War Artists 1939-1945
During the Second World War, the British government took a more structured approach to collecting official war art than it had during the First World War.
The Ministry of Information set up the War Artists' Scheme (W.A.S) in 1939. It was devised by Sir Kenneth Clark, the then Director of the National Gallery and the dominant figure of the British art world.
The Ministry's War Artists Advisory Committee (W.A.A.C) administered the scheme. Headed by Clark, its brief was 'to draw up a list of artists qualified to record the war at home and abroad, to advise on the selection of artists on this list for war purposes and on the arrangements for their employment'.
Before the end of 1939, the committee had a budget of 5,000. It had also assigned prominent artists to the Admiralty, the War Office and the Air Ministry. The Committee employed 30 full-time artists at any one time. Specific commissions were given to another 100 artists and the work of a further 200 artists was also bought. Other artists worked unofficially.
The Blitz was a source of inspiration for many artists. John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Carel Weight, Evelyn Dunbar and Laura Knight were among artists commissioned to record the effects of the Blitz and the war effort on the home front.
Others artists, including Muirhead Bone, Edward Bawden, James McBey and Edward Ardizzone, were sent into theatres of war in North Africa, Europe and the Far East.
Works by Paul Lucien Dessau and Wilfred Stanley Haines, two 'fireman artists', were submitted to the committee independently. This practice was encouraged as it enabled artists serving with the armed forces or in civil defence organisations to be included in the scheme.
The committee was also in contact with artists such as James Boswell. Although it bought some of his work and took a real interest in his activities, he was never formally commissioned.
Artists who had worked during the First World War had varying success with the Committee during the Second. Muirhead Bone, the first official war artist of the First World War appointed in 1916, achieved the same honour in 1939. C R W Nevinson, however, was offended to have some of his work rejected. David Bomberg received no commissions until 1942, and even then his submissions were overlooked. The committee had conservative taste and looked for representative, rather than abstract, works.
The committee's official purpose was propaganda. As in the previous war, art exhibitions were organised in Britain and America to raise morale at home and promote Britain's image abroad.
Many artists and writers had died during the First World War. Some of those involved in the committee felt that the scheme should prevent another generation of British artists from being killed at the Front by keeping them usefully employed elsewhere.
Despite this, some artists did not survive the war. Eric Ravilious, Thomas Hennell and Albert Richards were killed in action overseas. Haines was killed in London during the Blitz. Others, such as Rex Whistler, could easily have sought employment as official war artists but chose to enlist. Whistler went to the Front as a tank troop leader. He was killed in France in July 1944.
By the end of the war, the committee had bought and commissioned work from more than 400 artists, amassing a collection of 6,000 works. In 1946 the committee allocated one third of its collection to the Imperial War Museum. The rest was distributed to museums and galleries across Britain and the Commonwealth. The Museum of London received 20 works illustrating wartime London.
The Imperial War Museum continues to commission war artists to record the conflicts in which Britain is involved.
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