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  • Clive Branson, 'Portrait of a Worker' circa 1930

    Clive Branson
    Portrait of a Worker circa 1930
    Oil on canvas
    support: 610 x 250 x 16 mm
    Bequeathed by Noreen Branson 2004 The estate of Clive Branson

    View the main page for this artwork

  • William Coldstream Rifleman Mangal Singh 2/6 Rajput Rifles 1943-4

    William Coldstream
    Rifleman Mangal Singh: 2/6 Rajput Rifles 1943-4

    © Imperial War Museum, London

  • Sir William Coldstream, 'Havildar Ajmer Singh' 1943

    Sir William Coldstream
    Havildar Ajmer Singh 1943
    Oil on canvas
    support: 791 x 565 x 22 mm frame: 947 x 720 x 84 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

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  • Sir Lawrence Gowing, 'Mrs Roberts' 1944

    Sir Lawrence Gowing
    Mrs Roberts 1944
    Oil on canvas
    support: 406 x 508 mm frame: 560 x 660 x 95 mm
    Presented by the Contemporary Art Society 1945 Tate

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  • Henry Moore OM, CH, 'Grey Tube Shelter' 1940

    Henry Moore OM, CH
    Grey Tube Shelter 1940
    Watercolour, gouache and drawing on paper
    support: 279 x 381 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

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  • Humphrey Spender Woman busker with street organ from a pub in Whitechapel c. 1937-8

    Humphrey Spender
    Woman busker with street organ from a pub in Whitechapel c. 1937-8

    © The Humphrey Spender Archive

  • Sir Stanley Spencer, 'William McBrearty, Sawyer' 1943-4

    Sir Stanley Spencer
    William McBrearty, Sawyer 1943-4
    Drawing on paper
    support: 489 x 394 mm
    Presented by the War Artists Advisory Committee 1946

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  • Clive Branson, 'Selling the 'Daily Worker' outside Projectile Engineering Works' 1937

    Clive Branson
    Selling the 'Daily Worker' outside Projectile Engineering Works 1937
    Oil on canvas
    support: 406 x 507 x 20 mm
    Bequeathed by Noreen Branson 2004 The estate of Clive Branson

    View the main page for this artwork

  • Julian Trevelyan, 'The Potteries' circa 1938

    Julian Trevelyan
    The Potteries circa 1938
    Oil on canvas
    support: 604 x 735 mm
    Presented by Mary Trevelyan, the artist's widow 1996 The estate of Julian Trevelyan

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  • Julian Trevelyan Teapot Café c. 1937-8

    Julian Trevelyan
    Teapot Café c. 1937-8
    Julian Trevelyan was interested in photographing everyday life in the hope of revealing significant patterns of unconscious behaviour. Seeing a correlation between the aims of Surrealism and the aims of Mass-Observation, Trevelyan accepted Tom Harrisson’s invitation to participate in the Worktown project and travelled to Bolton in 1938. For the socially consciencious Trevelyan the project had particular resonance, presenting an opportunity to tell the ‘truth’ about everyday life for everyday people. His photographs for Mass-Observation reveal a Surrealist fascination with the odd and eccentric in the everyday.

    © Trevelyan Estate

The 1930s and 1940s can be viewed as the era in which documentary was first defined and given recognition as an independent area of production. Perhaps the most prominent manifestation of documentary was the film movement of the 1930s, led by the producer and filmmaker John Grierson (1898–1972), who had coined the term ‘documentary’ in this context.

Grierson defined documentary as ‘the creative use of actuality’. His film Drifters (1929) was a significant departure from anything previously made by the British film industry. It was influenced by Modernist film practice, yet attempted to reintroduce social commentary into avant-garde film. As a producer, working for the official film units of the Empire Marketing Board and the General Post Office, Grierson brought together an extraordinary group of practitioners from various disciplines (among them Humphrey Jennings, Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden) and persuaded important figures from overseas (including Robert Flaherty and Alberto Cavalcanti) to work in Britain, giving the movement an international dimension.

William Coldstream, troubled by the inaccessibility of avant-garde painting to a general audience, turned briefly to filmmaking in 1934, working at the GPO Film Unit. When he returned to painting, it was with a new commitment to observational realism inspired by Grierson’s ideals. Coldstream also participated in Mass-Observation, the documentary project founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson with Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings. Mass-Observation sought to record working-class lives and experiences, but it was not a straightforward exercise; complex and sometimes contradictory in its motives and methods, it attracted artists on both sides of the Realist versus Surrealist debate.

With the outbreak of the Second World War, many of the artists and practitioners who had been involved in documentary projects during the 1930s were co-opted into official bodies for the creation of propaganda. Bill Brandt, Henry Moore and Humphrey Jennings created works in diverse media that defined the Home Front.