Protecting IWM's artworks during the Second World War meant taking risks and making big decisions
With the threat of war around the corner, staff at the IWM knew that London was a target. As the threat to the museum’s 4,000 First World War-related paintings, sculpture and drawings grew by the day, a decision was made – to move a selection of artworks and photographs to somewhere safe.
Featuring some of the best known artists of the day, just 281 works of art and 305 albums of photos were chosen for evacuation to the country homes of three of the museum's trustees - a mere 7% of the art collection and less than 1% of our overall collection.
Explore a selection of the works below.
CRW Nevinson, 1917
With a title taken from a line in Thomas Gray’s poem ‘Elegy Written In a country Church-Yard,’ Paths of Glory, this graphic depiction of death during war became one of war artist CRW Nevinson’s most famous paintings.
Face down in mud, barbed wire tangled around their bodies, the indignity of the dead British soldiers proved too much for some. Three months before an exhibition of Nevinson’s work opened, the authorities banned it. He went ahead and included it anyway, complete with the word ‘censored’ written across it.
Reprimanded for this act of defiance, Nevinson was more than compensated by the publicity surrounding the show.
Paul Nash, 1918
As a serving soldier, artist Paul Nash’s paintings often provided a unique insight into the First World War. Modernist images of the trenches were uncompromising, and loaded with the realism of first-hand experience.
In 1917, Nash was a Second Lieutenant in Ypres, a fact made obvious by the intimate details of this painting: sentries in a trench, startled by the white light of the exploding shells above, are set against the backdrop of mud, blackened trees, and barbed wire.
Randolph Schwabe, 1918
This painting provides a snapshot of workers in the Women’s Land Army, alongside male, German prisoners.
Painted by renowned British artist, Randolph Schwabe, the figures in the painting evoke classical sculpture poses, which lends them an air of dignity and strength.
Unable to enlist in the army during the First World War because of poor health, Schwabe became an official war artist, focusing on homefront scenes of the Women’s Land Army.
In 1918, the IWM commissioned artist Frank Dobson to paint the balloon aprons that hovered high above Kynochs munitions factory next to the Thames Estuary. Constructed using three balloons, 500 yards apart and joined by heavy, steel cable, they had been installed as apron screens to snare enemy aircraft. Although no foreign planes were caught in the nets, they were forced to fly higher, which reduced their bombing capabilities and made them more vulnerable to attack.
Unfortunately, the conventionally-minded Air Force committee failed to see the merits of Dobson’s view of the aprons across the flat agricultural landscape and the idea for a picture was dropped.
James McBey, 1918
Captured wearing middle-Eastern clothing, this portrait by McBey was painted from life after meeting Lawrence during the war. McBey quashed any doubt about the authenticity of their meeting by including the place and date on the painting itself.
Donald Maxwell, 1918
Donald Maxwell painted this view of the harbour at Baghdad, including British naval ships moored on the far side of the harbour, for the Imperial War Museum. Scenes of the Middle East, such as the local fishermen in the foreground of this painting and the cityscape in the background, would have seemed exotic to British eyes at the time.
A London-born artist, Maxwell began his career as an illustrator and became the marine artist-correspondent for the popular illustrated newspaper, The Graphic. During the First World War he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve, and was then commissioned by the IWM to travel throughout Italy and the Middle East producing naval related artwork.
John Lavery, 1918
Born in Belfast in 1856, John Lavery trained in Glasgow and Paris. He was a celebrated painter, known mostly for his portraits. With the outbreak of the First World War, Lavery started painting war related subjects and even tried to join the Artists Rifles Regiment, despite being over age.
As an official war artist, Lavery painted mostly naval subjects. His large and dramatic painting of a convoy in the North Sea shows the view from an NS class airship, where the artist himself was positioned. The British airships were developed to carry out long-range anti-submarine patrols and convoy escorts.
Sheltering from the Turkish artillery shells raining from above, this Henry Lamb painting shows vulnerable Irish troops on a hillside during an attack. Caught by surprise, some run for cover while others take the risk of rescuing injured comrades.
Lamb was an artist with medical training who went on to serve as a medical officer with the 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers during the First World War. This particular painting depicts his time in Palestine.
William Orpen, 1919
This painting of the signing of the peace treaty which put an end to the First World War features everyone from Britain’s David Lloyd George and America’s Woodrow Wilson to India’s Sir Ganga Singh and France’s Georges Clemenceau.
Dwarfed by their palatial surroundings, however, Orpen’s painting depicts the allied politicians of the day as secondary to the architecture. Their supposedly ordered world is distorted and broken by the mirrors behind them.
Sydney William Carline, 1920
During the First World War, the IWM employed Sydney Carline as an official war artist, specifically to capture aerial warfare.
This painting offers a sky-high view of the gorge of the Wadi Fara and the activity taking place below. Several aircraft hover between puffs of anti-aircraft fire as they attack the road, crowded with men, animals and trucks, beneath them.
On February 14, 1919, Carline wrote that he had ‘made a couple of drawings,’ following a walk to the Wadi Fara, ‘commonly known as the Valley of Death.’