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Last Updated: Monday, 11 July, 2005, 09:50 GMT 10:50 UK
The art of propaganda
By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

"Up housewives and at 'em"
For decades wartime artworks from the 1940s have lain all but forgotten in drawers in the National Archives. Now, to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the end of World War Two, these form an evocative online gallery.

Citizens, the time is now to play your part. And every little helps, as an online exhibition of World War II propaganda art shows.

One poster in the National Archives' collection of some 2,000 sketches, cartoons and paintings urged householders to recycle scrap metal, rubber, paper and even bones - one chop bone was said to help make two ammunition shells.

Whether or not such salvageable material was actually used in the war effort was a moot point - the aim was to encourage the nation to pull together, to stand united against common enemies in Europe and the Far East.

The art of WWII propaganda

Together, the works give a strong sense of what life must have been like 60 years ago - victory lay not only in fighting on the beaches and in the skies, but in the nation's gardens, refuse bins and part-time factory jobs.

"I wouldn't say that these artworks had been forgotten; but the collection is something of a rediscovery and has lain little-known in the repository drawers at Kew for year upon year," says Jason Hargreaves, of the National Archives.

It was only when William Spencer, a Falklands veteran who is one of their researchers, decided to do some work on Victoria Cross winners that the scope of the collection was realised. Of the 1,900 artworks unearthed, 250 of the best have been digitised for an online gallery (see Internet link on right).

Bravery under fire

And it is his finds which form an evocative part of the online gallery - a series of paintings depicting the heroics of those awarded the Victoria Cross. These were commissioned by the Ministry of Information for a pamphlet illustrating the bravery and selflessness of those in the armed forces.

As well as the illustrations of valour, supporting material from their extensive military archive have been added to the website, such as the original commendations for the awards - many bearing signatures of famous military leaders - and news articles describing their heroics.

In the case of Sergeant John Hannah, who attempted to fight a fire in the back of his cramped plane, photos from the time reveal the ferocity of the flames. Two show the damage to the aircraft, one depicts the blackened carcasses of its carrier pigeons, roasted in the heat of the blaze.

The impact lessened as the war progressed and became part of people's day-to-day existence
Jason Hargreaves
National Archives
To today's eyes, the propaganda posters can appear somewhat naive and quaint.

"It is much like looking at advertising from the same period - today it looks very gentle," says Mr Hargreaves.

"At the start of the war, these posters, pamphlets and cartoons had quite an impact. But the impact lessened as the war progressed and became part of people's day-to-day existence. The Ministry of Information was always looking at ways to keep people's attention focused on the war effort."

Some of the finest and most visually inventive minds of the day were involved, many on a freelance basis - hence some of the images in the archive are rough sketches with scribbled suggestions on how to boost their impact.

VC painting of Commander Fogarty Fegen's battle at Jervis Bay
VC paintings evoked war events
Among the artists represented is Carl Giles, best known for his long-running series for the Express newspaper depicting the comic characters of the Giles Family - Grandma, Mother, Father and the Twins.

And outside the National Archives' collection, Tate Britain is currently showcasing how artists responded to the war in A Picture of Britain. Among the most famous of these wartime paintings is Paul Nash's depictions of downed Nazi aircraft. His aim, too, was to demoralise the enemy.

Of his most famous work, Totes Meer (Dead Sea) in Tate Britain, Nash said he wanted this image of a defeated enemy to "strike a blow on behalf of the RAF" and "make a good reproduction for depressing the Nazis".

We shall fight them on the beaches indeed.


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