In about a month’s time, the first part of a new display will open in the Queen’s House. ‘War Artists at Sea‘ will showcase the National Maritime Museum’s collection of art from the First (1914-18) and Second (1939-45) World Wars.
Both wars were shocking in their scale, brutality and intensity. New forms of technology, such as submarines, aircraft and other war machines were introduced, with devastating consequences. There was a strong desire to record these unprecedented events for posterity, in the belief that art could awaken emotional responses in viewers that other forms of recording could not.
In the words of Eric Newton, who wrote the preface to the catalogue of one of the exhibitions of ‘War Pictures by British Artists’ at the National Gallery during the Second World War:
In a hundred years’ time, when this war that now fills so much of our daily lives and thoughts has become a matter for history books and legend, how will our descendants know what it felt like to live through the dark days and nights of 1941? History books will give them the bare facts, stories handed down from father to son will add a little detailed embroidery, but how is this fantastic truth that lies beneath the war’s surface to be told? To what contemporary records will the unborn generations turn in their attempts to get at that truth?
The files of our daily newspapers will certainly offer them a glimpse, but a distorted glimpse, full of infuriating gaps and bewildering contradictions. Photographs will add a little visual information but how flavourless and how tantalisingly incomplete it will be. The newspapers will record the numbers of prisoners taken and the names of the towns captured, the questions asked in parliament and the amount of butter consumable per head per week. The photographs will show the shape of a Spitfire or the outward aspect of a house destroyed by bombs; but who is to hand on to future generations the tension and excitement, the weariness and laughter, the speed and power of to-days war?
In the days before our minds were drugged with “news” and our eyes blunted by photography such questions would have been merely rhetorical. The answer would have been “the artist, of course.”
In both conflicts, the British government employed official war artists. The War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), led by the National Gallery’s Director Sir Kenneth Clark, was set up by the Ministry of Information in 1939 in light of the significant role played by British artists in the First World War. Its purpose was to commission art in ways that could usefully serve the war effort through documenting the conflict, raising morale and promoting national culture. The works of art were to be displayed at the National Gallery, tour the UK and even overseas, and accordingly received considerable attention in the Press.
From 1939 to the end of the war, the Committee purchased some 6000 works of art from over 400 artists, to establish a historical record of the war in all its aspects: actions and events at home and at the front; scenes of everyday life; the portraits of the actors of the conflict. These themes will be reflected in a display of paintings and sculpture in four rooms on the first floor of the Queen’s House, opening on 15 February. (From 15 march, a subsequent two rooms, on the ground floor, will showcase works on paper, to be rotated in the Summer).
Working on a display exclusively with objects from the permanent collections presents advantages as well as difficulties. On the one hand, this allows showcasing the museum’s collection; discovering ‘hidden gems’ and getting out of the stores pieces that are usually unseen. On the other hand, you have to rely on what you have. For the 20th century, the strength of the Museum’s war art collection lies in the Second World War, as the Museum was founded shortly before the outbreak of the conflict (the Imperial War Museum being the main national repository for First World War art). As such, the display will show predominantly works of art from the Second World War, though fabulous ‘dazzle’ paintings by John Everett, poignant portraits by Ambrose McEvoy will be showcased.
The emphasis will also on artists particularly strongly represented in our collections, such as:
Richard Eurich, whose distinctive vision of the sea is merged with a thoroughly researched depiction of the events;
Stephen Bone (son of the veteran official war artist Sir Muirhead Bone), who vividly represented life above and below deck;
Charles Wheeler, who was the only sculptor to be employed on a full-time contract by the WAAC.
Putting objects on display allows giving them some sustained attention, both in a physical and research capacity. As always for a new exhibition or hang, our Conservation department has been busy preparing the objects, making sure they are fit for display and look their best by the time they get onto the Museum’s walls.
Our paintings conservators Elizabeth and Sarah assessed the paintings that were previously in store and treated some of them. Look at the dramatic changes to this painting of the Jervis Bay action by Charles Pears, while Sarah is giving it a surface clean!
Sarah also did a light retouching of the corners of this wonderful view of the living quarters of a submarine by Stephen Bone, which recently came back from loan.
After Elizabeth lent them her magic touch, Norman Wilkinson’s sumptuous handling of paint in Beachy Head: attack on a convoy and Catalina flying boat spotting the Bismarck is now shown to its full, radiant glory.
Meanwhile, our Frames Conservators Hugh, Tom and Yukiko have been painstakingly checking each of the frames. Picture frames can be easily overlooked by visitors (and curators alike!), but they are integral to the paintings’ overall look, and have often been made with incredible care, technical skill and artistry. The WAAC purchased its frames from the firm of Alfred Stiles & Sons Ltd, specifically for display at the National Gallery. Supplies were sparse during the war, and these were often made from inexpensive wood and paints, which might have expanded or chipped over time. The WAAC frames show a remarkable cohesion and unity, and that sober simplicity characteristic of design in wartime England.
Charles Pears’ ‘Aboard a minesweeping trawler’ did not have a frame, as it did not come to the museum as an official war commission. Yukiko made a ‘WAAC-style’ frame for it, so that it would be in keeping with the taste and display practice of the time at which it was made, and look at home with the WAAC paintings on display around it.
Finally, our Metals Conservator Laurence and Conservation Technician Richard devised an appropriate method to display the busts at equal heights for an harmonious display.
As for me, I worked my way through the WAAC archives at the Imperial War Museum, discovering fascinating stories about the sitters, and getting a sense of the artists’ relationships with the Committee, their approaches to the subjects they depicted, their wartime experiences. Our curatorial intern Bethany, from the ‘MA Curating the Art Museum’ course at the Courtauld Institute of Art, helped with the interpretation of the portraits. Over Christmas, I reviewed the display’s labels. It was great to look at these with my family, particularly my 9-year-old niece, as she learnt new things about the wars, while I learnt much from the way she looks at art. Our designer Shaun is now busy adjusting the texts to the striking design scheme he has created for the display.
Now remains to install the paintings and sculptures in the next couple of weeks, and put the finishing touches to the preparation for the display of drawings opening in March – more of this in a forthcoming post.