The art that emerged from the First World War provided a window into all corners of the conflict. Artists adapted their techniques to produce quick, spontaneous sketches of enduring historical importance, often risking their own lives to document the human experience of war.

It is difficult to imagine how anyone trying to survive on the front lines of war, could feel compelled to create art in such a volatile and inhospitable environment. And yet, the volume and complexity of artistic expression that emerged during the First World War was unprecedented. 

Many artworks of this period of conflict are on display in IWM London's Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries. These works provide a fascinating insight into one of the most catastrophic wars on record. 

But exactly how close to the action did war artists get and how were they able to sketch and paint in the midst of the chaos of war? We invited professional artist Gareth Reid, winner of Sky Arts' Portrait Artist of the Year, to visit IWM London to find out more about war artists and to produce several sketches in a reproduction trench, inspired by artists who worked near the front line.

How artists sketched on the front line

© IWM

Voice over: " It’s hard to imagine how any human being, trying to survive on the front lines of a war, could feel compelled to create art in such a volatile and inhospitable environment. Bullets and bombs don’t discriminate between those brandishing rifles and those wielding pencils. And yet, the volume and complexity of artistic expression that emerged during the First World War was unprecedented. The conflict took place at one of the most creative moments in art history, providing fascinating insights into one of the deadliest wars on record. Even to this day, war artists are still being commissioned and the role continues to be viewed as a crucial means of understanding how conflict is experienced. But it was the early war artists that laid the groundwork, often risking their own lives to document the human experience of war.

But exactly how close to the action did war artists get? Did they always paint the truth? How were they able to sketch and paint in the midst of the chaos and carnage? And could any of us do it? We invited professional artist Gareth Reid to visit the Imperial War Museum London to find out more about war artists. After winning Sky Arts ‘Portrait Artist of the Year’, he was commissioned to paint high profile figures such as Graham Norton and King Charles III. During his visit he’ll be challenged to produce several sketches inspired by artists who worked near, or on, the front line."

Gareth Reid: "So the paint brushes of John Nash."

Voice over: "And he’ll be investigating what life might have been like for artists serving in the trenches of the First World War. Later, he’ll have a go at sketching soldiers in a reproduction trench and we’ll reveal all his sketches at the end of the video. But first, Gareth has special access to see some artefacts up close. Some of these sketchbooks are over 100 years old and are so precious, that they can only be handled in dim lighting."

Gareth Reid: "When you look at something that somebody has made, in a concentration camp or in a trench or something. You just get a closer, more intimate connection with them I think. I think you see them in a different way."

Voice over: "Sketchbooks offer a glimpse into the artist's creative process, ideas and experiments, as well as the artistic trends of the era. They can give valuable historical, political and cultural insights into a given period."

Gareth Reid: "Yes, so the paint brushes of John Nash. Brush tip has been used to within an inch of its life. It's obviously gone through a lot. I love seeing materials like that that have been actually held by the artist. It's a strange feeling."

Voice over: "Paul and John Nash were brothers who both served in the First World War and became official war artists. Paul Nash was known for his experimental and symbolic style, whereas John Nash favoured realism in his depictions of landscapes, trench warfare and the daily lives of soldiers. Both left a powerful legacy in the world of British art. 72 war artists were employed during the First World War, and a further 89, who were attached to serving forces, also contributed work to the official scheme. Some of the most well known war artists of the First World War include Stanley Spencer, Wyndham Lewis, Sir William Orpen, Muirhead Bone, Nevinson, as well as John and Paul Nash."

Gareth Reid: "Okay. Yeah, I recognise this. These are studies for Oppy Wood. These are both by John Nash. A kind of war-torn, what used to be a forest, I think. The trees are basically decimated, the forest is decimated. I love seeing preparatory work for a painting. I almost prefer these to the painting because you can see how the painter's brain is working, how they kinda develop and move things around. This is a bit more expressive and this is more like a structured real preparatory drawing. This could be from life. He’s trying to record what's actually going on. This is more focussed on the landscape. I think mine will be more focussed on the figure. I suppose there's an atmosphere in these, a kind of brooding atmosphere which would be quite interesting to try and replicate.

Yeah this is really quite a precise, final preparatory sketch because it's squared off. The final painting would look pretty much like a facsimile of this, except larger. He was probably seeing droves and droves of people being killed, kind of uselessly and trying to show how commonplace and mundane it had become and futile it was I think. That’s the sense I get from it, trudging towards their doom. Yeah, I've really loved looking at all of them, each one has been really interesting and it's given me a lot to think about."

Voice over: "Inspired by the treasures within the Imperial War Museum archives, Gareth now heads to the other side of the museum, to see the completed works in the new art gallery."

Gareth Reid: "I would recommend people sketching in a sketchbook at an art gallery or if you give them prior notice, you can sit and paint as well. I suppose you notice things a bit more, if you're standing observing actively as opposed to just kind of cursory look over it. It just helps me remember the little bits that I think are good about a painting that I can try and bring into my own work. It just really helps you kind of crystallise what you like. Soldier’s going over the top. Everyone, like, trudging towards their death. Soldier’s have kind of got the same face, pretty much."

