With Art Fund support, IWM is working with four partners to share art from our collections and explore different perspectives on the Second World War, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

Project Partners

Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum in Bournemouth, Harris Museum & Art Gallery in Preston, The Collection in Lincoln and Touchstones Rochdale


Surreal image of a skeletal mammoth with military aircraft wings and ships' rigging
Art.IWM ART 17748
Surreal image of a skeletal mammoth with military aircraft wings and ships' rigging

In 2020, IWM marked the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Together with partners, we aimed to display rarely-seen art from our collections at locations across the UK, to explore new and diverse stories of the Second World War and reach new audiences.

Originally taking place around the 80th anniversary in September 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically altered the project. Two partners have been able to show the works in person, and two have created digital experiences. All have created a fantastic and exciting range of digital content, which we are proud to showcase here.

See the works in person at the final exhibition, “We Can Do It. War’s Other Voices” at Touchstones Rochdale until 18th September.

Explore the exhibitions

  • a pastel sketch of a Second World War Fusilier, Fusilier Perrin, at rest, reading
    © courtesy of the family of the artist. Photo credit: Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum

    Sea, Land, Air and Home: Art of the First World War The Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth explores local Second World War stories through the work of the War Artist Advisory Committee. Discover the exhibition on Art UK.

  • A watercolour of two men walking through Marlag ‘0’, a Second World War German prisoner-of-war camp, in winter
    © Harris Museum, Art Gallery & Library

    Art of the Second World War: Commemorating 80 years since the Battle of Britain at The Harris, Preston, brings together Preston war stories, a new sculpture by artist Anthony Padgett, and rarely seen art. Discover the exhibition on Art UK.

  • winter scene
    © The artist's estate / Bridgeman Images. Photo credit: Bridgeman Images

    At The Collection, Lincoln a collaborative digital Exhibition Learning Project explores, interprets, and responds to a selection of artworks that reflect upon the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Discover the exhibition on their website

Hello and welcome to our new exhibition ‘We can do it. War’s other voices’ in partnership with the Imperial War Museum and with the support of the Art Fund. 

My name is Odile Masia and I’ve curated this exhibition and today I am going to talk about some of the objects and stories in the show. 

The exhibition commemorates last year’s 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain. The Battle of Britain was a decisive air campaign fought over England during the summer and autumn of 1940. Flying iconic aircraft including the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane, Royal Air Force pilots fought the Luftwaffe to stop Germany’s fascist leader, Adolf Hitler, from invading the United Kingdom. Crucial civil defence support came from across the country, including Rochdale. 

Ultimately, the Luftwaffe was defeated. The battle was one of Britain’s most important victories of the Second World War, also secured by the many pilots from across occupied Europe and the Commonwealth who fought in it. This show explores how the lives of people in Rochdale changed as a result of a war that was to become the most destructive in history. Particular focus is given to women because of the important role they played. Whether it was by undertaking war work, volunteering or providing childcare, women have a story to tell.

So I am going to talk now about some of the women featured in the show:

Mrs Leah and her daughter, Mrs Ashworth lived together in Sudden during the Second World War. Mrs Leah baked cakes and prepared meals in the evening to sell in the corner shop she ran. Her daughter worked at Dunlop Cotton Mill. As shown in this photograph, they also volunteered as Air Raid Precaution wardens. And here we have a photograph of Yvonne, a toddler evacuated from London, looked after by the Leah family. Mother and daughter exemplify the courage shown by many women in wartime: they worked, volunteered and offered a home to an evacuee. Despite hardship, they also donated money to the Spitfire Fighter Fund.

Throughout the Second World War enemy bombs fell on British towns and cities killing more than 60,000 civilians, blurring the boundaries between the Home Front and the front line. Women played a vital role in supporting the rest of the country in the fight against fascism. 

In 1941 Britain, unlike any other country, began conscripting women for war work. Thousands of women in Rochdale undertook roles central to the war effort. Women artists were also commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee to create artworks as a record of the Second World War. Artists such as Dame Laura Knight and Ethel Gabain depicted women adapting to wartime work. This theme in their paintings mirrored their own position as female workers within the constraints of a male-dominated environment.

Out of the 400 artists involved in the scheme, only fifty-two were women. In this painting, on loan from Manchester Art Gallery, by Elsie Dalton Hewland we can see a factory where Hawker Hurricane fighter planes are being constructed. It depicts men and women working together on an assembly line in a way inconceivable before the war.

This work over here, on loan from the Imperial War Museum, is by Eileen Agar. She was one of the few female artists selected for the ground-breaking ‘International Surrealist Exhibition’ in London in 1936. During the Second World War, she worked in a canteen by day and served as a fire watcher by night. She struggled to work as a painter during this period, writing, ‘How does one communicate with any subtlety when the world is deafened by explosions?’ 

