The art of the Second World War was, in many cases, not merely the fanciful creation of the artist, taken by a whim and determined to record what they saw, but rather was part of a concerted campaign which sought to render an impression of these extraordinary events and provide familiar images that could draw the nation together.
Such efforts were orchestrated by the government’s War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) which came into being in November 1939. One of their key objectives, shaping the commissioning and collection of work, was to try and create a visual impression of what it meant to be British, illustrating our key national values and beliefs.
Official war artists were expected to help to define the nation, demonstrate how that nation was united in its common identity and provide signs that this was the case.
One approach where it was hoped that this might be achieved was in a concentration on historic buildings given that such images demonstrated how the nation’s past pointed to present-day strengths and values, thereby highlighting tradition and continuity.
This objective was heavily imbued with a sense of nostalgia, a byproduct of the prevailing deficiency of the present, signifying an erosion of confidence typical of wartime which marked the abrupt forestalling of national progress.
This nostalgic past was cherished given that it was something which was known and thereby safe. In the words of Shaw and Chase, ‘nostalgia is the attempt to cling to the alleged certainties of the past, ignoring the fact that, like it or not, the only constant in our lives is change’ (8).
Further, an emphasis on the representation of key structures of long-standing and heritage, demonstrating the permanence and dependability of the nation, was acutely in tune with general propaganda policy given that this could be used to signify a sense of belonging, identity, and commonality which was a perceived to be a necessity if the nation were to prevail. The government were determined that, in the best interests of morale, people should be encouraged to engage with society at large by drawing around key symbols and devices, bringing the nation together around incontrovertible symbols of Britishness in an all-inclusive fashion.
Pre-modernist buildings were crucial in this respect given their obvious and inextricable connection with the past. These grand and ancient structures were not only inspiring in their very grandeur but were additionally signs of the culture and early civilisation of the country which stood in contrast to the heathen barbarity of the enemy in the present conflict.
Further, these familiar and well-known structures possessed clarity, being fixed, non-negotiable and known, setting them apart as anchor points amidst the chaos and uncertainty being played out around them. These images were thrown into sharp relief where they contrasted with the destruction around them that was a consequence of the Blitz. As Foss highlights, in these circumstances they had value as ‘physical and psychological orientation points in devastated urban landscapes’ (51).
However, beyond merely pointing to the past, representations of historic buildings, especially where damaged or destroyed in air raids, also helped to fuel the national dialogue about the future, and particularly the theme of urban renewal, which was a crucial aspect of home front morale.
One of the key drivers that would get people through the war was a basic belief, however vague, that this war would come to an end and that there was something to look forward to. This discourse was given greatest meaning by the WAAC’s commitment to portray the churches of Christopher Wren, not least given how in the interwar period Wren had risen to the surface as an icon of British architecture.
Drawing a parallel between Wren’s London, which had taken shape in the Great Fire of 1666, and the destruction of the Blitz on the one hand brought despair in the face of such desecration but at the same time gave hope that London would be restored again and, this time, to the full extent that Wren had envisaged. This was best exemplified by St. Paul’s cathedral.
St. Paul’s was ‘the point at which the glorious past, the destruction of war, and the physical and social reconstruction of the peace came together’ (Foss, 59) so famously captured in Herbert Mason’s photograph for the Daily Mail of 31 December 1940, a scene previously described by J.B. Priestley in his ‘Postscript’ of 15 September: ‘I saw the Dome and Cross of St. Paul’s silhouetted in sharpest black against the red flames and orange fumes, and it looked like an enduring symbol of reason and Christian ethics seen against the crimson glare of unreason and savagery. “Though giant rains put out the sun, here I stand for a sign”’ (73).
Endurance was one of the key qualities required of the people throughout the war, frequently with little other solace and these structures spoke to that. Indeed, the visual representation of this war was governed by the need to hold Britain up as something special and worth protecting, as well as something distinct from the enemy and unique.
By making reference to Britain’s long and distinctive past in war art, the nation could be pulled together around its shared heritage, presenting something to be proud of. At the same time, by concentrating on historic structures, and especially those which had previously faced destruction, a narrative could be offered that, once again, Britain would rise from the smoke and ashes and be triumphant.
Foss, Brian, War Paint. Art, War, State and Identity in Britain 1939 – 1945, Yale University Press, New Haven, 2007.
Priestley, J. B., Postscripts, Heinemann, London, 1940.
Shaw, Christopher and Chase, Malcolm, ‘The Dimensions of Nostalgia’ in Christopher Shaw and Malcolm Chase (eds.), The Imagined Past: History and Nostalgia, Manchester University Press, Manchester, 1989.