War Artists - World War Two On Canvas And Paper Part One: The Home Front

By Caroline Lewis
Shows a painting of destroyed terraces with only the facades still standing.

Devastation 1941, An East End Street, Graham Sutherland Courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery © Tate

At the outbreak of war, both Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland were teaching at Chelsea School of Art. They both volunteered to take the precision tool-making course at the attached polytechnic to join in the war effort, but the course never materialised. The school closed and they lost their teaching posts.

Moore decided to occupy himself with drawing instead, taking over studios in Hampstead that had belonged Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson (like many others, they abandoned the capital during the war). One evening, travelling on the Underground, Moore noticed crowds of people at each station, lying all over the platforms. When he got out at Belsize Park, he too was confined in the tube station because of bombing above.

Inspired by the rows of reclining figures and the grim tension, Moore took notes and sketched scenes of swaddled forms as if they were in a burial tomb.

Shows a drawing of swaddled forms lying down, squeezed together.

Four grey sleepers, Henry Moore, 1941. © Henry Moore Foundation, courtesy Wakefield Museum & Art Gallery.

He returned again and again to the Underground during bombing raids, producing black and white drawings of figures lying down, hunched and sitting, in intimate ad hoc groups. All the people are faceless – no detail or expression is needed to sense the cramped and airless situation of these Londoners, all waiting, blindly, to see what fate their city has met while they look at the long tiled walls of their shelter.

If it had not been for this experience, Moore might not have produced any work for the WAAC. He declined to be one of their official artists, perhaps because he had served in the previous war, as a bayonet instructor. He was once gassed, but survived it all, finishing up with the rank of Corporal.

The WAAC bought Moore’s shelter drawings and he accepted a commission to draw more. His fascination with the Underground shelters faded, however, when the authorities equipped them with bunks and washing facilities, which made them lose their ‘drama and strangeness’, he said.

Shows a pen drawing of miners.

Pitboys at Pit Head, Henry Moore, 1942. © Henry Moore Foundation, courtesy Wakefield Museum & Art Gallery.

The committee sent him to his birthplace, Castleford in Yorkshire, to make illustrations of coal miners. The subject failed to inspire him. After submitting the work he completed, he carried out no further work for the WAAC.

Where to see works by Henry Moore: The Henry Moore Institute, Leeds; Leeds City Art Gallery; Wakefield Museum & Art Gallery; Brighton Museum & Art Gallery; The British Museum; Tate Britain; Imperial War Museum; Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford.

Graham Sutherland moved to rural Gloucestershire when the Chelsea School of Art closed. He was contacted in 1940 by the WAAC and agreed to take on the subject of armament transport by rail – the start of a fruitful wartime career. In more than 150 works, Sutherland covered bomb damage in South Wales and London, tin mining in Cornwall, V2 rocket sites and railway sites bombed by the RAF in France.

Shows a painting of a tall piece of machinery with flames under it.

Press for Making Shells, Graham Sutherland, 1941. © Manchester City Galleries, presented by HM Government War Artists' Advisory Committee.

Towards the end of 1944, just after Paris was liberated, Sutherland was sent to France. When he found the flying-bomb sites he had been asked to record, at St Leu d’Esserent and the marshalling yards at Trappes, he was greeted by upheaved engines, broken boilers and strewn parts. Here, he created some of his most forceful gouaches of devastation.

Where to see works by Graham Sutherland: Manchester Art Gallery; Imperial War Museum; Tate Britain; University of Liverpool Art Gallery;

John Piper also took destruction as his starting point, being appointed by the WAAC to paint scenes of bombed out Bristol, Bath and Coventry – probably because he was known for architectural subjects in his past work.

In particular, Piper turned to collateral damage: ruined churches. Coventry Cathedral, Lansdowne Chapel in Bath, St Mary le Port in Bristol, and All Saints in Knowle are all depicted; shattered windows, jagged walls and rubble-strewn altars open to the skies.

Shows a painting of a ruined church.

St Mary le Port, Bristol, John Piper, 1940. On display at Tate Britain, room 23 until August 2005. © The Piper Estate, courtesy Tate. Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946.

Although Piper’s work does not feature people, the emptiness of the destroyed buildings gives a sense of human loss. He was too young to have served in the First World War, but his elder brother did, and was killed at Ypres.

Where to see work by Piper: The Herbert, Coventry; Renishaw Hall; Imperial War Museum

The WAAC looked to the soldier-artists of the First World War, with varying success. CRW Nevinson was most offended to have some of his work rejected, likewise David Bomberg was hurt to receive no commissions until 1942. Of the work he produced on the subject of an underground bomb shelter, only two drawings were considered satisfactory. The WAAC had conservative taste and was looking for representative work, shying away from abstracts.

Sir Stanley Spencer had better fortune. Although requested to be a war artist in the First World War, his regiment did not release him until he was invalided in 1919. The WAAC snapped him up in 1940 and he spent most of the war years painting shipbuilding at Port Glasgow.

Shows a photograph of a painting in which four men are depicted working on four seperate plates of metal. Dressed in tweed clothes and flat caps, the men are wearing eye glasses to protect them and are at various stages of the riveting process.

Shipbuilding on the Clyde: Burners, Sir Stanley Spencer, 1940. © Imperial War Museum.

Merchant shipping was suffering terrible losses, threatening the supply of materials from America. In asking Spencer to paint events at Lithgow’s Shipyard, the committee was hoping to support the important work. Spencer was engrossed. The workers are all fictitiously depicted in Harris tweed, emphasising the egalitarian working environment, the overarching war effort.

