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War and romanticism

An emotional response to the Second World War

Painting by Graham Sutherland depicting ruined buildings with a slight abstract appearance in sombre greens, greys and black.

Artists such as Paul Nash and Graham Sutherland responded to the violence of the Second World War by creating imaginative landscape paintings.

The Neo-romantics produced somber, poetic and emotional responses to British landscapes.

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Highlights from the collection




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.

Raymond Mortimer


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.

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