• Art
  • Age 9 to 11 (KS2)
  • Age 11 to 14 (KS3)

Did you know that artists play an essential role in war efforts?

Join IWM experts Becky and Paris as they share real life stories of artists, and the invaluable role they played during the Second World War. War artists didn’t just paint scenes on the battlefield, they also captured everyday life and showed how ordinary people’s lives were shaped by war.

Subscribe to our YouTube channel to be the first to see more of our Adventures in History films. 

Painting Life

Part of the Adventures in History series created during the UK lockdown in Spring 2020.

[Rebecca] Hello and welcome to Adventures in History: Painting Life.  

[Paris] We're always trying to look for interesting stories about the works of art in our museum. That might be about the people who made them, the people that we see in them, or the people that gave them to the museum. 

[Rebecca] In this episode we're going to explore the town and the countryside - as it comes down to us in Imperial War Museum's art collection.  

[Paris] Imperial War Museums has asked us to share some of these stories about the museum's collection with you.  

[Rebecca] We're also going to think about how people adapt even when times are tough wherever they live whether that be the town or the countryside. I'm Rebecca and I'm an art curator at Imperial War Museums  

[Paris] And I'm Paris and I'm also an art curator I do a very similar job, but I'm based at Imperial War Museum Duxford in Cambridgeshire. I love my job as I get to tell people about things that they might not know about. 

[Rebecca] I usually work in IWM London in Lambeth, in the heart of the city and that suits me because I'm a real town mouse. Stories of the town and the city are so connected to the stories of the museum and the stories of conflict in this country and our art collection shows these connections.  

We're going to share with you some of our favourites from the Second World War era. Did you know that artists can help us see things in new ways? What do I mean by that? Well, there are many ways that we understand how war and conflict look. You may be able to think of some. We see images on the news on the TV and we see images in magazines and newspapers.  

Well, during the Second World War this was broadly the same and people followed news of conflicts by looking at pictures. But did you know that the government also asked artists to help us record what was going on and to record what that experience really felt like? This still happens today, and we call those artists ‘war artists’.  

Roland Pitchforth was an artist who was chosen by the Government to be an Official War Artist. He was a painter and an art teacher at a university, and he was chosen by the Government because he was really good at capturing what he saw around him and especially the damage to London during the Second World War.  

Roland painted this scene in 1943. (Image on screen of a painting outside Trafalgar Square) Take a closer look can you see where it is? Well, let's have a think. Well, we can see some trees and some big buildings. I might even be able to glimpse a double decker red bus. Take a look at the left-hand side can you see a lion statue? Does that give you a clue? Well, you'll be able to guess it from the title which is Wings for Victory Week: Trafalgar Square, London WC2. So that's right, your bang in the middle of London here in Trafalgar Square.  

It's strange isn't it to have a Lancaster bomber on display in the middle of the city? Our communities have changed a bit recently too - what changes have you noticed?  

This was a very special celebration and people would come together from all over to celebrate this Wings for Victory Week. Well, what was the Wings for Victory Week? It was a week-long commemoration of the efforts of the Royal Air Force. Everyone from all sorts of corners of the UK had been asked to raise money for aircraft, for pilots, for ground crew and all sorts of people who had been fighting the mission in the air. That's why you can see a Lancaster bomber on display. People were fascinated by aircraft and here people were able to see it really up close for the first time. People had been asked to donate whatever they could spare towards the effort and Roland, the artist, probably realized that this was a really momentous moment.  

He got his paints and drawing utensils out and he found a vantage point again that's very unusual and quite high up. I wonder where he was? Maybe in an upstairs of a block of flats? You can just imagine the hustle and bustle and noise of the crowd as Roland grabbed his utensils to capture it. People would come from far and wide and were really fascinated with the aircraft both men and women had had a hand in making the aircraft, but very few people had really been able to see one. Remember they'd only really been in existence for a couple of decades.  

[Paris] Do you know what a Barrage Balloon is and what they're doing in the sky? We're going to find out by looking at another painting. It also shows barrage balloons, but I much prefer it because there are green fields and trees and it's set in the countryside. I'm a real country mouse so that suits me, but don't worry Rebecca because you can still see a city in the background.  

This time it's Coventry rather than London so let's look more closely at this painting. (Painting on screen of a Barrage Balloon) It was made by Laura Knight during the Second World War. You can see a huge Barrage Balloon being hoisted into the sky. There's lots of ropes attached to it to make sure it doesn't drift away. Even though it's a type of balloon, it's so big and heavy with the air inside that it looks like the people on the ground are having a tug-of-war with it. How many Barrage Balloons can you count? Look closely and you can see more floating amongst the clouds in the background. But why are they there?  

Barrage balloons were used during the Second World War to protect cities and places from air attack. They helped stop German planes from flying low and being able to see their targets. The balloons positioned high in the sky meant that the German planes would have to fly above them and then they couldn't see the ground so well.  

