Remembering Woman War Artists

Although women had by the time of WW1 started to be seen more in the workplace, in war art they were often excluded. The job of portraying battle has, traditionally, been seen as a male preserve. Women have, since the turn of the 20th century, been interpreting and illustrating war, casting a fascinating light on the forgotten social, industrial and personal histories born from conflict which are invaluable in fleshing out a fuller picture of the human cost of war. The fact that women war artists did play a crucial role has been air-brushed from history. Few would be able to name a female counterpart to a well-known artist like Paul Nash. There are many reasons for this, for the better part, women artists were working unofficially, so their work was not censored in the same way as the male artists who worked in an official capacity. It was also regarded as indecent for women to be witnessing war from the brutality of the front, even though many worked in hospital wards and drove ambulance vans.

Women with some artistic training were sneaking sketchpads into factories, without permission, depicting the civilian population contributing to the war effort, while others drew street scenes that captured air raids, shelters; sometimes these were comical or bittersweet images, at other times, shocking and violent. This work would have been considered dangerous and illicit had the authorities known about it, as imagery around war was tightly controlled for fear that it would used as negative propaganda.

In an effort to bring these extraordinary, yet forgotten, female artists to public attention, in 2011 the Imperial War Museum in London staged a comprehensive exhibition on the subject of women as eye-witnesses, participants, and officially commissioned recorders of war, entitled Women War Artists.

It’s often misunderstood what the role of the war artist is it encompasses far more than battle scenes or life at the frontline. The artists’ creative responses to all aspects of war as seen and experienced by ordinary people, civilians as well as servicemen and women was shown much more deeply by female war artists. Women who found themselves in the war zones were producing images unofficially, without the permission of the government in the First and Second World Wars and they also entered male workplaces in order to draw them, which was a very radical and brave thing to do during those times. But these strong women were determined, that even without government aegis they would record what they saw. Olive Mudie-Cooke, a trained artist who was driving ambulances for the British Red Cross in France from 1916, was one such woman. The images she produced departed from the official art as they featured hospital and auxiliary staff.

However, the Women’s Work Sub-Committee, which had been set up to record the varied contributions of women to the war effort did commission ten female artists. The Women’s Work Collection was a unique resource for anyone interested in the experiences and role of women during the First World War. It was accrued largely between 1917 and 1920 and originally included art, models, documents, uniforms, badges, books, photographs and memorabilia of every variety. The Imperial War Museum opened officially in 1917 and this collection formed its main body of work. Plans were put in place to ensure that the role of women would be recognised and recorded from its very beginnings. Which may seem surprisingly forward- thinking but perhaps is indicative of how the role of women in society was one of the dominant social issues of the day. In the years preceding the First World War, the campaign for women’s suffrage had intensified. As well as campaigning for the vote, many women wanted recognition and acceptance that they could and should have a greater role to play in public life. The outbreak of war in 1914 provided women with an outlet to demonstrate their capabilities in public office or in the workplace.

In December 1918, Millicent Garrett Fawcett declared ‘we cannot forget what our men have done during the war, but we must not forget either what the women have done, and we must be as ready to give them their chance as we are to help the men who come back.’

At the start of the Second World War, women artists were given more leeway after the WAAC, the government’s War Artists Advisory Committee was set up in 1939, but there were still grave imbalances. More than 400 artists were involved and only 52 of whom were women, the latter receiving fewer and shorter commissions, lower pay and far less publicity. Only two women were given overseas commissions but only one, Evelyn Dunbar, was entrusted with a salaried position, and both were allowed to travel abroad only after the fighting had ended.

A female artist given an overseas commission in the 1940s was Dame Laura Knight. At the time she was painting, women auxiliaries had become more common, although female involvement in combat was strictly prohibited. Corporal Daphne Pearson, a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force WAAF, sat for a portrait by Knight and revealed in a letter to her mother that the artist originally painted her with a rifle. But the final painting features her brandishing a respirator instead of the weapon.

Ethel Gabain was one of the first artists commissioned by the WAAC in early 1940 and she worked across the country, mainly focusing on detailed portraits of people. Her work also included women employed in many of the auxiliary services. The WAAC commissioned a series of paintings of women who had taken over the jobs of the men who had been called up to the services, ironically using mainly male artists.

Louisa Puller was an artist who worked for the project funded by the Pilgrim Trust to Record the Changing Face of Britain, which was to record the rapidly changing countryside and urban landscapes of Britain in the 1940s. Social realities on the home front were being presented more robustly the 1940s and this was due in a large part to the women artists.

The British Red Cross had commissioned Doris Zinkeisen to reflect their work in Europe in the 1940s, and she produced Human Laundry, a stark, searing image of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp’s starving survivors.

In 1945 an artist called Mary Kessell was sent to Germany. By the time she arrived, the war was over but she created memorably intense charcoal drawings of homeless women and children in Berlin, as well as the destruction of Hamburg.

The question of how female war-artists chose to represent ordinary working women during these decades is an interesting one. Images of women on the home front were not always “feminist” in the modern sense; some adopted the style of their older male counterparts while others painted women in stereotypically glamorised incarnations, even in factory scenes which, in reality, would have been sweaty places of industry. So even female artists were to play a role in the war time propaganda.

