War and romanticism
An emotional response to the Second World War
Artists such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland responded to the violence of the Second World War by creating imaginative landscape paintings.
During the Second World War there was a resurgence of romanticism in British art and literature. Like the ‘return to order’ that followed the First World War, this was a direct response to the violence of the war. This art was given the label ‘Neo-Romantic’ by art critics such as Robin Ironside and Raymond Mortimer.
The appeal of their art is to mystics and particularly to pantheists who feel a fraternity, or even a unity, with all living things, to those with the sublime sense of something far more deeply interfused. Their work can be considered the expression of an identification with nature.
The British art historian, museum director, and broadcaster Sir Kenneth Clark set up both the ‘Recording Britain’ scheme and the War Artist’ Advisory Committee. Both initiatives aimed to compile a comprehensive artistic record of Britain throughout the war. John Piper and Graham Sutherland produced striking images of Britain’s bomb-damaged buildings. Meanwhile Henry Moore created drawings of civilians sheltering from the Blitz in the London Underground.
Sutherland also created powerful images which embodied the idea of the British landscape under threat. These often featured thorns and natural forms suggestive of violence. This is particularly strongly expressed in paintings such as his iconic Thorn Head (1947). This work also relates to his paintings of the Crucifixion created at the end of the Second World War.
Other artists depicted military activities, for example Eric Ravilious’ memorable series of lithographs of submarines.
Meanwhile John Minton and John Craxton depicted the landscape as a pastoral idyll. They were nostalgic for the England of William Blake and Samuel Palmer. Many of these artists were responding to the idea of a landscape under threat. Yet some – in particular Craxton, Sutherland and Ivon Hitchens – were also influenced by the work of European modern artists such as Picasso and Matisse.
Highlights from the collection
Henry Moore, Two Apprehensive Shelterers (1942)
Early in the Second World War, Henry Moore had to give up working on sculpture when his Hampstead studio was bombed. Instead he concentrated on drawing, creating a monumental series of works showing the plight of people sheltering in the London Underground. “The official shelters were insufficient”, he wrote. “People had taken to rolling their blankets out about eight or nine o’clock in the evening, going down into the Tube stations and settling on the platforms. It was like a huge city in the bowels of the earth. When I first saw it quite by accident – I had gone into one of them during an air raid – I saw hundreds of Henry Moore Reclining Figures.”
John Piper, Redland Park Congregational Church, Bristol (1940)
Piper was already an artist of some standing by the start of the Second World War, made through his association with the group of avant-garde artists experimenting with abstraction in the 1930s.
However, his lifelong interest in architecture found new direction through the commissions he undertook on behalf of the War Artists Advisory Committee and established his reputation as the painter of Britain’s architectural heritage. At the end of 1940, Piper was commissioned to record bombed churches, initially in Coventry, where the Cathedral had been destroyed in the air raids, and later in Bristol, Bath and London.
Of these works, the poet John Betjeman wrote “When the bombs fell, when the city churches crashed, when the classic and Perpendicular glory of England was burnt and stark, he produced a series of oil paintings, using his theory of colour to keep the drama of a newly fallen bomb alive”.
Piper’s ability to seize on the essential architectural character of a building and to dramatize its destruction through the use of colour and simple shapes made him, in Kenneth Clark’s words, “the ideal recorder of bomb damage”.
Eric Ravilious, Commander Looking Through the Periscope from the Submarine Series (1940-41)
In February 1940, Ravilious was appointed as an Official War Artists and assigned to the Royal Navy. At the submarine base at Gosport in 1940 he drew the interiors of submarines on exercise and the crew training in a special tank. Although the War Artists Advisory Committee declined to publish his proposed series of prints from the drawings he made at Gosport, he eventually paid for the printing of a small edition himself, at W. S. Cowell of Ipswich.