In 1939 the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) was established and under the guidance of The National Gallery Director, Kenneth Clark, artists were selected to create images for propaganda via posters and pamphlets. Not only did this enable the artists to create a powerful visual and personal record of the wars effect at home and on the front line, it also allowed each artists work to be preserved and showcase their talents. By 1945 the collection had reached over 5500 works.
They produced images of buildings on fire, bombed houses, whole streets in rubble, people sleeping in the underground air raid shelters, subways, portraits of policemen, soldiers, pilots, fighter planes and ships, often bloody war scenes with dismembered bodies or front line atrocities that no person would wish to see or remember, but this was their job, alongside surviving in these situations. The images of the war effort at home, the people in the factories and the farms, in the hospitals and on the streets, everybody and everything affected by the war was also captured in detail by these artists.
Ships and planes were one of the main subjects for the war artists as only a small part of the Second World War was fought on land. Eric Ravilious had a large role in recording life at sea during the war, including submariners, coastal defence, convoys and aircraft carriers. Despite being far from his south eastern home he was very enthusiastic about getting on with his challenge in the icy northern waters. In Ravilious' art it is the machinery that dominates his work, not the men behind it. In 1942 he took off as a passenger on a reconnaissance flight, and never returned.
Some of those artists were also known as book illustrators. The list includes the likes of Edward Ardizzone, Edward Bawden, Paul Nash, Mervyn Peake, John Piper and Eric Ravilious.
Amongst them, one of my favorite illustrators is Edward Ardizzone. He was one of the better known War Artists, as well as being one of the longest serving. He was born in 1900 in Indo-China and moved to England when he was five years old. In his 30s he was known for his illustrations in the Radio Times alongside children’s books, so a bit of a surprising choice as a war artist. He travelled quite extensively throughout Europe and Britain to capture many of the emotions and atrocities of the war, possibly more than any other War Artist. His war drawings were very effective in terms of accessibity, the intimate style of his work spoke to the people and more than likely helped to raise moral amongst them in a time of great need, making them perfect for the purposes of propaganda. He also kept war diaries.
As a child I read "Stig of the Dump" by Clive King and Ardizzone's illustrations never left me. His works with Graham Green's books in the 70's, such as "The Little Fire Engine" and his own "Tim All Alone" are for me so moving and gentle that you can't help but feel a touch of somberness and perhaps the weight of his sorrow at having witnessed and depicted such scenes at close quarters during this time.