Witness: Women War Artists at the Imperial War Museum North

Witness: Women War Artists at the Imperial War Museum North

When I hear the word “War” it conjures up images in my mind of young men in shiny boots and suits of muddy green, scrambling over the top of the trenches. I’m not an artist or a historian – in fact, I didn’t even study History to GCSE Level. So I visited the Witness: Women War Artists exhibition at the Imperial Museum North, not as an academic, but as a rather ignorant member of Joe Public. I’ve read facts and figures about various wars and battles but I know, for me at least, I make stronger emotional connections away from text books. It’s when I hear the personal story of individuals that I begin to understand the real meaning behind these facts and figures. After all, these people were normal civilians, like me, who suddenly found themselves in horrific situations.

The museum is billing Witness: Women War Artists as “the first UK exhibition for over 50 years to bring together the works and personal reflections of key female war artists” and this is what appealed to me; the perspective of war from a woman’s point of view. Not a display of tanks or weapons, the poetry of Wilfred Owen and the like, or even pictures of the lads on the front line. These are, of course, very valuable pieces of history. But it’s important that these events have also been documented by women.

The Special Exhibition Gallery is dedicated to the display, an impressively large and varied collection of portraits, sketches and photographs, peppered with quotes and information about the artists. Rather than arrange everything chronologically, the pieces are placed in categories such as “Food and Clothing” and “Nurses and Carers”.

Upon entering the exhibition, the first portrait is of Corporal JM Robins by Dame Laura Knight made in 1941. And the first thought which enters my head? “I didn’t know women were corporals then!” Well, I said I was no historian!

A block of text on the wall states that only four women were commissioned when the Government set up an official War Artists scheme in 1916. According to The Exploring 20th Century London Project over 400 artists in total were commissioned by the end of World War II. So, good old fashioned mathematics tells us that these four female artists were in an excruciatingly tiny minority.

The exhibition arcs round in a fragmented circle, the floor and walls seem purposely sparse to keep your attention on the pieces.  As I walk around, I realise that it’s not just the experience of war that these women have in common. Whilst they were all, obviously, talented, it is a determination that they all demonstrate that really strikes me. All of these women had to strive to be taken seriously as war artists. Water colour artist Rosemary Howard Jones offered submissions to the War Artist Advisory Committee on three occasions, but on all three occasions her works were rejected. There is no definitive reason given for this, but it would appear that women were turned down because of ingrained low expectations. It seemed the authorities deemed that documenting the war was just not a suitable task for lady, a fact that was highlighted later in the exhibition as we encountered a crackly black and white video of air raids playing on a loop. A quote printed next to it reads; “I didn’t know that girls were employed on jobs like this”. These were the words of a policeman who expressed disbelief when Rosie Newman, the creator of the film being projected, approached him whilst filming.

The term “refused a sketching permit” is noted under the work of many of the artists, including pieces by Phyllis Granger, Paule Vezelay and Priscilla Thorneycroft. A permit was required to draw or paint, because of National Security considerations in the Second World War. So it would seem that the Law considered women too fragile to experience the scenes of war, either that or too weak to resist sharing secrets with the enemy!

But of course women weren’t safe from the traumas of war. Olive Mudie-Cooke used charcoal, chalk and watercolour to depict her experiences as an ambulance driver in the First Aid Nursing Unit in WWI. It occurs to me I have often thought about the horror of gaping wounds and shattered limbs that men experienced (and continue to do so) in battle, but what of the women who had to sew them up?

A striking sketch “Bomb Damaged Church” by Phyllis Granger, along with paintings of crumbling Camden Town in the early 1940s, makes me think of the women of my grandmother’s generation who had to try and piece together the broken remains of “home”. The men were off risking everything to fight for their country, but it was the women left who had to make it something worth fighting for.

Pegaret Keeling, Anna Airy and Flora Lion all depict scenes of the women who took up the traditionally masculine tasks in production, in factories producing everything from shells to uniforms. Keeling’s work is cartoony in appearance, whilst Airy successfully uses black and red paint to recreate the hot smokey atmosphere of these factories. And then, of course, there is the beautiful “Roby Loftus screwing a breech-ring”  by Dame Laura Knight. The styles differ immensely, but all the pieces hint at the same thing – the change in the role of a woman, from housewife to provider. Images of nurses were officially commissioned during WWII, because in the ”upheaval of wartime, this role seemed to fit reassuringly with pre-war expectations of women as carers and nurturers”. But the reality was, and is, that women are capable of so much more.

Of course you can visit the exhibition on a superficial level, and merely judge the skills of the artists. Or you can do what I did, and start to consider some of the other issues brought to light – the futility of war for both sexes, the restrictions placed on intelligent, talented women, and the implications of women taking up full time work. Would we have equal rights, and the choice to work or stay at home, if women hadn’t proved their capabilities during the two World Wars? These are questions I can’t answer for you in this article. You will just have visit the exhibition and judge for yourself.

Witness: Women War Artists is free to enter at the Imperial War Museum North, until 19th April 2009.

By: Kate Cunnane, 14.03.2009 | Comments (2)
  • gill
    March 15th, 2009
    8:46 pm

    Ialso visited this exhibition. It was an uplifting experience,bringing into context just what women achieved in helping the war effort. This enabled women to gain more confidence and relevance in their lives. War affects everyone, and it was a time when everyone helped each other, we had one common aim – to survive!

  • Catherine Milne
    February 11th, 2010
    7:44 pm

    Pegaret Keeling’s work was ‘cartoony’ in the best possible way. Her work was gently satirical, poking fun at the incongruities that inevitably accompany gender merging. For a woman in her very early 20’s to depict, successfully and amusingly, large groups of people in highly specialised workplaces, was a tremendous feat. Her sense of colour and costume is faultless – hardly surprising in somebody who went on to become a lecturer in costume at St Martins’ – but so is her grasp of machinery. Remarkable – she deserves to be better known.

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