Art and Artists

One of the unexpected benefits of the First World War was the large amount of funding suddenly made available to artists by the government. Public demand for information was high, and the government responded by commissioning hundreds of artists - many of them fighting on the front lines - to depict the war as they saw it. The results are diverse and numerous.

Even though the British propaganda department was behind the commissionings, and many artists saw it as their duty to respond, the paintings and sculptures did not shrink from depicting the reality of war.

The nascent Vorticist movement turned its already surreal and brutal style on the horrors of the Western Front, with dark and disturbing results. It may not have been the British propaganda machine’s top priority, but the honest, avant-garde nature of the works helped cast Britain as a leader in post-war liberal culture.

Like the poets the variety of the work reflects conflicted feelings towards the war. Anna Airy depicts the step forward that the war was for women, while Percy Wyndham Lewis reminds us of the sacrifices.

John Singer Sargent, Gassed, 1919.

John Singer Sargent was born in Florence to American parents and began training in Paris in 1874 with the portraitist Carolus-Duran. Sargent was a portrait painter and was known for his stunning, jarringlandscapes.

In 1918, the British government commissioned him to go to the front line of World War I to paint a commemorative work of their troops in action. The result, Gassed, depicts the aftermath of a mustard gas attack on the Western Front in August 1918 as witnessed by the artist. Mustard gas was an indiscriminate weapon causing widespread injury and burns, as well as affecting the eyes.

© IWM ART 1460

© IWM ART 1460

John was commissioned by the British Government to contribute the central painting for a Hall of Remembrance for World War One. He was given the theme of 'Anglo-American co-operation' but was unable to find suitable subject matter and chose this scene instead. 

Muirhead Bone

Château near Brie on the Somme, 1918

© IWM ART repro 000684 59

© IWM ART repro 000684 59

Muirhead Bone was apprenticed to an architect, but took evening classes at the Glasgow School of Art where he studied architecture and painting. He settled in London in 1901 and was the first person to be appointed an Official War Artist after lobbying hard for the scheme. 

Muirhead served as a war artist with the Allied forces on the Western Front and also with the Royal Navy for a time. He arrived in France during the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and returned in 1917 where he took particular interest in depicting architectural ruins. 

Percy Wyndham Lewis

A Battery Shelled, 1919

Percy Wyndham Lewis came to England, from Canada, as a child and studied at the Slade School of Fine Art in London from 1898-1901. In the years leading up to the First World War, Percy  emerged as one of the chief figures in British avant-garde. He was a founding member of the Vorticist movement, an artistic movement that emphasised the upheaval brought by the machine age using aggressive, angular lines. The style draws on elements of Cubism and Futurism.

Lewis served as a battery officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery on the Western Front from 1915-17 and was an Official War Artist from 1917-18. His depiction here of counter-battery fire experienced by the artillerymen was therefore drawn from personal experience on the Western Front.

Anna Airy, Women Working in a Gas Retort House: South Metropolitan Gas Company, London, 1918.

© IWM Art 2852

Anna Airy trained at the Slade with William Orpen and Augustus John and was one of the first women war artists employed by the Imperial War Museum in 1918. Although a well-respected female artist of her generation, the committee imposed strict terms on her contract of employment, which included their right to refuse a work without payment. She was commissioned to produce a series of works depicting typical scenes in munitions production and other aspects of heavy industry where women had taken over from men. Anna painted her canvases on site, in awkward and at times dangerous conditions. 

Here women work on the gas retort process, where gas was produced from coal by burning it in the absence of air. It must have been a difficult place to work, particularly for the women in the painting, but also the painter herself.