Artists at War

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Artists at War

Established at the outbreak of war in 1939, the War Artists Advisory Committee was chaired by Sir Kenneth Clark and included representatives of the armed forces and the Ministry of Information.

The Committee’s brief was to create an artistic record of all aspects of World War II, and to ‘draw up a list of artists qualified to record the War at home and abroad’. A similar scheme had existed during World War I which had resulted in a large body of artistic work being deposited with the Imperial War Museum, London.

 Wellingtons, Paul Nash, 1940.
Wellingtons, Paul Nash, 1940, FA101513

The Treasury allowed the Committee to sanction a larger number of commissions during World War II, though they were smaller and less grandiose than their previous counterparts and frequently in watercolour. The use of watercolour allowed a more spontaneous recording of events which made them less formal.

All of the works included in this theme were donated to Brighton Museum & Art Gallery by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) in 1947.

Appointing the Artists

Aero-Engine Accessories Girls, Dorothy Josephine Coke, 1941, FA100353.
Aero-Engine Accessories Girls, Dorothy Josephine
Coke, 1941, FA100353.

Why should the state commission artists to record events in a seemingly outmoded

manner when photography and film would seem to be a much better way of doing the job?

Apart from the strong tradition of having an artist record aspects of war, Clark said later ‘we employed every artist whom we thought had any merit, not because we supposed that we would get records of the war more truthful or striking than those supplied by photography, but because it seemed a good way of preventing artists being killed’. 2,000 artists applied to work on the scheme, of which 300 were employed.

Commissioning and Acquiring Works

The WAAC acquired works in several ways. Artists were either salaried for a specific length of time, or were given commissions to record certain subjects.

The committee insisted that the pictures must be based on eye-witness accounts which meant that artists had to be in the middle of the action. It is therefore surprising that only three were killed: Eric Ravilious, Tom Hennell and Albert Richards.

Once allocated their specific commissions, the artists were given considerable freedom as to what they chose to paint. No chosen artist was pressured by the authorities into changing their own style or into producing a certain sort of art.

It would be naive to believe that the propaganda qualities of works were not taken into account, especially as the committee was financed by the Ministry of Information. Artists might have been given freedom, but their work still had to pass the censor.

 Whitleys at Sunrise, Paul Nash, 1940, FA101514.
Whitleys at Sunrise, Paul Nash, 1940, FA101514.

The documentary and representational qualities required by the scheme might seem very restrictive but it was actually in tune with the fairly conservative mood of most British art at the time. Nevertheless, Clark told The Studio ‘The war artists’ collection cannot be completely representative of modern English art because it cannot include those pure painters who are interested solely in putting down their feelings about shapes and colours’. This explains why there are no works by Ivon Hitchens, Ben Nicholson and Victor Pasmore in the scheme but makes the inclusion of both Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, both of whose work was borderline, a very bold decision by the WAAC and one of its triumphs.

Exhibition of the Works

As soon as was possible the works were displayed in the National Gallery in London. Although the paintings might not be overtly propagandist, they were very consciously used to give a boost to public morale through exhibitions.

Touring exhibitions were arranged so that galleries around the country could display the works. Between 1941 and 1944 exhibitions were sent to the USA, Canada, Mexico, the West Indies, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. One entire consignment of pictures was lost on the way to South America as the ship in which they were travelling was a victim of enemy action.

Throughout the war the National Gallery had an ongoing exhibition of war pictures, giving a huge and uninterrupted emphasis to contemporary art and artists in a way that had never happened before.

By the end of 1945 some 5,570 paintings had been produced under the scheme. The majority were given to galleries in this country and in the Commonwealth after those not already allocated to the Imperial War Museum and the British Council had been displayed at an exhibition at the Royal Academy.

 

 

 

 

 

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