TAITMAIL How the art elite made war propaganda

From the start of the First World War there was a highly secretive department tucked away a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace. To hide its real purpose it took its operating name from its respectable-seeming building: Wellington House. And at its head was a former MP called Masterman, a close confidante of the prime minister.

So far, so John Le Carré, but the pursuit of the occupants of Wellington House was not espionage, quite the opposite. The proper title of Masterman’s unit was the War Propaganda Bureau. 

Main image:  The End of War by William Nicholson

The government knew the vital importance and power of culture for its ability to influence public attitudes and even the governments of other counties. To create the literature, pamphlets and periodicals required to put the case for the conduct of the war Masterman recruited popular writers such as John Buchan, Ford Maddox Ford and Arthur Conan Doyle. Wellington House went on to produce anti-German cartoons, and in 1916, the year Lloyd George came to power, appointed the first ever official British war artist, the eminent Scottish painter Muirhead Bone, who was sent to France to make “factual” drawings for the official publication, The Western Front. Later in the war he was followed to the Front by William Orpen and Paul Nash.

In 1917 Lloyd George reorganised the government and created a new Department of Information under John Buchan which absorbed Wellington House with a new freedom to commission art.
And already a more ambitious scheme had been developing. In 1916 both Germany and Great Britain were lobbying hard to persuade the United States to enter the war on their side, and in support of this the government wanted to propel positive images of our Efforts in conducting the war and Ideals in the pursuit of victory. 

In the Air by CRW Nevinson

Thomas Derrick, a Wellington House recruit who taught at the Royal College of Art, was given the task of identifying and recruiting artists who could make drawings that would be turned into lithographs that could both get wide circulation and be sold to raise much needed funds for the war effort. The lithograph prints that were made in this complex and fascinating early wartime propaganda experiment are the subject of a selling exhibition at the Abbott and Holder Gallery in Bloomsbury until July 6, The Great War: Britain’s Efforts and Ideals, in a unique collaboration with the Imperial War Museum (IWM).

The 18 artists they recruited, all men, were at the top of their profession and included William Rothenstein, Augustus John, Frank Brangwyn, William Nicholson and George Clausen as well as Bone, and two younger painters, Christopher Nevinson and Eric Kennington, who had actually served at the front and would return there. Both survived.

In the Efforts series each of nine artists was given specific subjects to follow – Kennington on “Making Soldiers”, Rothenstein on “Working on the Land”, Bone on “Building Ships” and so on. The subjects, produced in a series of six, were devised to give equal weight to home activities and the battlefront, to show the pervasive effect on war on domestic life. Brangwyn’s The Gun showing action on board a warship as a gun crew fire on the enemy – you can almost smell the cordite and hear the deafening noise, and all created in a studio - Brangwyn never went to sea for his contributions. Kennington, on the other hand, had been up close and would be again, as his In the Front Line Trench for the First Time, which reflects not only trench war but the terror of being trapped in it, shows.

The second series, Ideals, of 12 prints was more problematic and often the artists reverted to myth, allegory and almost religious iconography to convey Britain’s beliefs, centring on heroism, the triumph of democracy, reconstruction, and in William Nicholson’s The End of War, a determination never to preside over another such conflict. These appear much more dated than the Efforts series, with their Victorian themes and epic asettings, which perhaps reflects the age of most of the artists who had started their careers deep in the 19th century. 


In the Front Line Trench for the First Time  by Eric Kennington


The completed sets if lithographs were exhibited for the first time in July, 1917, at the Fine Art Society in New Bond Street. They were printed in limited editions of 200 signed and 100 unsigned impressions – all those in the Abbott and Holder display are signed. To get the images beyond the limited gallery-going public, full sets were given to the likes of the British Museum, the V&A, the Tate and the National Museum of Wales, and they were sold across the world. What influence they had on America’s decision to enter on our side it is hard to say – although the United States didn’t declare war on Germany until December 1917, the decision had been taken by the Senate in April that year.

After that there were exhibitions in Paris, New York and Los Angeles, and sales continued for some years after the Armistice. The Efforts prints sold for two guineas each, or ten guineas for a set of six, the Ideals for three guineas each, and sales flowed. 

The British government, according to the exhibition curator Claire Brenard of the IWM, were already familiar with the importance of propaganda and publicity. “Through newspapers, magazines and film it was learning how to speak to a mass audience, for the purposes of both uniting the nation and its allies, as well as boosting public morale” she writes in the catalogue. “These were politically necessary goals, to maintain support for a seemingly intractable war. For war publicity to be effective, however, understanding the target audience was imperative. By engaging artists of the calibre sent to the front and for Britain’s Efforts and Ideals, the DOI were appealing to ‘cultured’ and crucially influential audiences. 

“These were the sorts of circles that attended art exhibitions and had the means to buy original art; many among the liberal elite in Britain were discontent at the long war, with pacifist sentiment rising following the publication of soldier-poet Siegfried Sassoon’s statement of protest in June 1917 – against a war he felt was ‘deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it.”

After the war Buchan’s DOI became the Ministry of Information, and then, in 1923, the IWM was founded and the lithographs went into its stores. 


The Freedom of the Seas by Frank Brangwyn

However dated their subject matter may seem, the quality of the drawing shines out to us today, thanks to the understanding of the power of art then help by politicians and civil servants which is no longer obvious. The IWM trawled for a gallery to partner with for the project and Abbott and Holder were selected to show an extraordinary collection that is proving as popular as the original showing over a century ago, with red spots speckling the frames.  

There might have been an issue over a national museum disposing of works of art in its holding, but it was not consideration. The IWM has the original set, the lithographs have never been formally accessioned. And the proceeds will go towards the IWM’s purchase fund, enabling the museum to buy and commission more art.

“As such this was one of the largest and most ambitious British print projects of the early 20th century; a feat of technical skill and artistic vision, as well as war-time logistics and propaganda” said the gallery’s managing director, Tom Edwards. “There is a common comparison made between private companies and public institutions; that one is small but naturally nimble, the other large but burdened by bureaucracy. This has not been my experience working with IWM.”

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