Voice over: "John Nash was posted to the Western Front in November 1916. On 30th December 1917, Nash’s unit was hastily ordered to go over the top into no man's land. His unit suffered heavy losses and Nash hid in a crater in No Man’s Land, until he could get to safety."

Oral history interviewer: "So ‘Over the Top’ you count as being the most significant of your First World War pictures?"

John Nash: "Yes I do. Second World War paintings were really more commissioned, First World War paintings were the result of actual vivid experience."

Voice over: "John Nash completed ‘Over the Top’ in June 1918. He completed ‘Oppy Wood’ the same year.  He shared a makeshift studio inside a herb drying shed with his brother Paul, who at the same time, was commencing work on one of his most famous paintings, ‘The Menin Road’."

Gareth Reid: "So in this painting, there's almost like a tiny little paintings, within the huge painting. It works with one big composition. Here, just a vertical mark making and this just a completely non-naturalistic wave pattern. This becomes a really dense, kind of intricately woven linear bit. Lots of different colours in those big plain areas. And then here becomes impasto scraped in, just to show the roughness of the concrete. Often when I'm in a gallery and I see something like that, things that I wouldn't have thought about myself, I just take a little note, you know, it's only like a two minute thing and then forget about it forever (LAUGHS) no I’m supposed to go back and remind myself of it."

Voice over: "Gareth is meeting Rebecca Newell, Head of Art at IWM, to learn more about the Nash brothers."

Rebecca Newell: " "Hi, Gareth."

Gareth Reid: "Hi. How are you doing?"

Rebecca Newell: "Good."

Gareth Reid: "Thanks for meeting me. So we saw the preparatory drawings for this. So I was just wondering if you could tell me a bit more about it."

Rebecca Newell: "Absolutely. So this is Paul Nash's Menin Road, First World War painting, painted in 1919. And it's a work that really displays his kind of potential as a war artist in full by this point."

Voice over: "Paul Nash was sent to Ypres in February 1917, but he was injured and sent home. Whilst recuperating, he created twenty drawings from sketches made in the trenches."

Gareth Reid: "So if a lot the work was commissioned by the government, so they didn't mind it looking horrific?  I get the sense that none of it is glorified."

Rebecca Newell: "Though propaganda, morale was part of the government agenda absolutely, artists were also given quite an open brief. They were asked to record the war. That is an extremely freeing brief compared to the generation before. And he was so war weary. By the time he was invalided out, he'd kind of started to see the futility and see the kind of enormous toll and loss of the war. You can see it in this work. There's a sense that the material of war becomes part of this natural landscape, that there's almost no difference between these man-made destructive elements and the natural churn of the mud and the trees."

Gareth Reid: "But also little lyrical bits in it, which kind of contrast to it, the pools and reflections kind of echo the corrugated iron and stuff and the desolation and destruction. I was saying when I saw the preparatory drawings, I often prefer them, but I think in this case, this is way more effective in just conveying just the-"

Rebecca Newell: "The totality."

Gareth Reid: "Yeah. You’re definitely ‘in it’. So the preparatory sketches - is it possible they would have been done just in situ on the front line in the trenches?"

Rebecca Newell: "Yeah I think it is very likely. We can see the kind of visceral and first-hand experience coming through in these paintings. We understand the Nash brothers as soldier-artists, who were there in situ sketching on the front line. We're talking about trench life, extremely busy, risk filled days of open conflict and huge loss of men around them, extreme conditions. I think it's really interesting to think about, you know, the making of work within that context. Sketching in rare moments of rest. And then these paintings were created a couple of years later back in the studio in Britain."

Gareth Reid: "It must be strange, as well, drawing while soldiers around you are going over the top."

Rebecca Newell: "Yeah. So we’ve challenged you to create some drawings during your visit and during your exploration of the material, so how has that been going?"

Gareth Reid: "Yeah, good. It’s been going well, it's been enjoyable. It's been a while since I've done that kind of thing. So…"

Rebecca Newell: "Fantastic, I can’t wait to see the results."

Gareth Reid: "Good". 

Voice over: "But to really get a sense of what war artists in the FWW dealt with, Gareth is about to enter a mock trench at IWM, London, and there’s a surprise waiting for him around the corner. "

Gareth Reid: "Okay, Wow. Ok, so you obviously wouldn't have chairs or anything. So you'd have to kind of sit on the ground or crouch like this, I suppose would be the best way of doing it. The shadows are unbelievable. OK so. I suppose it’s like a kinda slightly intimidating space. It’s quite hard and desolate and cold. Obviously the real trenches would have been absolutely horrific. I wouldn't even presume that it gets even one iota close to what people actually experienced. But war artists must have endured a very tough time, I would say. Cold, wet, people dead, limbs everywhere. Just fear. Awful. Yeah, terrible. I can't even imagine."

