The evacuation from Dunkirk on the French coast was hailed in Britain as an extraordinary achievement and the ‘little ships of Dunkirk’ swiftly entered the mythology of wartime brave deeds.
British soldiers wade out to a waiting destroyer off Dunkirk during the evacuation.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk on a destroyer about to berth at Dover, 31 May 1940.
Troops evacuated from Dunkirk enjoying tea and other refreshments at Addison Road station in London, 31 May 1940.
Some of the 'little ships' used during the evacuation of Dunkirk being towed back along the River Thames past Tower Bridge, 9 June 1940.
German forces moved into Dunkirk hours after the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force. Here German officers inspect a memorial on the sea front at Dunkirk.
In Battle of Britain Paul Nash, one of Britain’s best-known artists, presents an epitome of RAF Fighter Command's successful struggle against the Luftwaffe in 1940. RAF fighters sweep along the English Channel to break up advancing Luftwaffe formations in a summer sky filled with vapour trails, parachutes, balloons and cloud. The painting is an imaginative summary of the event rather than a literal one; Nash favours symbolism and allegory over factual accuracy.
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At the instigation of Sir Kenneth Clark, then Director of the National Gallery, the Ministry of Information established the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) in 1939.
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 Departments...to 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. 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.
However, 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 unparalled 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.
An Escalator in an Underground Factory, 1944, by Frank Dobson. At the height of the Blitz in November 1940, Plessey, a manufacturing company with vital expertise in radio and aircraft equipment, took over a two-mile section of newly constructed tunnels of the London Underground in order to maintain production. The 2,000 workers had to use the stairs at the intended stations to access the tunnel system. The descending figures give a sense of the strength of purpose and spirit amongst the workers.
Convalescent Nurses Making Camouflage Nets, 1941, by Evelyn Dunbar. Evelyn Dunbar was commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee to paint the experiences of the Women's Land Army, the Auxiliary Territorial Service and the nursing services. This example depicts nurses of St Thomas's Hospital, which had been evacuated to Pyrford in Surrey, working on camouflage netting.
Shipbuilding on the Clyde: The Furnaces, 1946, by Stanley Spencer. Stanley Spencer received a commission from War Artists Advisory Committee to record the shipbuilding industry on the Clyde in Port Glasgow. Furnaces, which was completed March 1946, is the centrepiece of the resulting series of paintings. Spencer was fascinated by the skills of the shipyard workers, focusing here on a scene of teamwork: hot metal is drawn from the furnace to be shaped on the workshop floor.
Human Laundry, Belsen: April 1945, by Doris Zinkeisen. Doris Zinkeisen was commissioned by the Red Cross to paint the work of doctors and nurses in north-west Europe. She witnessed the aftermath of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945. The 'Human Laundry' was set up to combat the spread of typhus when transferring the liberated camp inmates to the hospital. Zinkeisen's painting presents an uneasy juxtaposition of well-fed German nurses washing the emaciated bodies of former camp inmates.
The Control-room at South West Regional Headquarters, Bristol, 1940, by John Piper. John Piper was commissioned in April 1940 to undertake 'a series of pictures of Air Raid Precaution control rooms'. He was taken to see the ARP headquarters in Bristol. The strange lighting, graphics and colours created a modernist, almost brutal space which bore some affinity to the theatrical sets Piper had been designing before the war. Piper increases their abstract qualities by breaking down perspective but retains an eye for their functional importance.
HMS Ark Royal in Action, 1940, by Eric Ravilious. Eric Ravilious was one of the first official war artists commissioned in 1940. He initially worked on naval themes and then on RAF subjects. He was reported missing in action during an air-sea rescue mission in 1942. Ravilious's depiction of HMS Ark Royal firing its guns is not just a wonderful piece of design that plays with the light and sound of fireworks; it also captures the frozen terror of the firepower of the weaponry.
Recruit's Progress: Medical Inspection, 1942, by Carel Weight. The first of a series of four paintings, Recruit's Progress shows how, in wartime, individual uncertainties were pushed to the limits in the face of public need. The painting was also a reflection of Weight's own experiences. On the right a new recruit, all unease and squirming, attempts to talk his way out of the inspection. Officialdom, represented by the bored medical officer, ignores the embarrassment of the new recruits.
A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4, 1940, by Leonard Rosoman. The horrific scene in Shoe Lane in the City of London was one that Rosoman witnessed, while himself working as a fireman. The falling wall trails chaos and disorder in its wake, its own rigid structure about to break and kill the firemen still clutching their hoses. Rosoman later expressed dissatisfaction with the painting as an over-literal response, but the effect on the viewer is still powerful and intensely disconcerting.
The City: A fallen lift shaft, 1941, by Graham Sutherland. Graham Sutherland's painting captures a bomb-damaged area of London just north of St Paul's Cathedral. A lift shaft is the only thing remaining of a large building. Described by Sutherland as an eerie, foul-smelling, deserted wasteland, this was a scene which he explored with growing confidence during the Blitz.