Art in Exile

How IWM protected its art collection during the Second World War

By Imperial War Museums

The Imperial War Museum During the Second World War (1941) by Ministry of WorksOriginal Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205219844

Days before the outbreak of the Second World War, staff at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) evacuated precious objects from the museum's collection. They moved them from London to save them for future generations.

The museum staff knew that the capital would be at risk of bomb damage from German air raids. This photograph shows the damage the museum's Naval Gallery sustained during one raid in January 1941.

The evacuated objects came from IWM’s art collection, which in 1939 held over 4,000 paintings, sculptures and drawings of the First World War. It included works by some of the most famous artists of the day.

Priority List (1939) by IWMOriginal Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/events/art-in-exile

In 1939, the museum staff made a risky choice. In the face of imminent war, they chose to move just 281 works of art and 305 albums of photographs out of London to safety.

These objects were recorded on a ‘priority list’, and accounted for 7% of the art collection, and less than 1% of the IWM’s entire collection.

The objects on the priority list were destined for storage in country homes, owned by three of the museum’s wealthy Trustees.

Explore the stories of some of the artworks IWM staff decided to evacuate – and one that was left behind.

Lieutenant-Colonel T E Lawrence, CB, DSO, 1918 (1918) by James McBeyOriginal Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/18131

Pictures of People 
Portraits accounted for over a quarter of the priority list.
In many cases, a portrait was chosen for evacuation because of the sitter’s
reputation. Surprisingly for the time, the IWM staff did not fill the priority
list with portraits of senior British military officers. Instead, they chose some
pictures of people who were ‘household names’ in the 1930s, such as war heroes.

T.E. Lawrence became famous for his involvement in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire during the First World War. In this portrait the artist, James McBey, made sure to paint ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ wearing his middle-Eastern clothing.

McBey met Lawrence during the war and painted this portrait from life. As proof, he recorded the place and date of the meeting directly onto the painting.

Lawrence was a famous figure by the 1930s. This portrait gave the IWM visitors an opportunity to study the face of the celebrity in detail.

Captain Albert Ball, VC, DSO, MC, Notts and Derby Regt, and RFC, 1919 (1919) by Edward NewlingOriginal Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20311

This is a portrait of a top British fighter ace of the First World War, Captain Albert Ball.

Beloved by the British public, Ball was tragically killed at the age of 20 during a dogfight. He was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross medal.

This memorial portrait by Edward Newling of Albert Ball was made after his death.

The artist still managed to give the portrait of the young war hero life and vitality.

The white winged badge on Ball’s uniform represents the Royal Flying Corps.

Below it, the artist added a wine-red Victoria Cross ribbon to this painting. This would not have appeared on Ball’s uniform during his lifetime.

The Scottish Women's Hospital: In the Cloister of the Abbaye at Royaumont. Dr Frances Ivens inspecting a French patient. (1920) by Norah Neilson-GrayOriginal Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20142

Representing Women
In the 1930s the IWM owned paintings by a number of
important female artists. They had been collected by a pioneering committee of
women towards the end of the First World War. But in 1939, out of the 281 works
of art prioritised for evacuation, not one work was by a woman. The museum
staff did, however, prioritise art made by men that took ‘women’s war work’ as
a subject.

Norah Neilson-Gray painted the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Royaumont Abbey in France from photographs and her own memories of working there as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD).

This impressive painting was inexplicably not prioritised for evacuation.

The painting includes a portrait of Dr Frances Ivens, who was the dynamic head of the hospital. The artist depicts her attending to a patient, assisted by a nurse and a VAD.

The artist had a back-story about the patient in the foreground. He has a wounded foot, which is being re-inspected before he is moved to another hospital away from the front-line.

The Women's Land Army and German Prisoners (1918) by Randolph SchwabeOriginal Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23969

This painting showing female workers of the Women’s Land Army and male German prisoners was made by Randolph Schwabe.

He was a prominent male British artist of the time, and this painting was prioritised for evacuation in 1939.

Schwabe was prevented from enlisting during the First World War due to poor health.

So, as an official war artist he mainly produced homefront scenes of the Women’s Land Army.

The faces and postures of the female and male workers have a deliberate sculptural quality, and a hint of classicism, which gives them an air of dignity and strength.

The Artist: Self Portrait (1917) by William OrpenOriginal Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20822

Famous Artists
In 1939, the IWM prioritised the evacuation of paintings by
an older generation of British male artists who had links with well-established
institutions like the Royal Academy or the New English Art Club. A younger
generation of Modernist artists well-known to us today, including Paul Nash and
Stanley Spencer, appeared less often on the list.

William Orpen was a successful portrait painter of high society people before his commission as an official war artist.

His skill with portraiture, and his unique way of painting the Western Front landscape, are both captured in this self portrait.

The surprising pastel colours used by Orpen to depict the hills and craters of the Western Front were, he said, due to the season that he visited.

While he was an official war artist in France Orpen painted several self-portraits, often wearing slightly eccentric clothing as if he were playing dress-up.

A street in Arras (1918) by John Singer SargentOriginal Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/23724

John Singer Sargent was a famous painter when he visited the Western Front in 1918 as an official war artist at the age of 62. That commission resulted in his oil painting, Gassed, and also a series of fifteen watercolours.

Sargent’s loose brushwork and exploration of light and colour in his 1918 watercolours of the Western Front shows how he was somewhat influenced by Impressionism.

Sargent got on well with the young British soldiers that he met on his tour as an official war artist. He liked to pull pranks and joke around with them.

The Ypres Salient at Night (1918) by Paul NashOriginal Source: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20069

During the First World War, Paul Nash made his name as an artist and became known for his Modernist paintings that provided an uncompromising glimpse of life as a soldier.

People knew Nash’s war images came from his first-hand experience.

Nash included many specific details in this painting, which shows sentries in a trench illuminated at night by bursting shells. The bright white light appears to dazzle the soldiers.

This hellish landscape of the Ypres Salient, of blasted trees, mud and barbed wire, was well-known to Nash.

He served there in 1917 as a Second Lieutenant.

Irish Troops in the Judaean Hills Surprised by a Turkish Bombardment, 1919 (1919) by Lamb, Henry (MC) (RA)Imperial War Museums

Henry Lamb was an artist with medical training, who served as a medical officer during the First World War.

The scene in this painting is taken from Lamb’s experiences in Palestine. He served with the 5th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.

Through the use of an unusual elevated viewpoint, the artist cleverly highlights the trajectory of the Turkish artillery shells raining down on the Irish soldiers.

The soldiers have clearly been surprised by the shellfire, and are vulnerable on the stony hillside. Yet, the artist suggests they would take risks to protect wounded comrades.

Credits: Story

Learn more about how IWM protected it’s art collection during the Second World War at Art in Exile at IWM London (5 July 2019 to 5 January 2020).

Explore which works of art were saved and which were not – and discover how other museums responded to the dangers of war.

Art in Exile is part of Culture Under Attack, a free season of free exhibitions, live music, performances and talks at IWM London that explore how war threatens not just people’s lives, but also the things that help define us.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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