In recent times we have discovered much of the contribution of woman during the wars, that had been unknown previously, like Bletchley Park. These forward- thinking, talented women give us a larger picture, not more emotional but more human of the history of the time and they deserve our gratitude for doing this.

War Artists -WW1 and WW2

I wrote my design degree thesis on the second world, and spent a great deal of time at the Imperial War Museum and the Colindale Newspaper Library. Its always been a time of history that has interested me greatly, my grandparents talked a great deal about the WW2 period, though this was only six years it affected generations for their entire life-times. Armistice Day, having just taken place on the 11th of November becomes more poignant as fewer veterans remain from this era each year.

Artists have depicted battle scenes from earliest civilisation onwards and in more recent wars such as the Boer and Crimea war, they were deployed by newspapers to illustrate the ongoing warfare to their readers. In Britain, official government-sponsored schemes were established for artists to record both the First and Second World Wars. The Imperial War Museum has also continued to commission artists to record the events of war in more recent conflicts.

It was with the outbreak of World War I that war art was first officially commissioned by the government. The British Commission was introduced in September 1914 to commission and purchase art to create a record of the war.  Officially appointed artists such as: Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash, Christopher Richard Nevinson, John Singer Sargent and Sir Stanley Spencer were required to work in a more traditional style despite being some of the most avant-garde, British artists of the day, so that the public could easily understand the artwork. Although it was initially started for propaganda purposes, it evolved into a memorialising scheme where artists explored every aspect of the conflict.  Some artists were seconded from active service while others were either commissioned into uniform as War Correspondents or attached to the Intelligence Department or the Department of Information. The average stay at the Front for an artist was one month and all work was censored, although artists were free to exhibit their work. (Usually only after approval)

Most of the work acquired by the Commission was eventually housed in the Imperial War Museum, established by an Act of Parliament in 1917.  Who were given the task of collecting all kinds of material documenting the war. As well as providing a documentation of all wartime activities much of the work produced by war artists remains important as art in its own right.

During the Second World War, a more structured approach to official picture collecting was taken when the War Artists Advisory Committee, chaired by Sir Kenneth Clark, was established. The WAAC included representatives from all three of the Armed Services and the wartime Ministries. Officially, the purpose of the Committee was propaganda. Art exhibitions were organised in Britain and America both to raise morale and promote Britain’s image abroad. As part of the Ministry of Information, art was not commissioned which would show a negative view of the population’s reaction to the war. Therefore, there were no artistic records of looting or riots. Sir Clark’s generation had been marked by the deaths of many artists and writers in the First World War, and it was also hoped that by keeping artists usefully employed the scheme might prevent a new generation of British artists from being killed as soldiers, although they had to still face much danger.

Over 300 artists were commissioned and 5,570 works of art produced. The pictures collected were exhibited in London and in shows both nationally and internationally. When the committee was dissolved in December 1946, after the war had ended, one third of the collection was allocated to the Imperial War Museum and the rest was distributed to museums and galleries across the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.

NB: Although several female artists were approached either by the British War Memorials Committee or the Ministry of Information, none of them actually completed commissions for the official schemes. So, I will write a separate blog on Women artists during WW2, as they were still active.

There was some opposition to the scheme from the armed forces who saw the War Artists Advisory Committee as removing responsibility for war art from the control of the War Office and the Admiralty. However, a compromise was reached, with four artists being allocated to the War Office and one for the Admiralty, who would also pay their salaries. The War Artists Advisory Committee had a say in the selection of the work and maintained full control of any work produced.

Many artists took part in the scheme and some of the most notable were: Roland Vivian Pitchforth, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, Harold Sandys Williamson, Eric Ravilious, Frederick T.W. Cook and Anthony Grossad, who spent almost 20 years as an artist in France.

Before, during and after the invasion of Normandy on 6 June 1944, artists were in the thick of the activity, observing and recording the campaign. A war artist creates a visual account of the impact of war by showing how men and women are waiting, preparing, fighting, suffering and often destroyed. Although the camera has replaced the artist more and more as a recording medium. The artists bring a level of emotion and connection with the scenes that you just don’t really get from a photograph however good.

Eric Kennington was employed as a British official war artist in both world wars. His vivid style of portraiture, very much suited what the Air Ministry aimed to achieve. An admiration for the actions of his subjects was reflected in his work often giving them an air of Hollywood glamour with youthful handsomeness or a steely gaze, resplendent and dashing in a blue RAF uniform. This helped to reinforce the image of British fighter pilots, as self-sacrificing heroes, one that the Air Ministry was keen to promote. Over a hundred RAF portraits were produced before resigning his commission in September 1942.

Artists like Edward Ardizzone, were perceptive observers of people in their environments. His gentle drawing style, humanised the events of the war, instead of creating epic war pictures, he concentrated on everyday heroics. His focus on ordinary people coping in adversity meant mass audiences could relate to his work. His war drawings were therefore highly effective propaganda in terms of raising public morale.

War art Commissions did not cease with the ending of World War II. Artists have still been employed to record scenes of all the conflicts involving British Forces subsequent to 1946 and up to the present time. The Imperial War Museum, holds the largest collection, if you are interested in finding out more, see their website.

I think often the importance of art in history is under-estimated and the role it still plays in our modern life’s. Particularly, as artists are currently badly affected on many levels. Art has the ability to change the emotions of the viewer in a way that very few things can, even the written word.