Voice over: "The real trenches of the First World War presented several challenges for artists, who risked injury and death, to record what they saw in real time. There were constant threats from artillery bombardment and enemy fire and visibility could be limited by smoke, darkness and winding trench formations. Artists soon learnt to sketch quickly. Lightweight and portable art equipment, such as pencils, travel watercolour sets and charcoal, were used and carried in their haversacks. Sometimes soldiers used branches, mud and foliage to camouflage themselves and their positions."

Oral history - Adrian Hill: "I had to find somewhere, and if I didn’t, I leant up against something. So I was drawing either sanding, or sitting on the ground or lying on the ground sometimes. We seemed to have appalling weather there, that I was working with a liquid pencil and a liquid paper and I’d think, ‘Oh God, I’ll never make anything of this’."

Gareth Reid: "Yeah, let’s get Ben in as well? Ben! The challenge is the discomfort, sheer discomfort of being in a difficult position."

Voice over: "Gareth only has 45 minutes of sketching time in the trench, but he’s hoping to complete several drawings. To make matters even more challenging, his models can only hold their poses for a few minutes at a time. The gear worn by infantrymen in the First World War was notoriously heavy and cumbersome, and the webbing alone could weigh around four and a half stone."

Gareth Reid: "I’m trying to get all the little bits of uniform and kit but I would kind of draw quickly in a more linear way moving away from tone. But it's essentially a line drawing, yeah you don't lift your pencil off the paper. It's a fairly decent strategy for drawing something quick - I think it’s a good way for somebody learning how to draw, because it makes them less precious about getting it right first time. I always close one eye, when I’m looking, it kind of flattens the shape, makes it a bit easier to see when you eliminate depth."

Voice over: "Gareth is keen to try a pose inspired by a Nash painting."

Gareth Reid: "Can you maybe stand up this time and point your gun over the trench?"

Voice over: "The two World War One reenactors have really helped set the scene for Gareth, but some poses are proving particularly difficult to maintain."

Gareth Reid: (Laughs) "It’s a heavy piece! Right, two seconds, I’ll be as fast as I can. Nearly there, nearly there."

Voice over: "Gareth is also having to contend with low light and sketching in an uncomfortable position."

Gareth Reid: Yeah, it’s just the crouching position. I’m getting old. Can’t hold that position for very long."

Voice over: "There’s just time to make the final finishing touches, as the trench sketching session is coming to an end. But how did Gareth get on?"

Gareth Reid: "I just think that's quite an extreme achievement for them to be able to produce work and be in that environment. It's always inspirational, but there's sometimes an element of being slightly depressing because you’re like ‘ah, can’t’, you can't, it's kind of unattainable. But that's a healthy mix, cos you’re kind of looking above yourself. I'd say I probably did about ten sketches during the whole visit, I think. We had a WW1 reenactor - I had him in the trench for a couple of drawings, it was quite interesting seeing him in context, capturing little moments, that kind of thing. We had George sitting beside a cannon and sitting reading, some kind of down time. Then a few sketches of little bits of paintings that I found interesting that I might want to use in other paintings of mine.

I've really enjoyed the visit here because I love seeing things kind of close up and especially preparatory work and sketchbooks and notebooks, that kind of thing. And then seeing how that leads onto the bigger works that you're used to seeing in galleries. I think it's been a great challenge. I've really enjoyed it. So thank you."

Voice over: "The art that emerged from the First World War provided a window into all corners of the conflict, complementing written accounts. Artists adapted their techniques to produce quick, spontaneous sketches of enduring historical importance and faced great danger to help ensure the sacrifices of the fallen were not forgotten."

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a landscape in the snow. On the left, a red earth trench lined with duckboards stretches away from the viewer. A group of soldiers clamber from the trench, going 'over the top'. Two lie dead in the trench and another has fallen lying face down in the snow. Those who have survived plod forward towards the right without looking back. They walk beneath a grey, stormy sky, with clouds from shell and gunfire in the distance.
© IWM Art.IWM ART (1656)
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Art.IWM ART 1460 © Factum Foundation for Imperial War Museums

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© IWM Art.IWM ART (2243)
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Three officers stand to the left of the composition beside a pile of ammunition boxes. Each looks in a different direction. One has his back to the viewer and looks out over the scene of the painting. There are marionette-like figures moving over broken ground, amongst the huts and shattered trees. Streams of stylised smoke erupts from incoming shells and spreads across the sky.
© Art.IWM ART (2747)
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The view over a desolate landscape with shattered trees, the earth a mass of shell holes. The sun hangs high in the sky, beams of light shining down through heavy, earth-coloured clouds.
© IWM Art.IWM ART (1146)
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a view of the Asiago Plateau in the Italian Alps. The ground is completely covered by snow, with a single wooden cross marking a grave in the left foreground. There are several small rocky ledges in the foreground and many trees in the middle distance, including a dense forest towards the left. On the horizon are the slopes and peaks of the mountains.
© IWM (Art.IWM ART 2455)
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Four visitors take in artwork in the BAFP galleries
© IWM
Permanent Display

Blavatnik Art, Film and Photography Galleries

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