Drawn on the spot: the changing role of the war artist across the years


The National Army Museum, which is located next door to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, recently re-opened its doors after an extensive renovation – and is a wonderful space: bright, light and welcoming. I came here for a talk on the subject of war artists and the illustrated press, given by immensely knowledgeable Senior Research Curator, Emma Mawdsley. The talk supported the Museum’s ‘War Paint Brushes with Conflict’ exhibition, which I highly recommend. Featuring over 130 paintings, sketches and prints by the likes of Sir Muirhead Bone, Harry Sheldon, Jan Wyck and Alfred Thomson, the exhibition explores the complex role between war and those who chronicle it.

Likewise, I recommend visiting the rest of the Museum, which is a leading authority on the British Army and its impact on society past and present, and whose contents are a thought-provoking and sobering reminder of the effects of conflict upon human beings. It is divided into five thematic galleries which explore the history and evolving role of the army – I am still working my way around them, but was very impressed by the ‘War and Society’ gallery.

Emma began her talk by describing how art influences how we view the places of individuals, regiments or crimes in history. From the British Army’s earliest times, artists have chronicled its presence at home and across the globe. Over the centuries, paintings, maps and eyewitness sketches have been used to assert power and control resources. They let civilians see conflict zones, help soldiers make sense of their experiences and meet public demand for images of war. Ultimately, every image is an individual reflection upon the consequences of war.

Like any art, military painting has an agenda. As Britain became an international powerhouse from the 17th century, it also grew as a cultural force in Europe. Art became a means to legitimise territorial expansion. Modern history paintings promoted a patriotic vision of Britain’s global role, helping people visualise a powerful empire.
In Victorian Britain, news of war sold newspapers – the public had a visible appetite for news from the front. The Illustrated London News, launched in 1842, was the world’s first illustrated newspaper, with high-quality wood engravings a unique feature. Following its lead, all of the UK’s newspapers sent reports to Crimea to deliver an unprecedented amount of reporting. Today, we think of these correspondents as the world’s first genuine war reporters. But what drove this thirst for knowledge on the part of the public?

There were a number of reasons, argued Emma. 1855 saw duty on newspapers abolished, leading to an enormous increase in their circulation. The advent of the UK’s railway system improved their distribution, and rising standards in literary also contributed to demand. Furthermore, Britain’s imperial expansion, with its army and its navy deployed across the globe, meant even greater demand to know what they were doing.

One of the most renowned war correspondents of Victorian times was William Howard Russell, The Times’ correspondent in the Crimea. He believed that the duty of a journalist was the same as that of a historian: i.e. the truth. Russell, says Emma, had brilliant powers of description which distinguished him from other reporters – so much so that he influenced public perceptions of events such as Balaclava and the Charge of the Light Brigade. His reports brought these events under public scrutiny.

The Crimean War of 1854-56 was widely reported in newspapers and magazines and avidly followed by an increasingly literate and politically-aware public. The Illustrated London News published nearly 1,000 illustrations of the war, many of them critical of the conditions suffered by soldiers. The critical reports by Russell prompted changes in the provision of supplies, as well as in the living conditions and medical treatment of troops.

In war art today, the pursuit of truth appeals to modern audiences. But romanticised mages of epic battles fascinated audiences of the 19th century and triumph was often deliberately and falsely attributed to inglorious events. The jingoistic pride that accompanied the growth of the empire led to an increasing demand for military art and a rise in the number of war artists. Advances in print making increased the commercial audience for battle paintings, meaning said artists no longer needed to rely upon commissions from patrons.

This was the era when military comics such as The Boy’s Own Paper and Chums took off – for them, war provided rich subject matter, although it was often heavily sanitised. Designed to encourage militaristic courage in boys, and usually a blend of truth and fiction, these comics reached their peak during the Boer War at the beginning of the 20th century.

World War I brought the first large-scale commissioning of war art by the State. What had once functioned as a patriotic glorification of war became more evocative and contemplative. The Official War Art Scheme was set up for propaganda purposes, but soon widened its scope to commemorate how war impacts on lives and landscapes. More artists painted military subjects than ever before, but the formal compositions of battle painting were no longer appropriate for modern warfare. With mass conscription changing the public’s experience of conflict, art reflected a desire to commemorate the citizen soldier.

The Illustrated London News continued to use the same kinds of images that it had used during the Crimean War – however, of an increasingly romantic kind. Newspaper supplements, too, became popular – in colour for the first time, they were used to mark special events. As print techniques improved, much higher quality images arrived.

When Britain went to war again in 1939, the War Artists’ Advisory Committee was established within the Ministry of Information. By now, the artists’ work was seen as “war service”, maintaining public morale and promoting cultural values. Since then, photography has replaced illustrations, although the latter are still used in cartoons, comics and, occasionally, newspapers – Dave Brown’s work in The Guardian being a good example.

Art can be powerful, pro-war propaganda, concluded Emma, but it can also criticise conflict and subvert official opinion. Today, artists are keenly aware of their contribution to our memory of war. They face the same dangers as soldiers to create a record of conflict that lives on long after news reports.

The artist Gerald Laing, himself a war veteran, describes the role of a war artist most eloquently:

“Of course, art cannot change politics. But it does act as a permanent reminder of deeds both famous and infamous. Who would remember Guernica if it were not for Picasso? Unless we remember these events we shall, as the saying goes, be forced endlessly to repeat them, and the stakes are now too high for this to be allowed to happen.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s