Look at the damaged buildings in the background you can see that Coventry had been attacked from the air already. Surrounding the city with Barrage Balloons was a way of preventing this from happening again. Coventry was a target for the German planes because the city had lots of businesses and factories that were crucial to the war effort. The city's historic streets and buildings were also destroyed and even Coventry Cathedral was left in ruins. Astoundingly the Cathedral Spires survived, and you can see it in the skyline of this painting.  

There are lots of women in the painting. Look at what they are wearing it seems to be some sort of blue uniform. They were part of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force, or WAF for short, part of the Royal Air Force. The auxiliary part of their name meant that they were providing help and support for others. They did many different jobs; they did mechanical and electrical work, they drove vehicles and they even helped with code-breaking, but they also managed Barrage Balloons.  

Barrage Balloons were very important in defending Britain in the Second World War. Here is a painting by Charles Cundallof a place called Sheerness in 1940. (Image onscreen of a painting of a city and boats on water). 

[Rebecca] Can you see that River? 

That's the Thames Estuary which is part of the Thames which runs through London. That makes a town mouse like me very happy and did you know that Britain maintained 2000 Barrage Balloons during the Second World War?  

This painting (Image on screen of a painting that depicts hundreds of people and a factory in the background) is by Laurence Stephen Lowry and I think we can guess by its title 'Going to Work' what it shows us. It shows the Barrage Balloons that Paris has described in the sky and underneath a factory with workers teaming towards the gate. How do you think they've travelled there? Well, I think they've probably got off the bus at the right-hand side of the picture and you can see that bus is ready to go. 

The artist Lowry, as we know him today, achieve lots of success in his lifetime, but actually wasn't an artist day-to-day. He usually painted at night when the city had quietened down a lot and the other reason he painted at night was because actually his day job was to be a rent collector. In fact, during wartime, Manchester and cities all across the country ramped up their industrial production to keep the war effort going. They would produce kits and ammunition and bits for aircraft and so on. 

This factory, Mather & Platt, on the outskirts of Manchester made skins for Barrage Balloons and Lowry is reminding us about that by including the Barrage Balloons in the sky. What he's telling us then, is that people pulled together and went to new lengths during the unusual circumstances of war. They went to work tried to make a living and tried to adapt despite the hardships of the war effort. We have a lot to learn from paintings. 

This different painting is of a young woman called Ruby Loftus. (Image onscreen of a painting depicting a woman looking into a machine). Ruby was chosen as an outstanding worker for this portrait. She had worked really hard and impressed her bosses and she was just the sort of person that the government needed to demonstrate how well British workers had adapted to the challenges of war.  

Lots of young people like Ruby had never worked in factories before. The government needed a whole new workforce since many people were fighting overseas. By 1944, 7 million women were working in factories just like this. During the war people had mixed experiences of what it was like to learn new skills and take on roles in factories, but many young women like Ruby, also found new adventure and new friends in their jobs. I think the way that the artist Laura Knight has captured Ruby is also very interesting. 

She's almost like an advert for British workers with her bright overalls and hairnet and her curled hair, she's like a Hollywood film star and also because of the way the light falls on her face like a spotlight. I think it would have been very noisy in the factory when Ruby was working, you can imagine all the whirring machines and noise of people chatting. The artist Laura Knight went to the factory to paint and sketch Ruby, and this would have been very unusual for the time.  

[Paris] Look how busy and bustling it was in those factories! City production had really ramped up by this time, but there was also lots going on in the Countryside. People were put into new roles for the war effort and the landscape was completely transformed. All over Britain parts of the countryside and land along the coast was used for airfields during the Second World War, places where planes could take off and land.  

This artwork (onscreen is a painting of a plane in flight) is a watercolour by Eric Ravilious, and shows an aeroplane called the Tiger Moth flying at RAF Sawbridgeworth in 1942. Ravilious stayed at the airfield for two weeks during the Second World War and his job was to paint and draw everything that happened there, as a record for people like you and me now. Any chance he got he would go up in an aeroplane so that he could see the airfield from above. If I got that chance, I'd jump at it to be honest, but I'd be quite nervous. 

For this picture it looks like Ravilious has stood in the middle of the airfield and he has shown the Tiger Moth flying just above the ground. Perhaps it's just taken off? What does the weather look like in this painting? It shows a beautiful sunny day in the countryside with lots of clouds in the sky. I feel very calm looking at it, I can almost feel the cool breeze and it's hard to think it's the middle of war time. I wonder why Eric Ravilious made it look so calm, bright and sunny? There are just some things we don't know answers to and that's what artists want - they want us to use our imagination. It's like a storybook for us to delve into.  

The countryside wasn't just used for airfields, the land was needed for growing fruit and vegetables to feed the nation and soldiers fighting overseas too. New technologies and farming methods were developed to make food production quicker and easier and many more people were needed for the work. 

