A new exhibition at Victoria Art Gallery explores a decade of anxiety and fear through the work of leading artists commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee. Words by Jessica Hope
Equipped with a bundle of basic art materials – paper, pencils, maybe even some watercolours – artists were sent to the far corners of the British Isles during the Second World War to capture the essence of what it was like living on the home front. As well as depicting the destruction of buildings caused by the Blitz, the artists reflected how the conflict impacted on civilians’ everyday lives, creating visual examples for future generations to learn from.
In a new exhibition opening this month at Victoria Art Gallery, which is run by Bath and North East Somerset Council, visitors can explore the daily struggles and harsh realities of living through the Second World War in Britain, as well as the anxious peacetime years that followed which were threatened by fears surrounding the impact of the Cold War.
War and Rumours of War features a selection of work from The Hepworth Wakefield in West Yorkshire, which draws on its outstanding collection of 1940s British works on paper by leading artists from the 20th century. Many of the pieces were commissioned for the nation through the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) which was overseen by the National Gallery’s director, Sir Kenneth Clark, who acknowledged that following the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, many artists began to struggle for work and many galleries closed for the duration of the conflict.
In order to preserve and nurture the talents of British artists, as well as generating visual representations of what it was like to live on the home front, the committee sent artists such as Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, Vanessa Bell and John Piper around the country to draw and paint the people, landscapes, buildings and, in many cases, the rubble that lay before them when visiting cities that had been targeted by the Luftwaffe’s aerial bombing. This opportunity meant that artists could create “not simply a record of the facts, but of what the war felt like,” allowing modern audiences to see the anxiety and austerity that people once lived through.
More than 19,000 buildings were affected by the bombing, including serious damage to some of the city’s most historic icons such as the Royal Crescent…
During the First World War (1914–1918), many artists were sent overseas to the frontline to see the horrors of the conflict first hand, whereas throughout the Second World War the number of artists sent abroad was limited – painter and illustrator Edward Bawden was famously stationed abroad with armed forces. The WAAC focused more on commissioning works in Britain, and 13% of official war artists were women, which represented a significant number at the time. Overall more than 5,500 pieces of artwork were produced by more than 400 artists, with many using simple art materials as a consequence of strict rationing.
The exhibition also draws on works from Victoria Art Gallery’s own collection, with a prominent focus on the city of Bath and the devastation caused by the Baedeker Raids in April 1942. More than 19,000 buildings were affected by the bombing, including serious damage to some of the city’s most historic icons such as the Royal Crescent, the Circus and the Assembly Rooms. The raids resulted in 417 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries.
When the call came in that Bath had been targeted, artist John Piper was in Scotland. He was quickly ordered to travel south to document the ruined buildings, and was put up by fellow artists Clifford and Rosemary Ellis during his visit. The work by Piper and other artists sent to Bath chronicle the sheer scale of the demolition of buildings caused by bombing, with houses ripped apart and still on fire, roads blown to pieces, and craters dominating the scene.
As well shedding light on Bath’s Second World War experience, War and Rumours of War includes the damage other cities suffered, and documents the haunting and difficult experiences people endured in air raid shelters and when shielding themselves in the London Underground, which were documented by artists such as Henry Moore.
Much of the work on display reflects the ordinary lives of those trying to pull together through the extraordinary experience of war as a community through their daily labours. This makes for a stark contrast to the idealised state propaganda being produced in Nazi Germany at the time.
Army life is also touched upon in the exhibition, featuring the works of Hubert Freeth who, rather than showing the terrors of war, highlighted the mundane experiences of the armed forces, presenting soldiers doing tedious tasks such as removing buttons and building defences. However, the realities of war for these artists were never far away as three official war artists – Eric Ravilious, Thomas Hennell and Albert Richards – were killed while working abroad during the conflict.
Despite the jubilation at the end of the war in 1945, the following years were ones of continued rationing, lack of fuel, funds and materials. As well as these struggles, there was a clear sense of fear for the world’s future as the nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union brewed. Touching on the unease of the immediate years after the war, the exhibition considers how the art world was influenced by these feelings of trepidation. Modern artists and sculptors such as Michael Ayrton and Kenneth Armitage, for example, created and exhibited angular and spiky works, reflecting the climate of fear.
The work of the official war artists increased the wider public interest in modern art around the country, which encouraged the founding of the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946. Despite rising tension around the Cold War, there was an air of possibility in this period and newfound interest in new forms of modern British art.
Rather than revealing the violent horrors of this era, the exhibition embodies the mix of feelings generated by this global conflict – fear, community, destruction, hope and loss.
War and Rumours of War is on at Victoria Art Gallery from 6 July – 15 September. £5/concs available, free for Discovery Card holders. Lunchtime exhibition tours are every Thursday, 12.30–1pm; victoriagal.org.uk