“WW2: War Pictures by British Artists” – Review by Mark Barnes

I get bombarded with books these days and had to re-organise my office to accommodate my “in-tray”; two large bookcases from a well-known Swedish distributor.

This volume was sent in to me by Casemate on behalf of the publisher.

Eric Kennington. Seeing it through, 1944.

I have loved art all my life. I used to draw and paint and nearly made it as a newspaper cartoonist but was hampered by a crippling lack of confidence in my younger form.

The fact is photography lured me away and I am absorbed by it still, but despite a basic formal education I have long appreciated how many of the best snappers and cartoonists are influenced by all kinds of great art and the artists that make it.

Eric Fraser (1902-1983). RAF Pilot Ejecting from his burning plane, 1942.

This wondrous book takes the reader outside their comfort zone of khaki clobber and all things riveted to present work by great artists during the Second World War. It is a life-affirming collection of art in a range of media that had me wishing I could plaster the walls of my house with some of the magic on view here. The variety of subjects, the people, and the colors are simply stunning.

The book is a tribute to the artists and the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, led by Kenneth Clark. This organization promoted artists struggling in the uniform gray of wartime and created a fund of treasures for the British nation showing the people their war recorded in often-beautiful form but also in darker tones befitting the times.

Frank Potter (1887-1958). Auxiliary Firemen with St Paul’s in the Background, circa 1941.

The collection replicates a series of booklets produced during the war with chapters for each of them:  War at Sea, Blitz, RAF, Army, Women, Production, Soldiers and Air Raids. But the sections here are not pure copies for the curators have included preparatory sketches for many completed works to illustrate the depth of skill the artists possessed.

This is all win, win stuff to be appreciated in the calm of an autumn day, sitting in your favorite chair with your chosen beverage at hand. Turn the telly off, hide your phone down the back of the sofa and put the dog out. Relax with this book and soak up the genius of the artists.

Cliff Rowe. Parachute Flares, circa 1941.

There are bonuses. We get pen portraits of some of the great artists featured here in addition to others. One of them is Thomas Hennell who I first discovered in the excellent The Sketchbook War. I am biased in his favor because Bill Warhurst of The Times photographed him in the ruins of Caen in 1944. Bill is a snapper I hold in the highest esteem.

The book includes a lovely set of portraits commissioned by the long-lost giant ICI, showing a range of workers employed by the huge concern. The company used the images in advertisements to illustrate how its staff worked collectively towards victory. It was and remains a stunning concept executed with remarkable skill by a number of great painters.

There is also a portrait of the Norwegian ace Wilhelm Mohr. It is timely for he passed away in the week I am writing this.

English School. Wings for Victory.

You don’t have to fight in one to know that war isn’t pretty, but it wasn’t all blood and guts. There were other stories to tell on the factory floor or in the air raid shelter. There were moments to be had in the shipyards or on the farm at harvest time.

Photography stirs my soul, but there is something about the kind of art shown here that adds another dimension and the colour and drama are as powerful as any movie, if not better, because you can take your time and breathe it all in without the intrusion of somebody’s popcorn bucket or that annoying packet of chocolates rustling behind your ear.

Stephen Bone. The night watch,(Normandy landings), 1944.

It gets better. This isn’t just a book it is a cataloge for an exhibition that takes place in London at the end of the month.  The war art can be seen at the Morley Gallery at Morley College, 61 Westminster Bridge Street, London SE1 7HT from 28th October until 23rd November.

If you’re in London on one of those rainy autumn days wanting something to see in the dry, a free exhibition of fabulous art has to be better than shopping or whatever. You will not be disappointed. I plan to go and maybe I’ll see you there. I’ll be the smiling bloke wearing an A2 jacket. Be sure to say hello.

English School. Air raid with aircraft caught in intersecting searchlights.

Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.


War Pictures by British Artists
Edited by Sacha Llewellyn and Paul Liss
Liss Llewellyn Fine Art
ISBN: 978 0 9930884 2 1

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.