Description

Artists were employed by all sides in World War One to produce images and text for propaganda use. Literary figures at the meetings of Britain’s War Propaganda Bureau, created in 1914, included Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), G M Trevelyan (1876–1962) and H G Wells (1866–1946).

Britain’s first official War Artist, however, was not appointed by the Bureau until May 1916: the Scottish etcher and watercolourist Sir Muirhead Bone (1876–1953). He was sent to France until October, producing 150 highly finished drawings of the war in six weeks. In 1917 he returned to France, concentrating on towns and villages ruined in bombing raids.

However, modern warfare was hard to capture. By daylight, the battlefield – or what he could safely see of it – was empty and deserted, with combatants hidden in the trenches or far behind the lines. At night, it was crowded with activity, haze and smoke, but too dark to draw. The sheer scale frustrated Bone, as it had the few official photographers before him. 

Nevertheless, he worked diligently in demanding conditions, depicting the systematic ruination of the French countryside. Often there was little left to see, as in this image of the Battle of the Somme, which took place from July to November 1916. Disappointed by Bone’s deadpan realism, some critics were rather dismissive. ‘It is like looking at war through the wrong end of a telescope’, scoffed one.

Transcript