Your place to explore new perspectives on British art from 1900 to now. Through interviews, films, image galleries and essays, we uncover the creative lives of the people behind the art on our walls.
Up Close and Personal: The War Art of Barnett Freedman
[ Artist in Focus, Stories )
Although best known for his commercial designs, Barnett Freedman’s work as a war artist reveals the importance of the relationship between man and machine in the modern world. His works captured the individual characters of military personnel and the machines they operated.
Headed by Sir Kenneth Clark, the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) employed many of the most influential artists of 20th century Britain, including Eric Ravilious, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Evelyn Dunbar, Laura Knight and Barnett Freedman.
The WAAC’s aim was to create a comprehensive artistic record of Britain during the war. Each of the artists involved in the scheme created work that captured unique aspects of the war. John Piper for example captured the devastation of air raids on Britain’s towns and cities, while Evelyn Dunbar captured the hard work of ordinary civilians on the Home Front.
In 1945, Freedman explained what his own contribution to this record was on the BBC Home Service programme Away From It All:
I’ve been a war artist ever since 1940 and all the time I’ve tried to depict men doing their jobs. I was not going to depict ruins… I wanted to paint men guiding and controlling machines. The relation of men to machines is so important in the modern world that I wanted to try to express it in paint.
This relationship between man and machine is what makes Freedman’s wartime work unique. In his paintings he captures the intricacies of the enormously complex machinery used during the war, but also the characters of the individual men operating them.
Freedman was able to capture these intricate relationships by spending lengthy periods of time living and working side by side with both the men and the machines he was to depict.
Let’s take a closer look at two of the most significant places he spent the war.
In 1940, Freedman had been invited to paint an important general in the British Expeditionary Force in France but had declined, saying, “No. I am not interested in uniforms. Oh well, perhaps I might if he’s got a good head”. This remark exemplifies Freedman’s down to earth manner and his lack of interest in rank and status. His primary interest was in painting people he found interesting. He never did paint that portrait of the general, but did paint portraits of more rank and file members of the BEF.
These portraits helped form the basis of what he would later call his ‘albums’ of portraits, which depicted dozens of men in a company or crew, capturing the unique characters of each individual.
In 1941 Freedman was assigned to HMS Repulse where he worked periodically over a period of several months. Earlier in the war, Freedman had developed a technique which he called an ‘album’ of portraits, whereby he painted individual portraits of personnel, each annotated with their name, rank and nickname. Freedman later described his reasoning behind this technique:
I wanted to get their individual characters but give them unity by placing them side by side in a single picture – with Shorty Chewter looking more so, because he was beside Lanky ‘Pots’ and Hooky Walker looking all the more serious because he was next to Frosty, the telegraphist and a ‘perfect scream’.
On board the Repulse, Freedman settled in and created his portraits of the crew. He was in his element, remarking that he would like to stay there for years. The finished painting, The Captain of HMS Repulse and some of his Officers and Ship’s Company, was well received and selected to appear in the National Gallery’s War Pictures exhibition. There it was seen by Evelyn Dunbar, the only salaried female war artist, who wrote to Freedman to tell him “how much I admire your portrait drawings of crews… I think they were lovely drawings”.
Freedman also made a series of detailed drawings and a watercolour painting depicting HMS Repulse’s gun turret, an enormous gun that could fire shells weighing almost a ton over fifteen miles. The next year, he used these works to complete a large dramatic oil painting documenting the crew at practice operating the gun.
The painting captures the cramped and claustrophobic atmosphere of the ship and the intimate relationship between man and machine. The men almost appear part of the machine, focussed entirely on their work. The Ministry of Information decided that some war paintings should be reproduced as prints and distributed to factories and canteens for the public to see, as part of the war effort. As a master lithographer, Freedman worked with the Baynard Press to create a lithograph of this painting, which soon earned him widespread publicity and recognition.
Tragically, Freedman’s paintings of HMS Repulse became both an important record and memorial to the 840 crew members who lost their lives when HMS Repulse was sunk off Malaya by the Japanese on 10 December 1941 – only three days after the attacks on Pearl Harbour.
Freedman was greatly shocked by the news. A month later he received a letter from Janet Newbery, the widow of Douglas Newbery, Surgeon Commander, requesting a copy of the portrait Freedman had made of her husband. She revealed that Douglas “spoke of you in several of his letters and obviously enjoyed your company so much and the opportunity it gave him to talk of other things besides naval ‘shop’.”
In May 1943, Freedman was asked to create a submarine painting for the Ministry of Information and was sent to HMS Tribune in Gosport. Freedman was delighted by this commission as from early in the war he had expressed a desire to work on a submarine. Once on board, Freedman knew that if he wanted to accurately depict the life of a submariner, he would have to go on a voyage with them.
I know that men look different when they’re actually doing their jobs. Not only that – their look when they’re doing their jobs in the tension of an actual voyage is different from their look when they’re doing similar jobs in harbour where there’s no tension. So I knew, if I wanted to paint submarines properly, I had to go on a voyage. And I was right!
Freedman made portrait drawings of all 60 members of the crew, a difficult undertaking in the circumstances, but Freedman relished the job. He described them as “excellent sitters” and the crew in turn seemed to have quickly warmed to Freedman, calling him ‘Mike’ short for Michelangelo.
As well as capturing the individual men, Freedman wanted to capture the relationship between man and machine. In his vision, the men were an integral part of the machinery they operated.
If you see a man turning a wheel you can tell immediately whether he cares for machines or not. If he doesn’t, he looks separate – apart: the wheel has nothing to do with him. But if he understands and loves them – as these submariners did – then he and the machine have that strange look of being one.
Like his painting of HMS Repulse’s guns, Interior of a Submarine captures this intricate and claustrophobic relationship between man and machine. His hard work and time spent aboard the submarine paid off in this work as its meticulously detailed view of the control room could only have been captured by someone who knew the submarine well. In fact, this level of detail proved to be problem; soon after it went on display at the National Gallery in 1943 it was withdrawn as it could have given useful information to the enemy about Britain’s submarine technology!
Broadcaster and art critic Eric Newton described Freedman’s wartime work as combining “the record with the interpretation, [and] the appearance with the experience”.
Through his paintings and lithographs he captured something of the sensation of working aboard submarine and ship, as well as the personalities of the men who kept the machines working.
Find out more about Barnett Freedman and why we think he deserves a place in the story of 20th century British art in our blog Why you should know about Barnett Freedman.
Want to know more? Our exhibition catalogue tells the full story of Barnett Freedman from his wrok as a war artist, his numerous commercial projects and his skill in the art of lithography. Barnett Freedman: Designs for Modern Britain is now available from the Pallant House Gallery Bookshop.
This article was written to coincide with our exhibition Barnett Freedman: Designs for Modern Britain in 2020.