As we turn our thoughts to remembrance this Sunday, at Somerset & Wood we do so in the context of art. “War art” is a notion powerful not only for the gravity, solemnity – and often horror – of what it depicts, but in the seeming incongruity of the bringing together of two antithetical notions, of war and art. Art lives on as a medium of engaging with history and of remembrance. And for artists who served as official war artists, the subjects of their work needn't be war or the military for the influence of this important role to be seen.
From the First World War onwards in Britain, artists’ talents have been utilised for recording the events of war. The Imperial War Museum was established by an Act of Parliament in 1917 with the purpose of collecting all kinds of material documenting the war, including art. The government was also commissioning and purchasing art as a record of war. During the Second World War the War Artists Advisory Committee was set up, establishing a more structured approach to official picture collecting. It is notable that, even today, despite global photojournalism, artists are still commissioned by the Imperial War Museum to respond to conflicts in which Britain is involved.
Whilst commissioned war art serves an official state purpose, it is, importantly through the lens of art that the human aspect of war is recorded and remembered. By re-presenting the events of war through art, rather than war being trivialised or art militarised, human creativity is used to achieve Hamlet’s insight “to hold as t’were the mirror up to nature”. In doing so, truths about the human suffering and devastation at the heart of military conflict are communicated and memorialised in a way in which regular record keeping could not achieve.
There are two artists whose collections we have recently acquired who were appointed as war artists in their day.
Henry Samuel Merritt (1884-1963)
Henry Samuel Merritt was commissioned during the Second World War to make sketches of ruins of London after bombing raids, several of which were subsequently acquired by the Inner Temple and Imperial War Museum. These watercolours below at the Imperial War Museum show St Nicholas Cole Abbey: Queen Victoria Street, EC4 and The Library, Inner Temple, London.
© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1509)
© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 2217)
Merritt had an ability to record scenes from unconventional and striking viewpoints, so that whilst being painterly in technique, his watercolours have a sense of the photographic about their composition. It as if the bomb damage Merritt witnessed and recorded in London meant a revisioning of a familiar landscape, and encouraged new ways of approaching and communicating traditional landscape views. His preference for peaceful rural and Cornish seaside scenes was perhaps in reaction to the destruction he had experienced as a war artist in the city.
Cyril Henry Barraud (1877-1965)
Cyril Henry Barraud (1877-1965) was an official war artist in Canada, having emigrated from England in 1913. He enlisted in the Winnipeg Grenadiers in 1915. After being wounded in 1917 he was posted to the Canadian War Office, where he was appointed as an official war artist. His work can be found in the Canadian War Museum.
Like Henry Samuel Merritt, Barraud had a clear understanding of design and composition. Returning to England from Canada in the 1920s, he worked as an artist, etcher and commercial illustrator, specialising in landscape scenes in Suffolk, Essex, Kent, the Thames estuary and Rye. In contrast to the landscapes of Merrit however, Barraud often populated his views with figures or animals. Towering figures dominate the scene in this striking oil painting of "The Stretcher-Bearer Party", c.1918 at the Canadian War Museum, Ottawa, Canada:
He was able to communicate the spirit of a place through the interaction between its people and the environment.
In our collection of watercolours featuring London’s iconic parks and gardens Barraud shows their status as places of sociality and recreation. Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park are the backdrop for mothers with prams, couples meeting and older men resting and conversing on park benches. In these paintings Barraud really captures the spirit of these urban yet leafy spaces in the early 20th-century. They seem a far cry from the work of a war artist, and yet are perhaps all the more powerful and poignant as a counterpoint to this artist's earlier work and as a joyous record of post-war peace.
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