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Artists of the Second World War


During the Second World War, British artists produced over 6,000 works of war art, venturing closer to the front line than any others in their profession. Men who had previously made a comfortable living painting in studios were transformed by military uniforms and experiences that were to shape the rest of their lives, and their work significantly influenced the way in which we view war today.

‘Oh, but you should be an artist,’ says a character in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited, ‘I had one with my squadron during the last war, for weeks – until we went up the line.’

The implication here is that war artists were reluctant to put themselves in danger. In fact, in both wars, artists sought to convey the reality of war and inevitably that meant getting close to it. In the First World War, the artist Paul Nash (who was to be a war artist in both World Wars) was determined to get ‘as near to the real places of action as it was possible to go’. He was not the exception. Artists recognised the need to draw the war as truly as possible: Anthony Gross, for example, in 1940, wrote to Eric Kennington declaring that he wanted ‘to get to France by some way or other and paint in and behind the lines there’.

Getting close to the action

Being close to the action however had its problems: artists soon realised that the most intense moments of danger were the most impossible to sketch. If the shells were flying you kept your head down, and the sketchbook was temporarily discarded. Modern warfare also provided a challenge for the artist: tank battles in the desert, for example, took place over huge distances, making their depiction very problematic.


Then there was the issue of censorship. For example, the artist Eric Ravilious was reminded on appointment in January 1940 that ‘it will be necessary to submit all your preliminary sketches, as well as finished works, for censorship’. He had already been vetted by MI5 to ensure that he was a fit and proper person. Several artists were turned down by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) because of their political affiliations. The purpose of the WAAC was ostensibly to record the war, but also to save the lives of artists who might otherwise be drawn into the fighting. The memory of the generation cut down in 1914-1918 was still very powerful. The horrors of the Great War had been exposed by Paul Nash, Nevinson and Eric Kennington among others. In 1917 Nevinson was told by War Office officials that his Paths of Glory could not be exhibited. Preferring not to withdraw the picture, Nevinson put a strip of brown paper over the dead bodies and wrote ‘CENSORED’ over it. Early in the Second World War, Eric Ravilious was refused permission to paint an admiral’s bicycle.

It was inevitable that the closer an artist got to sensitive information, the more likely the censors would be to refuse any attempt to let the drawing see the light of day. For all that, while artists might have subjects suggested to them, in the main they felt free to draw what they liked. The resulting work of art, however, might languish in a store somewhere unseen. Much thought and discussion was given over to what constituted appropriate subject matter for war artists in the 1939-1945 conflict. It was recognised that it would be different from that of 1914-1918: to begin with, war in that earlier conflict was much more static, while because of the development of the bomber in the 1930s, the Home Front had become a front line too.

Painting the reality of war

Richard Seddon, an artist who served in France in 1940, summed up the issue of what to paint: he wanted ‘not to report facts, nor mould opinion’; rather, he sought to paint action – the ‘battle when it began’, not the mundane nature of a soldier’s existence. He ‘didn’t see soldiers peeling potatoes as war art’. Later he would experience the true reality of war, struggling to capture the nature of an artillery bombardment on the ship he was sailing in, sketching as the shells fell around him, but drawing a burned corpse was beyond him. He had wanted to produce ‘a work of art that would be a silent cry of the human spirit’. When it came to it, he could not face drawing so painful a subject.

In the later stages of the second war, during the Italian campaign, the war artist Edward Ardizzone found himself staying with a Guards brigade up in the Apennines. He had crossed swords with a brigadier who voiced, in a truculent bellow, what the more cantankerous officers thought of those charged with recording the war in paint: ‘What’s an artist doing here?’ he roared. It was a legitimate question rudely framed. No doubt he would not have listened to a reasoned argument that, without the 6,000 or so examples of art produced by artists between 1939 and 1945, our understanding of, and emotional response to, the war would be greatly impoverished. 

By Richard Knott

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