Artists commissioned through an official scheme to record the events of war

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  • Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, 'La Mitrailleuse' 1915

    Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson
    La Mitrailleuse 1915
    Oil on canvas
    frame: 777 x 670 x 90 mm support: 610 x 508 mm
    Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917 Tate

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  • Paul Nash, 'Totes Meer (Dead Sea)' 1940-1

    Paul Nash
    Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1
    Oil on canvas
    support: 1016 x 1524 mm frame: 1170 x 1680 x 97 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

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  • Sir William Orpen, 'Zonnebeke' 1918

    Sir William Orpen
    Zonnebeke 1918
    Oil on canvas
    support: 635 x 762 mm frame: 820 x 953 x 75 mm
    Presented by Diana Olivier 2001

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In Britain official schemes were established for artists to record both the First and Second World Wars.

During the First World War, two main streams of activity produced official art. The Imperial War Museum, established by Act of Parliament in 1917, was charged with collecting all kinds of material documenting the war, including art. Meanwhile, the government was also commissioning and purchasing art to create a record of and a memorial to the war through paintings commissioned from the best and, on occasion, the most avant-garde, British artists of the day. These included Wyndham Lewis, Paul Nash, Chistopher Richard Nevinson, John Singer Sargent, Sir Stanley Spencer and Sir William Orpen. At the end of the war these collections were combined at the Imperial War Museum.

During the Second World War a more structured approach to official picture collecting was taken, when the War Artists Advisory Committee, chaired by Sir Kenneth Clark, was established. As in the previous war, the pictures collected were exhibited in London and in shows touring nationally and internationally. In 1946 one third of the collection was allocated to the Imperial War Museum and the rest was distributed to museums and galleries across the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. Over 300 artists were involved, including John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Henry Moore, Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer on the home front, and Anthony Gross, Edward Bawden and Edward Ardizzone overseas. Much of the work produced went beyond documentation into the realm of art.

The Imperial War Museum continues to commission war artists to record wars in which Britain is involved.