War artists are artists who are commissioned through an official scheme to record the events of war
- Introduction to war artists
- War artists in focus: CWN Nevinson and Paul Nash
- Other perspectives: Wider responses to war
- In detail: In depth content related to war art
In Britain official government-sponsored schemes were established for artists to record both the First and Second World Wars. The Imperial War Museum has continued to commission artists to record the events of war in more recent conflicts. As well as providing fascinating documentation of war time activities and events, much of the work produced by war artists is also interesting and important as art.
First World War
During the First World War, two main streams of activity produced official war art. The Imperial War Museum, established by Act of Parliament in 1917, was given the task of 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.
Second World War
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, after the war had ended, 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 had been commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee, 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.
The Imperial War Museum continues to commission war artists to record wars in which Britain is involved. Artists commissioned have included Linda Kitson (Falklands War), Peter Howson (Bosnian Civil War), and Langlands & Bell (Afghanistan conflict).
Explore war art in Tate’s collection
- Explore war art in Tate’s collection
- Or browse through the slideshow below to see a selection of art made by war artists:
Further reading and viewing
Watch Tate curator Chris Stephens discuss the impact the outbreak of the First World War had on artistic style and subject matter.
Henry Moore: shelter drawings
Read about Henry Moore’s drawings of people in London sheltering from bombing raids during the Second World War, which are among the documentation of the home front commissioned by the War Advisory Commission.
Turner Prize 2004 artists: Langlands & Bell
Find out about the work made by artists Langlands & Bell when they were commissioned by the Imperial War Museum in 2002 to travel to Afghanistan in the aftermath of the conflict there.
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson was one of the artists commissioned to record the events of the First World War. He was a member of the futurists, a group of artists and writers who used abstract style to celebrate modernity. The horrors Nevinson witnessed on the battlefield however changed his ideas about modern life and how responded to modernity in his art.
See artworks by Nevinson
Have a look at Nevinson’s powerful responses to the war and also how what he saw affected his art.
The Arrival and Family Group
Listen to curator Chris Stephens discuss Nevinson’s pre-war radical futurist style.
Find out how Nevinson’s iconic The Soul of the Soulless City (‘New York – an Abstraction’) 1920 reflects his post-war disillusionment with modernity in this article.
Tate Worlds: Soul of the Soulless City
Discover how Nevinson’s melancholy depiction of New York inspired one of the explorable worlds in Tate’s Minecraft video games.
Paul Nash was commissioned as an official war artist during both World Wars. In the First World War he served with the Artists’ Rifles from 1914 to 1917 and was appointed an official war artist in 1917. He used his experiences to create powerful symbolic images of the tragedy of war. In the Second World War he was commissioned to record events and activities on the home front and his drawings and photographs provide fascinating insights into what was happening in Britain at that time.
Discover what inspired Paul Nash to paint his iconic work Totes Meer 1940–1, and how, as well being a compelling memorial to the ravages of war, it may also symbolise a more personal history of lost love.
A landscape of mortality
Find out how Nash’s experiences of war impacted on his depictions of landscape and nature.
This 2016 exhibition at Tate Britain spans the artist’s career exploring the developments in his style and inspiration from his early symbolist works to his post-war landscapes.
Archives & Access project: Artists in wartime
Delve into Paul Nash’s personal accounts of what he saw on the battlefields in letters now housed in Tate’s archive.
Officiallly commissioned war artists were not the only artists who have responded to the subject of war. From the Crimean War in the nineteenth century to more recent conflicts in the twenty-first century, discover how war has impacted on the work of artists and photographers.
In this video Chloe Dewe Matthews discusses her moving series of photographs which capture the various locations across Northern Europe where First World War soldiers accused of desertion and cowardice were executed.
A terrible beauty
Read the fascinating story of the first British war photographer, Roger Fenton, whose images of the Crimean War have influenced subsequent generations of artists.
Drawing the vortex
Find out about the impact of the First World War on the the development of artistic style.
Sounds of War and Peace
This article looks at the history of sonic warfare within the context of Susan Philipsz‘ War Damaged Musical Instruments. The haunting sound installation features fourteen recordings of British and German brass and wind instruments damaged in conflicts over the last 200 years.
When you paint a picture you are afraid of giving it your life – the life where you are dreaming realities
Discover the fascinating sketchbooks of artist James Boswell who, posted to Iraq during the Second World War, recorded his responses to his desert experience in words and drawings.
The legacy of the war on terror
Now they have risen to the challenge of questioning the moral ambiguity and culpability of governments waging the war on terror, whose methods may, according to this writer, have done more to weaken democracy than any terrorist
- Browse more articles relating to the impact of war on art and artists
- Watch videos looking at how artists and photographers have responded to the theme of war
Level 2 Gallery: 9 Scripts from a Nation at War: Scripts / videos
Watch videos from this ten-part video installation which responds to the conditions and questions that have arisen during and in response to the military conflicts in Iraq since March 2003.
The Military-Pastoral Complex: Contemporary Representations of Militarism in the Landscape
In this in-depth research article Matthew Flintham reflects on the ruination of outmoded military structures, the idea of landscape as an extension of the military imagination, and the investigative strategies of activist artists.
British Art Network Seminar: First World War
Listen to audio recordings of this seminar which explored British art in relation to the First World War.