The next section in the exhibition explores Rochdale during the Second World War. The intensive bombing on British cities by German forces shaped the day-to-day lives of people like no other conflict. Reminders of air raid precautions and the need to carry a gas mask at all times became a general way of life. At night, towns including Rochdale went under blackout to stop them being seen from above by bombers. Food, clothes and fuel were rationed. Bicycle sales increased to the extent that stock ran out in some places, with women’s bicycles much more in demand than men's. Large numbers of children were evacuated into safer areas. Rochdale welcomed 8,000 evacuees from Guernsey and the south of England. 

Rochdale’s industries contributed significantly to the war effort and thanks to the community spirit and generosity of people in the town, enough money to buy two Spitfire fighter planes for the RAF was raised in 1940. Jan Falkowski (shown in this photograph on the left) was a pilot with the No. 315 and 303 Polish Fighter Squadrons, which operated within the Royal Air Force. Falkowski flew one of the Rochdale Spitfires. Falkowski was born in Poland in 1912 and trained at the Polish Air Force Academy. After the German invasion, Falkowski escaped with many Polish airmen to Romania, passing through several European countries before arriving in England in 1940. During his career he was shot down twice and forced to jump out of his plane in a parachute. He was also captured by the German forces and taken prisoner but later managed to escape. Falkowski was awarded the Polish Cross of Valour and Virtuti Militari as well as the British Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.

This painting on loan from the Imperial War Museum by Francis Dodd beautifully conveys the simultaneous proximity and distance of the Battle of Britain. A black cat sitting on a fence observes the white contrails of a recent aerial dogfight, the aircraft and the barrage balloons are evident in the sky but life goes on below. In this photograph we can see Corporal Ernest Dania and Edna Frost. Ernest was employed as a motor mechanic in Rochdale before enlisting in the RAF in 1938 as an aircraft mechanic and flight rigger. A few days after his marriage, Ernest was posted to Canada and based at No.36 Service Flying Training School. Two years passed until the couple could reunite. During this time they wrote letters to each other, barely mentioning the war but describing day-to-day activities such as going to the cinema. Ernest and Edna met at a dance school in Rawdon when he was stationed with the RAF at Dishforth, Yorkshire. This is Edna’s wedding dress, made by the groom’s mother, Dora. She worked as a seamstress following the death of her husband in 1918 from the Spanish flu pandemic, when Ernest was two years old. 

The final section in the exhibition explores culture in wartime. Rochdale Art Gallery remained open during the Second World War, providing a much-needed distraction for the town. Although part of the building was used by the government and the basement was turned into an air raid shelter, a series of popular exhibitions, music concerts and events continued to take place here. Around the same time, the War Artists Advisory Committee was organising touring exhibitions that featured high-profile contemporary artists.

Sir Kenneth Clark, then director of the National Gallery, was the driving force behind these shows. He promoted a wartime demand for art and, with government support and funding, contemporary art became better known in the UK than it had been before the war. Two of these War Artists Advisory Committee exhibitions travelled to Rochdale Art Gallery, with Dame Laura Knight and Ethel Gabain among the artists included. 

The war forced many museums and galleries to evacuate and safely store their collections, yet at the same time it increased their popularity. Manchester, Leeds and Leicester set attendance records at their cultural venues between 1940 and 1945. Culture continues to play a vital role in society. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has represented a way for many people to explore new worlds despite the restrictions imposed by lockdowns and self-isolation.

I hope that you enjoyed the tour and that can visit us before the exhibition closes on 18 of September. Thank you.


Join Curator Odile Masiá for a tour of the exhibition.

Download Resources

  • PDF Booklet

    Sea, Land, Air and Home: Art of the Second World War at the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum.

Flying into Action

logo of the Creative Collective

Between October 2020 and January 2021, eight young people met weekly to engage with each other, industry professionals and artists to explore the Battle of Britain and themes of war and conflict, supported by The Collection, Lincoln. Together but having never physically met, the Creative Collective worked remotely to explore common themes and different perspectives. Their responses span a variety of mediums and highlight the enduring relevance of this momentous event.

Preston’s Second World War Stories

a Spitfire sculpture comprised of photos of individuals and objects which hold memories and stories of the Second World War
A Spitfire sculpture comprised of photos of individuals and objects which hold memories and stories of the Second World War

Twelve people from the Preston area responded to a call out from The Harris for Second World War stories. Artist Anthony Padgett took a portrait photograph of each participant with objects that help to tell their story. The photographs were printed on panels and made into a large sculpture of a Spitfire, creating an important and powerful record of some of the many experiences of the conflict, at home and overseas.

Contemporary Connections in Rochdale

a close-up of pupils screen-printing an image of a Second World War plane, in bright red
A close-up of pupils screen-printing an image of a Second World War plane

Through a dialogue with Mrs Greenwood, who is 101 and lived in Rochdale during the Second World War, Year 9 students from Oulder Hill Community School creatively responded to themes of war and conflict, and contemporary parallels with experiences of lockdown, supported by Touchstones Rochdale. Students created a painting, wrote labels for artworks and filmed interviews, all of which can be experienced in the exhibition and online.