Take a look at this painting by Evelyn Dunbar, (image on screen of a painting depicting three women milking) it shows three women learning the technique for milking cows using artificial rubber utters for practice. The artist has shown us, in a funny way, that life in the war was driven by machines and technology. Even though animals nature was still very important in the production of enough food for the country. These women are probably new to this too and might have been recruited from a city. It is possible that they have never seen a real cow before. Art has a lot to teach us about our past and our shared history and about what life was like during the Second World War. 

When we think of artists what comes to mind? I think of all of their tools, their paints, their paintbrushes and their messy aprons that they wear. But what is their most important tool? Well, it's looking! Artists are trained to look, and I mean really look. They can look at the same thing for hours on end, concentrating on the smallest things and what happens when you keep looking? Well, you see new things.  

To help you get thinking like an artist we've taken some super zoomed in shots of three of the artworks we've been talking about today. Can you match the details showing the image to the work of art? 

(On screen shows three close ups of images) 

[Paris] You might have to stop this film and start it again. A link to the answers can be found in the video description below, good luck!  

[Rebecca] Thanks for joining us for this week's Adventures in History. Hearing from us may have made you think of things you want to know more about. 

Please use IWM's Facebook and Twitter accounts and share questions and comments in the comments section. We'll get back to you as soon as we can. 

Why not subscribe to IWM's YouTube channel and that way you won't miss any future episodes Adventures in History! 

Imperial War Museums is a charity if you're able to donate to help support our work bringing history to life, then please find out more details on our website. Next week you'll be with my friend Ngaire who you may have met on other episodes of Adventures in History. She'll be telling you all about spies. 

Curriculum Links and Learning Objectives

  • KS3/4 - Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day.                                            

  • GCSE - Warfare and British society c1250–present and London and the Second World War, 1939–45. 

  • To explore the role of war artists and explore how paintings can be sources that help us understand the past.

Try our Art Quiz!

Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring, 1943, by Laura Knight
© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 2850)

Take a close look at some special artworks and explore some of the amazing details they contain. 

Take the quiz. >

Artist Reporters

Hello! I'm Paris and I work at Imperial War Museums. I'm normally based IWM Duxford, in Cambridgeshire, but today I'm speaking to you from my home. I'm surrounded by my books and if you look carefully, you can see some all about art.  

During the First World War and the Second World War, the government asked a group of artists to record all aspects and experiences of war. These war artists captured everything - from people picking fruit to feed the nation to the D-Day landings.  

The artist Evelyn Dunbar captured people's contributions to the war efforts on the Home Front during the Second World War. This painting [image on screen of a queue of people outside a building] shows men, women and children queuing for the fish shop. They are in a long queue, and they have big empty baskets and are waiting for the fishermen get to set up the store. Can you imagine what it must have smelt like? And what the sound of people chattering away must have been like – it must have been so loud. It reminds me of when I go to the supermarket at the moment, sometimes I'm in a queue for a very long time. 

While I've been at home, I've started up a few new hobbies and one of these is baking. This is my latest creation [on screen Paris holds a cornflake cake] YUM! Now for IWMs family mission this week, we want you to be artist reporters! We want you to draw or paint something - to show us what you've been doing at home. Perhaps you've made the world's best den, or you’ve baked something, or you've started a whole new hobby. Post a picture of what you've been doing - to IWMs’ Twitter and Facebook feeds. I’ll tell you what - I'll show you a drawing that I've done of my cornflake cake [on screen is a drawing]. Now that I've done that, I can eat it! Bye. 

It’s time to dust off those paint brushes, pencils and crayons and get creative!

Inspired by the British war artists from the First and Second World Wars whose job it was to record the many different aspects of war; from queuing up at the shops to fighter planes in the skies over London. Your mission is to pick up a pencil, crayon or paintbrush and create a picture of life at home.

Watch mission briefing >

Explore Further

Adventures in History: VE Day: Parties in the Street graphic
Home Learning

VE Day- Parties in the Street

Join IWM expert Vikki as she shares real life stories of celebration and revelry in the wake of the VE Day announcement of 1945

Poster for IWM learning content Adventures in History: Cakes Made from Carrots
Home Learning

Cakes Made From Carrots

Join IWM expert Ngaire as she tells real life stories of how people satisfied their sweet tooth despite rationing in the Second World War.


Book a visit to IWM

IWM London Exterior shot
IWM London

School visits to IWM London

Discover the stories of lives shaped by war and conflict from 1914 until the present day. Step into the iconic atrium, explore the brand new Second World War Galleries and experience our new learning facilities.

IWM North landscape view
IWM North

School visits to IWM North

Purpose-built to tell the powerful stories of over a century of war, IWM North makes full use of its extraordinary exhibition space to deliver an award-winning immersive experience.

IWM Duxford Showcase
IWM Duxford

School visits to IWM Duxford

Walk through the same hangars and buildings as those who served at RAF Duxford. See aircraft take to the skies from the airfield that Spitfires first flew. And get up close to over a century of aviation with hundreds of aircraft and objects on display.