War artists are artists who are commissioned through an official scheme to record the events of war

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

Introduction

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

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, 'Study for 'Returning to the Trenches'' 1914-15
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson
Study for 'Returning to the Trenches' 1914-15
Charcoal and crayon on paper
support: 146 x 206 mm
Purchased 1959© Tate

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 NashChistopher Richard NevinsonJohn Singer SargentSir Stanley Spencer and Sir William Orpen. At the end of the war these collections were combined at the Imperial War Museum.

Second World War

Paul Nash, 'Totes Meer (Dead Sea)' 1940-1
Paul Nash
Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1
Oil on canvas

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 PiperGraham Sutherland, Henry MoorePaul Nash and Stanley Spencer on the home front; and Anthony Gross, Edward Bawden and Edward Ardizzone overseas. 

Later conflicts

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

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  • Henry Moore OM, CH, 'Shelterers in the Tube' 1941
    Henry Moore OM, CH
    Shelterers in the Tube 1941
    Pencil, pen and ink, watercolour and crayon on paper
    support: 380 x 568 mm
    frame: 650 x 817 x 35 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Richard Eurich, 'Survivors from a Torpedoed Ship' 1942
    Richard Eurich
    Survivors from a Torpedoed Ship 1942
    Oil on canvas
    support: 356 x 610 mm
    frame: 518 x 772 x 78 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Eric Ravilious, 'Shelling by Night' 1941
    Eric Ravilious
    Shelling by Night 1941
    Pencil and watercolour on paper
    support: 445 x 546 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Leonard Rosoman, 'Bomb Falling into Water' 1942
    Leonard Rosoman
    Bomb Falling into Water 1942
    Oil on canvas
    support: 635 x 762 mm
    frame: 800 x 930 x 90 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Charles Ginner, 'Emergency Water Storage Tank' 1942
    Charles Ginner
    Emergency Water Storage Tank 1942
    Oil paint on canvas
    support: 686 x 508 mm
    frame: 846 x 670 x 85 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Peter Howson, 'Plum Grove' 1994
    Peter Howson
    Plum Grove 1994
    Oil on canvas
    support: 2137 x 1523 x 27 mm
    frame: 2211 x 1600 x 64 mm
    Purchased 1995© Peter Howson 2006. All Rights Reserved DACS
  • John Piper, 'Somerset Place, Bath' 1942
    John Piper
    Somerset Place, Bath 1942
    Pencil, ink and gouache on paper
    support: 489 x 762 mm
    frame: 707 x 976 x 25 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Paul Nash, 'The Messerschmidt in Windsor Great Park' 1940
    Paul Nash
    The Messerschmidt in Windsor Great Park 1940
    Pastel, pencil, and watercolour on paper
    support: 400 x 578 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Eric Ravilious, 'Midnight Sun' 1940
    Eric Ravilious
    Midnight Sun 1940
    Watercolour and drawing on paper
    support: 470 x 591 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Archibald Standish Hartrick, 'Women's Work: On the Railway - Engine and Carriage Cleaners' circa 1917
    Archibald Standish Hartrick
    Women's Work: On the Railway - Engine and Carriage Cleaners circa 1917
    Lithograph on paper
    image: 461 x 359 mm
    Presented by the Ministry of Information 1918
  • Evelyn Dunbar, 'A Land Girl and the Bail Bull' 1945
    Evelyn Dunbar
    A Land Girl and the Bail Bull 1945
    Oil on canvas
    support: 914 x 1829 mm
    frame: 1085 x 2000 x 80 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Graham Sutherland OM, 'Miner Probing a Drill Hole' 1942
    Graham Sutherland OM
    Miner Probing a Drill Hole 1942
    Gouache, wax crayon and Indian ink on paper mounted on hardboard
    support: 560 x 512 mm
    frame (carry frame): 780 x 815 x 145 mm
    frame: 675 x 632 x 50 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, 'In the Air' 1917
    Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson
    In the Air 1917
    Lithograph on paper
    image: 405 x 302 mm
    Presented by the Ministry of Information 1918
  • David Bomberg, 'Bomb Store' 1942
    David Bomberg
    Bomb Store 1942
    Oil on board
    support: 745 x 972 mm
    frame: 938 x 1150 x 65 mm
    Purchased 1995© Tate
  • Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, 'Making the Engine' 1917
    Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson
    Making the Engine 1917
    Lithograph on paper
    image: 402 x 303 mm
    Presented by the Ministry of Information 1918
  • Albert Richards, 'Withdrawing from the Battery after the Battery's Guns Had Been Destroyed.' 1944
    Albert Richards
    Withdrawing from the Battery after the Battery's Guns Had Been Destroyed. 1944
    Pencil, crayon, gouache and wax on paper
    support: 540 x 737 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946
  • Richard Eurich, 'The Landing at Dieppe, 19th August 1942' 1942-3
    Richard Eurich
    The Landing at Dieppe, 19th August 1942 1942-3
    Oil on wood
    support: 1219 x 1753 mm

    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

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.

War artists in focus: CWN Nevinson and Paul Nash

Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson, 'La Mitrailleuse' 1915
Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson
La Mitrailleuse 1915
Oil on canvas
Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1917 © Tate

CWN Nevinson

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.

Powerfully lonely
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

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.

Paul Nash
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.

Incomplete illustrated letter from Paul Nash to his wife, Margaret, 1917
Incomplete illustrated letter from Paul Nash to his wife, Margaret, 1917

Paul Nash in military uniform
Portrait photograph of Paul Nash in military uniform taken by Bassano Ltd., 1918
Illustrated letter from Paul Nash to his sister describing the trenches, snipers and wildlife
Illustrated letter from Paul Nash to his sister, Barbara, describing the trenches, snipers and wildlife, c.March–May 1917

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.

Other perspectives: Wider responses to the impact of war in art

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.

Guernica… In a car showroom?
Read the story of how Pablo Picasso’s powerful anti-war painting Guernica was displayed in a British car showroom on the eve of the second world war. 

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.

A page from James Boswell’s Iraq sketchbook 1943–4 03
A page from James Boswell’s Iraq sketchbook 1943–4

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 

In detail

Jonathan Olley Golf Five Zero watchtower (known to the British Army as 'Borucki Sanger'), Crossmaglen Security Force Base, South Armagh 1999
Jonathan Olley
Golf Five Zero watchtower (known to the British Army as 'Borucki Sanger'), Crossmaglen Security Force Base, South Armagh 1999

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.

Related glossary terms

Futurism, dadaarte nucleareArtists International Associationreturn to order, neo-romanticism