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Exhibition of work by war artists of the London Blitz

View of damage to the roof of Westminster Hall by the artists Vivian Pitchforth
View of damage to the roof of Westminster Hall by the artist Vivian Pitchforth

By Ronan Thomas
City of Westminster Archives

The Blitz is imprinted deep in London's collective memory. Today, this searing ordeal of mass destruction, privation and a city's defiance from 1940-1945 summons up many images.

Iconic black and white photographs of St Paul's Cathedral under fire and grainy newsreels are instantly recognisable and inspiring.

Less well-known are the perspectives of the capital's official war artists. Seventy years on, a new exhibition of rarely-seen oil and watercolour pieces by Westminster's war artists reveals the Blitz by brushstroke.

Much like journalists, WAAC artists tried to arrive at the scene of bomb incidents as soon as possible to capture the authentic, often chaotic, aftermath.
Ronan Thomas

Think of the London Blitz and it won't be long before familiar images come to mind. For many, these include Herbert Mason's famous 1940 photograph of St Paul's Cathedral surrounded by flames.

Yet they are only part of the Blitz story. No less fascinating are the perspectives left by the many official war artists who depicted the blitzed capital in prints, watercolours, oils, engravings and sketches.

Marking the 70th anniversary of the Blitz, a new Heritage-Lottery funded exhibition from the City of Westminster Archives, West End at War, offers a rare chance to see the work of London's official war artists.

Opening on 9 December at the SW1 Gallery in Victoria, West End at War features art works by eight contemporary war artists who recorded extensive bomb damage in Westminster during the Blitz.

They include works by Anthony Gross, Frank Beresford, RG Mathews and Vivian Pitchforth.

Several of their pieces, from the City of Westminster Archives art collections, are on public display for the first time.

Art in wartime

The story of London's official war artists is inseparable from that of polymath National Gallery Director Kenneth Clark and his leadership of the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) - the vital wartime arts subsidiary of the Ministry of Information.

Clark founded the WAAC in November 1939.

His social connections all but guaranteed access to funding and the freedom to select artists for roving commissions.

After overseeing the temporary evacuation of much of the National Gallery's priceless collections from London to underground tunnels in Wales, Clark set out WAAC's vision.

Strand Charing Cross Hospital  by R G Mathews
Strand Charing Cross Hospital by R G Mathews

In wartime, art was not a luxury; it was a vital necessity, to be used to boost the morale of the nation's civilians and soldiers.

As the Blitz hit London, Clark pushed this single idea relentlessly.

Excluding abstract artists, Clark felt that their 'pure' pieces held little appeal to soldiers and civilians, in favour of artworks covering traditional themes of heroism, national vigour and resistance.

He prioritised travelling art road shows from London to over 100 sites across Britain, including to the factories and military bases responsible for the nation's defence.

Through his directorship of the WAAC, he played a leading role in recommending artists, agreeing salaries and purchasing their work for well-attended displays at London and New York galleries and across the Commonwealth.

Clark later admitted his real reason for setting up WAAC "was simply to keep artists at work on any pretext, and as far as possible, stop them from getting killed."

Armed with easels

WAAC - endowed with a wartime budget of £5,000 - included veteran artists, academics and civil servants from several government ministries.

Clark promptly selected an inner core of (salaried) artists for commissions including Graham Sutherland and John Piper.

Many other working artists rushed to apply. Over 800 artists submitted their details to the WAAC, including several big names, such as Henry Moore.

A total of 400 WAAC official war artists were selected and encouraged to pursue their own subjects and pitch ideas.

Some were also commissioned as temporary officers, armed only with easels and painting materials.

Many were allocated roles within specific ministries or attached individually to the Royal Navy, Army or Royal Air Force (RAF).

By war's end in 1945 they had produced over 6,000 artworks.

Blitz by brushstroke

Many well-known pre-war artists were recruited including Stanley and Gilbert Spencer, Barnett Freedman and RG Mathews and over 40 leading women artists including Dame Laura Knight.

The WAAC dispatched artists on short term commissions - fees ranged from £10 for single drawings to £300 for oil landscapes - to record bomb damage, particularly in areas such as Coventry and London.

Much like journalists, WAAC artists tried to arrive at the scene of bomb incidents as soon as possible to capture the authentic, often chaotic, aftermath.

In other cases they set their easels up in the rubble, painting and sketching the weed-choked shells of London buildings months or years after they had been devastated.

After capturing scenes of the London Blitz in 1940-1941 and depicting other home front themes, a number of official war artists volunteered for overseas war service.

Theatres of war

The gregarious, Dulwich-born, Anthony Gross went on to paint in no fewer than three theatres of war: the Middle East, Burma and North West Europe.

When the war ended in 1945, the 400 WAAC artists resumed their pre-war painting and academic careers and Kenneth Clark distributed their 6,000 pieces to the Imperial War Museum and regional art galleries and collections.

The West End at War exhibition showcases the work of Westminster's official war artists at the SW1 Gallery, Victoria, from 9 December to 13 January 2011.

Ronan Thomas is a London-based journalist and researcher with the City of Westminster Archives.

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