1942. Courtesy Victoria Art Gallery, Bath.
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has a display called Lest We Forget: paintings, prints and drawings 1939-1945 featuring pieces given by the WAAC and more. The exhibition finishes on August 21, 2005.
Sunderland Museum is displaying 15 works in the exhibition Second World War Artists, from June 10 to September 1. Both local and well-known artists are featured, their drawings and paintings ranging from the familiar images of troops through to activities on the home front and Gurhka troops in the Far and Middle East.
Blitzed! at Victoria Art Gallery in Bath will have works by both famous artists such as John Piper and lesser known local artists, until July 13, 2005.
Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum is launching The Art of Conflict on July 30, 2005. The exhibition features work by Edward Bawden, Paul Nash and John Piper and continues until September 10.
Dulwich Picture Gallery is holding an exhibition of the work of Graham Sutherland, including pieces by those who influenced him. The display focuses on his work in the 1930s and 40s and will run from June 15 to September 25.
Redditch ARP, Norman Neasom, 1941. Courtesy Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery.
Tullie House in Carlisle will feature works by Thomas Hennell and Sir William Rothenstein in an exhibition during autumn 2005 and will have local war art in a small exhibition this summer.
Aberdeen Art Gallery is holding a display of WAAC commissioned work from its collection from June 18 to September 25.
The Imperial War Museum in London holds most of the work produced for the WAAC, and is holding a special exhibition of scenes by 12 artists who witnessed the Allied invasion of Italy and the D-Day landings. Europe Regained features many of the artists mentioned in this trail and is now on show in the Art Gallery of the museum. From July 2 until February 5 2006 there will also be an exhibition of art by prisoners of war in the Far East. Entitled Captive, works by Ronald Searle, Philipe Melinsky and Jack Chalker will feature. Check with the museum for special events related to exhibitions.
Visit the main 24 Hour Museum 'World War Two-60 Years' index page to find out about Their Past Your Future Events and to explore World War Two-related resources - including trails, features, news and reviews.
FIND OUT MORE ON OTHER UK NATIONAL MUSEUM WEBSITES
The National Archives have launched a brilliant online exhibition called The Art of War. The art is divided into four sections: illustrations, propaganda, valour and gallantry.
The Royal Airforce Museum at Hendon has a small online exhibition about WAAF artist Elva Blacker Taken from the museum's fine art collection the exhibition provides an insight and record of life at an RAF station.
The Canadian War Museum (CWM) has produced an informative online exhibition featuring the war artists of World War Two. Art and War: Australia, Britain and Canada in The Second World War features paintings and sculptures drawn from the colections of the Canadian War Museum, the Australian War Memorial and the Imperial War Museum.