Jo Hookes and Rachel Donnelly
Friday 8 December 2017
  • First World War
  • All ages

Use these sources to discover more about art during the First World War.

For ideas to help you use these sources, take a look at our Suggested Activities.

art

Over the Top by John Nash

art

Over the Top by John Nash

During the First World War the British government developed a variety of art schemes to record and document all aspects of the conflict from the violence of the fighting fronts to the social and industrial change at home.  Art was seen as the means to convey the righteousness of Britain’s cause, to bear witness to the experience of war, to remember the fallen and provide effective propaganda. The images which were produced continue to shape our interpretations of the First World War.

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.
Over the Top by John Nash.
art

Blood and Iron by Charles Ernest Butler

art

Blood and Iron by Charles Ernest Butler

Some early artistic responses to the war were unconvincing; some showed unrealistic scenes of hand-to-hand combat and cavalry charges in a style more associated with the Napoleonic or Crimean Wars of the 19th century while others used out-dated religious and jingoistic imagery. Charles Ernest Butler’s narrative painting “Blood and Iron” depicts Christ comforting Belgium while the German Kaiser glances coldly on with the angel of death on his shoulder.

In the foreground Christ nurses a dying woman who holds a child. Above them is Kaiser Wilhelm seated on horseback with the Angel of Death at his shoulder. There are German troops behing him. The Kaiser has a haunted but defiant expression, immune to the chaos around him. Bodies litter the ground and a dying man raises his fist to the Kaiser. Fires rage in a Belgian town, presumably Louvain, a church burns and a flare lights the sky.
Blood and Iron by Charles Ernest Butler.
art

A Battery Shelled by Percy Wyndham Lewis

art

A Battery Shelled by Percy Wyndham Lewis

Many artists and critics felt traditional methods of painting war could no longer provide an adequate or “truthful” representation of the conflict.  The unfamiliar and highly industrialised nature of modern warfare led to new and experimental artistic responses. Percy Wyndham Lewis’ Vorticist painting of a British artillery battery being shelled depicts a strange scene where soldiers appear dehumanised and insect-like.

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.
Percy Wyndham Lewis, ‘A Battery Shelled’ (1919).
art

The Doctor by C R W Nevinson

art

The Doctor by C R W Nevinson

Artists who had witnessed the front line were seen as uniquely placed to deliver an authentic portrayal of the war. CRW Nevinson’s initial support of the war was challenged by his experiences as a medical orderly and ambulance driver in France. In this painting he portrays a doctor tending an injured soldier in a makeshift casualty centre outside Dunkirk. The awkwardly bent pose of the figure in the background and use of red throughout the painting stresses the terrible human cost of the conflict and its un-heroic nature.

Doctors and medical orderlies are treating injured soldiers in an open building with straw on the floor. One patient, stripped to the waist, is sitting up on a stretcher while a doctor inspects a loosely dressed wound to his head. Next to him a body lies on a stretcher the face covered in bandages. Behind, a patient is crouching on all fours with his trousers round his ankles, while a doctor inspects a wound in his lower back. Two other French soldiers stand by with arms in slings.
The Doctor by C R W Nevinson.
art

Mines and the Bapaume Road, La Boiselle by William Orpen

art

Mines and the Bapaume Road, La Boiselle by William Orpen

Depicting the landscape of the Western Front was problematic for many artists. Long range artillery fire and the system of trench warfare meant that these spaces were rendered featureless.  Nevertheless, there was a unique character to the landscape of the Western Front.  William Orpen’s painting focuses on chalky soil of the Somme area of France. Churned up by shell-fine and mines and baked white in the spring sun of 1917, it generated an unworldly scene like a lunar landscape.

A view from the edge of a series of large mine craters blasted out of the chalky soil. The mines have formed circular hollows in the earth surrounded by a peaked ring of chalky soil.
Mines and the Bapaume Road, La Boiselle by William Orpen.
art

The Field of Passchendaele by Paul Nash

art

The Field of Passchendaele by Paul Nash

The battered and scarred landscape of the Western Front had a profound effect on many artists. For Paul Nash the shelled woods, dismembered trees and traumatised fields became a metaphor for the wider destruction and suffering of the war. Depicting nature in this way became a means of understanding the war and modernising landscape painting.

a battle scarred Western Front landscape near Passchendaele in Flanders. A large water-filled shell hole dominates the foreground, with two dead soldiers lying nearby on the left. Beyond them is the entrance to a dugout, a small bomb damaged brick structure and numerous bare tree stumps representing the remnants of a small wood.
The Field of Passchendaele by Paul Nash.
art

Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells by Anna Airy

art

Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells by Anna Airy

Artists also played a role in documenting the effect of war on the Home Front, particularly on women’s lives. Here we see an interior view of the workshop in the Singer Manufacturing Company, where the majority of workers were women. During the First World War the factory switched from making consumer goods to armaments. Anna Airy was commissioned to produce four paintings depicting munitions production and  here we see the women producing 15 inch shells for battleships.

