Edward Ardizzone (1900 - 1979) is one of the most enduringly popular of the artists commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) in the Second World War, as well as being one of the longest serving. Born in 1900, at Haiphong, Tonking, Indo-China, to Italian and Scottish parents, Ardizzone came to England when he was five. During the 1930s he was best known for his illustrations in the Radio Times and in children’s books, so was perhaps a surprising choice as official war artist. However, during the Second World War he travelled more widely in Britain and Europe than any other war artist, documenting his experiences in both drawings and diaries which today are kept by IWM.
Ardizzone’s intimate, gently humorous drawing style made him able to humanise the events of the war through his work. Instead of creating epic war pictures, he concentrated on everyday heroics, applying his illustrator’s knowledge of standard poses and characters to the scenarios that he drew. His focus on ordinary people coping in adversity meant mass audiences could understand and relate to his characters. His war drawings were therefore highly effective propaganda in terms of raising public morale. Today his work still resonates for many, evoking a gentle and comforting portrayal of British national identity during the Second World War.
The ‘Phoney War’, France, March 1940
Edward Ardizzone began to work full-time for the War Office from 1940. His first commission was to follow the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France and record their activities. During this period of the so-called 'Phoney War’, Ardizzone found little to record in terms of combat activity. His drawings show the routines of army life: drills, passing time in mess rooms, eating and drinking, as well as the incongruity of the presence of British troops within the local French culture.
Mass retreat of the British Expeditionary Force, May 1940
The ‘Phoney War’ came to a dramatic end when Germany launched attacks on France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg on 10 May. Ardizzone found himself caught up with the mass retreat of the BEF through Belgium. His drawings along the way are among the bleakest of his wartime output, showing the devastation wrought on towns such as Louvain (Leuven) in Belgium, which formed part of the BEF’s frontline before the retreat.
Return to the UK, 1940
Ardizzone was evacuated to England from Boulogne in late May 1940 and was immediately reassigned to work with Southern Command, documenting the rather peaceful everyday activities of service personnel in the UK at the time. This situation changed following the first German air attacks in the autumn of 1940, and Ardizzone was transferred to the War Office at the request of the Ministry of Information’s Director-General to record air raid subjects.
These everyday scenes of shelter life in London became the most well-known of Ardizzone’s wartime output. He sketched these at the scene, unlike his overseas drawings, which were sourced from notes and memory as he generally felt uncomfortable drawing in public. Recording the boredom, patience and stoicism of the people during the Blitz, Ardizzone’s drawings evoke a reassuring mood of calm in turbulent times.
Life on the Home Front, 1941
Ardizzone travelled around Scotland in early 1941 to record activity there and this drawing - possibly set in Glasgow - indicates the level of industry and activity brought to British towns by the war. In the foreground, two women in factory overalls give a friendly acknowledgement to a passing man, exemplifying a common theme of Ardizzone’s work - his observations of relations between men and women.
The Home Guard, 1941
This drawing is a typical Ardizzone portrayal of the interactions between men and women. The subject is the newly established Home Guard, or ‘Dad’s Army’. The cheery tone shows great affection for the elder men: here their gaze towards the younger woman passer-by is intended as a reassuring sign that all is at it should be.The area of Maida Vale in London was also very familiar to the artist, as the Ardizzone family had lived there since 1920.
Arrival in Cairo, 1942
In March 1942, the WAAC sent Ardizzone to the Middle East. He arrived in Cairo during preparations for General Montgomery’s offensive at El Alamein, 23 October and, sensing the moment, decided to stay rather than travel on. Attached to the Eighth Army, he adapted extremely well to military life and made many friends especially among war correspondents, enabling him access to transport and networks that he required. However, his work continued to depict the fringes of the action and common themes continued to be street scenes and views of troops at rest.
A window into army life overseas, 1942-1943
During his travels, Ardizzone periodically sent his drawings home to the WAAC, who were regularly showing work by the war artists at the National Gallery. In 1943 they devoted an entire wall to Ardizzone’s pictures, including many from his time in North Africa. Ardizzone and other war artists such as Anthony Gross, Edward Bawden, Thomas Hennell, Carel Weight and Leslie Cole gave home audiences a sense of what life was like for British troops overseas.
Invasion of Sicily, 1943
In 1943 Ardizzone understood that an invasion of Europe was imminent and, with the help of his friends in the 50th division, landed at Sicily in July of that year. His experience there was very different to that of Egypt, as this drawing demonstrates. He witnessed close-quarter fighting and the bleak aftermath of war. Battle in an Orchard of Almond Trees in Sicily is a rare example of his wartime work which shows corpses. Ardizzone acknowledged that his style was not so suited to scenes of violence and even less so to places that had been deserted of people entirely. He tended to focus on the gentle and more humorous aspects of the subjects in his drawings.
After Sicily, Ardizzone travelled on through Italy with the Eighth Army. However, in March 1944, the Admiralty asked the WAAC if they could have him ‘on loan’ from the War Office. In April 1944 he flew from Naples to Algiers in order to board a ship back to the UK. The Committee’s minutes of the following month note that arrangements had been made for him to paint ‘coming events’. On 11 June 1944 he boarded an LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry) headed to Normandy. This is one of the drawings he made during the crossing.
The Surrender of Germany, 1945
Ardizzone eventually returned to Italy, arriving back in Naples in early September 1944. He continued to travel around, reaching Rimini at the time of its fall and going on to visit Forli, Cesena, Riccione, Rome, Florence and Ravenna. In February 1945, he flew to join the British Army in Germany and recorded the closing months of the war there. His drawings show the devastation of the country and its people, interspersed with jovial scenes of the British troops. Here weary and defeated German soldiers make their way along a tree-lined road.
He returned to the UK in May 1945, sending his last works to the Committee in August. By this time, the WAAC had collected almost 400 of his works, a number exceeded by only one other artist, Anthony Gross.