The Secret Purpose Of The War Artists Advisory Committee

By Ulrike Smalley

The Ministry of Information established the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) in 1939, prompted by Sir Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery.

The WAAC met at the National Gallery once a month. Clark chaired the Committee, whose brief was 'to draw up a list of artists qualified to record the war at home and abroad. In co-operation with the Services Departments, and other Government advise on the selection of artists on this list for war purposes and on the arrangements for their employment'.

Officially at least, 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.

The WAAC had another aim. 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. Despite these efforts, three artists, Eric Ravilious, Thomas Hennell and Albert Richards, were killed during the Second World War.

Clark gave his personal support to an eclectic range of modern painters. Through direct commissions but also acquisition of works offered to them, the WAAC accumulated a significant collection which covers an incredible range of wartime subjects at home and abroad.

At the end of the war, the collection consisted of 5,570 works, over half of which are held by IWM.