The interior view of a munitions factory showing the production of 15 inch shells by women factory workers. There are winches hanging from the ceiling and large steel shell cases sitting on wooden trolleys in the centre of the image.
Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells by Anna Airy.
art

Voluntary Land Workers in a Flax-field by Randolph Schwabe

art

Voluntary Land Workers in a Flax-field by Randolph Schwabe

Naval blockades severely disrupted agriculture and food distribution during the First World.  The war had also taken many men and horses away from agricultural work so finding a new workforce to farm the land became extremely important.  The Women’s Land Army was established in 1917. In this painting women are shown collecting flax which was especially important in aircraft manufacture.

A group of women land workers gathering flax, which they tie into bundles and stack in a pile. Their camp of bell tents lies in the background next to a group of trees.
Voluntary Land Workers in a Flax-field by Randolph Schwabe.
art

Youth Mourning by George Clausen

art

Youth Mourning by George Clausen

Many artists tried to capture the private emotion of war, especially if they had served at the Front or if they were personally affected in other ways. In this painting by George Clausen, the naked woman, representing Youth, kneels in grief before a wooden cross marking a grave. In the distance are the flooded craters of a battlefield. The painting is Clausen’s personal response to the First World War, in particular the death of his daughter’s fiancé. This depiction of private grief, however, also conveys a wider sense of a nation in mourning.

A naked young woman, personifying Youth, kneels in a grief-stricken attitude before a wooden cross marking a grave. In the distance are the flooded craters of a battlefield.
Youth Mourning by George Clausen.
art

To the Unknown British Soldier in France by William Orpen

art

To the Unknown British Soldier in France by William Orpen

At the end of the First World War artists and sculptors increasingly turned their attention to public expressions of remembrance. Among these was William Orpen, who during the war had painted portraits of generals and the young pilots of the newly formed Royal Flying Corps. In this painting which was one of three works painted to mark the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919, Orpen deliberately focuses on the “forgotten” ordinary soldiers rather than the politicians he saw arguing over the peace terms.

A coffin holding the remains of an unknown soldier, draped in the Union flag, lies at the bottom of the composition. The coffin lies in state in a richly decorated marble hall directly beneath a chandelier. There is a dark hallway in the centre with light from the archway at the far end casting a pathway to the head of the coffin.
To the Unknown British Soldier in France by William Orpen.
souvenirs and ephemera

Public remembrance

souvenirs and ephemera

Public remembrance

This moneybox is made using wood from the temporary Cenotaph which was originally erected for the London Victory Parade in 1919.  The temporary Cenotaph was later replaced with a permanent stone structure which was unveiled on 11 November 1920. The moneyboxes were decorated with a clock face showing the hands at 11 o’clock, to mark the moment when the 1918 Armistice came into force. They also bear three flags signifying the three branches of the Armed Forces.

© IWM (IWM 505)

Armistice Day 1920

A film clip from the unveiling of the Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall, London, 1920. The stone structure replaced a temporary Cenotaph, made of wood and plaster, which was also a site for public commemoration. The film shows the coffin of the Unknown Warrior passing the Cenotaph prior to its burial at Westminster Abbey.

art

The Battle of Ypres: The Worcesters at Gheluvelt by Charles Sargeant Jagger

art

The Battle of Ypres: The Worcesters at Gheluvelt by Charles Sargeant Jagger

In February 1918 the British War Memorials Committee was established to create an artistic memorial to the nation’s effort and sacrifice. Sculptural works like this one were also planned for inclusion in a Hall of Remembrance which would house the collection. Due to lack of funds the Hall was never built and the works were given to the Imperial War Museum. Today they continue to inform how we commemorate conflict and have helped to build the visual iconography associated with the First World War.

The Battle of Ypres: The Worcesters at Gheluvelt by Charles Sargeant Jagger.
The Battle of Ypres: The Worcesters at Gheluvelt by Charles Sargeant Jagger.