Where to see work by Spencer: The Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham; Imperial War Museum;

William Roberts’ Munitions Factory (1940) has a similar atmosphere – the workers all part of a larger whole, ceaselessly offering their efforts at the Woolwich Arsenal. Another of his war paintings, The Control Room, was once used on the cover of George Orwell’s 1984, presumably because of the impression of momentous operations in the busy office scene. Another of his heavily stylised watercolours, Soldiers at Train, was destroyed in enemy action.

Shows a stylised painting of busy workers in an armaments factory.

Munitions Factory (detail), William Roberts, 1940. Courtesy Salford Museum & Art Gallery.

Also employed to illustrate the hard work going on at home were Dame Laura Knight and Evelyn Dunbar, who both produced scenes of hard graft on the land. Knight was even commissioned to work on the government poster series ‘Lend a Hand on the Land’. She was also asked record WAAFs at work, for example as in A Balloon Site, Coventry (1942), and was an official artist at the Nuremberg Trials.

Other Home Front artists to look out for include Keith Vaughan, William Scott, Rodrigo Moynihan.

Shows a painting of people working on a field of greens.

Sproutpicking in Monmouthshire, Evelyn Dunbar, 1941. © Manchester City Galleries.

The War in the Air and at Sea

Aeroplanes and ships were key subjects for war artists given that only a fraction of the Second World War was fought on land.

Eric Ravilious played perhaps the largest part in recording life at sea during the war, making studies of submariners, coastal defence, convoys and aircraft carriers. He took up the challenge with gusto, despite most naval activity between 1940 and 1942 being in freezing northern waters, far from his wife and home in the southeast.

Shows a photograph of an image, depicting a view through a pile of anchors, barrels and chains of three barrage balloons attached to boats out at sea.

Barrage Balloons at Sea, Eric Ravilious, 1940. Courtesy the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

Ravilious wrote that he felt ‘like an earwig setting out to draw Buckingham Palace’. This enthusiasm meant that his depictions of everything from trawlers to destroyers and barrage balloons dominated an exhibition at the National Gallery in 1940, where regular exhibitions were held of WAAC-commissioned work throughout the war.

In contrast to the work of Spencer and Roberts, it is the machinery that dominates Ravilious’ art, not the men behind it. It is telling that his work often ran into trouble with censors – Ravilious was no abstract artist and was often installed in sensitive areas such as Chatham, Portsmouth, Newhaven and Dundee.

Eager as he was, Ravilious became itchy to move onto something new and was assigned to the Air Ministry in 1942. He spent sometime at Sawbridgeworth in Hertfordshire, where Spitfires and training in obsolete machines fed his work, before requesting to go to Iceland to see the Norwegian Squadron.

shows the painting No1 Map Corridor 1940 , by Eric William Ravillious

No.1 Map Corridor, Eric Ravilious, 1940. © Leeds Museums & Galleries.

Soon after he arrived, he took off as a passenger on a reconnaissance flight, and never returned.

The whole point of the war artists’ scheme was to protect British artists, in Kenneth Clark’s eyes. They were not supposed to die. As such, Mrs Ravilious had to wrangle for compensation to provide for her children and Eric’s 85-year-old father. Complications arose as his final commission had not officially begun when he went missing, but arrangements were eventually made for the widow of Ravilious, Tirzah – also an artist.

Where to see Ravilious: The Towner Art Gallery, Eastbourne; The National Maritime Museum; Leeds Museums & Art Galleries; Brighton Museum & Art Gallery

Ravilious’ former teacher at the Royal College of Art, Paul Nash, took a rather different and safer approach to recording action in the air. A veteran and soldier-artist of the First World War, he was suffering from bronchial asthma when the WAAC approached him to work for the Air Ministry. He contented himself with working chiefly from photographs, talking to pilots and looking at technical magazines.

Shows a painting depicting wrecked planes that look like a sea.

Totes meer, Paul Nash, 1940-41. Will be on display summer 2005. Courtesy Tate.

He developed a zest for aircraft, seeing them as aerial creatures with personalities. Unfortunately his series of watercolours of British bombers – Blenheims, Hampdens, Wellingtons and Whitleys – did not go down well with RAF members, who had rather staid taste. He was transferred to work for the Ministry of Information instead.

Nash was determined that his artwork be put to use, always hoping it could boost the British morale. With this in mind, he produced some of the most iconic images of the war artists’ scheme. Totes meer (Dead sea, 1941) is Nash’s famous image of an aircraft dump near Cowley, in which the wreckage of German planes appears as an undulating sea under an eerie silver moon.

His next major work was The Battle of Britain – a large canvas with the focus on fighter planes’ swirling vapour trails and black plumes of smoke from a plummeting bomber. He was commissioned in 1944 to make a sequel, which he entitled Battle of Germany. It was his most abstract piece, with a sky half-filled with deep red over a brown foreground. In 1946, Nash contracted pneumonia and died.

Shows a painting of an aerial plane battle above the sea out of which a river snakes into the foreground. The is full of of jet streams while a squadron of aircraft is amassed to the right.

Battle of Britain, Paul Nash, 1941. © IWM.

Where to see works by Paul Nash: Tate Britain; Brighton Museum & Art Gallery; Imperial War Museum; Leeds City Gallery; Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Commissioned in 1940, Richard Eurich relied on a photographic memory and consciously decided to subdue his style to bring about work that was as accurate as possible.

A great admirer of Turner, Eurich found epic subjects that allowed him to carry out grand works: Great Convoy to North Africa, Preparations for D-Day, Night Raid on Portsmouth Docks are some. His painting Dunkirk Beaches (1940) takes a wide angle, featuring rows of troops stretching into the distance, before a black sky resulting from fires that had been burning for days in the town.

Where to see Richard Eurich: Tate Britain; National Maritime Museum; Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston; Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

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