War Paint @ the National Army Museum

The National Army Museum is the British Army’s central museum, located in Chelsea just a few hundred yards from the Thames Embankment and next to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, home of the ‘Chelsea Pensioners’.

Its remit is to cover the overall history of British land forces since their inception back during the British Civil Wars (the 1640s). It differs from the Imperial War Museum in two ways: the IWM has a wider remit of theme (covering the war experiences of British military personnel from all three services and of civilians, too) but the IWM covers a shorter time period – only since 1914.

Exterior of the National Army Museum

Exterior of the National Army Museum on a December morning

The museum reopened in March this year after a three-year-long refurbishment costing £23.75 million. It’s now a big, clean, light and airy space, full of greeters and super helpful visitor attendants. Spread over its three floors are galleries arranged by themes – Soldier, Army, Battle, Society and Insight, along with a light and airy café, a shop – and a gallery for temporary exhibitions.

Inside the National Army Museum

Inside the National Army Museum

War Paint

I had come to see the exhibition titled ‘War Paint’, which has been open since March and closes in January. The idea is to display ‘over 130 paintings and objects exploring the complex relationship between war and the men and women who map, record, celebrate and document it’.

The exhibition is divided into five or so ‘spaces’ (they’re not quite defined enough to be rooms) which display works and objects related to the themes of:

1 Surveying the world

To control a territory you must understand it. After the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, the Board of Ordnance was instructed to create detailed maps of Scotland. This was the origin of the Ordnance Survey maps of Britain which we use today and are so breath-takingly thorough. The exhibition shows early maps of Scotland, and then a rather random selection of maps and diagrams, one used for charting the River Blackwater near Aldershot, one used to track Napoleon’s sea journey to Egypt (where he set about a massive map-making commission), and so on.

There was a small, beautifully drawn sketch of the view from the UN outpost in the village of Majlaj during the Yugoslav Civil Wars by a contemporary soldier, showing the position of Serb and Muslim snipers up in the surrounding hills. Display cases contain compasses and other kit required by professional map-makers.

Inside the War Paint exhibition

Inside the War Paint exhibition

2 Drawing on experience

War illustration became professional (newspapers started to pay for it) in the 1840s. Before then serving officers produced nearly all the surviving eye-witness portrayals of the army on campaign. Modern soldiers continue to use painting as a form of relaxation and, more recently, to aid rehabilitation.

3 Selling war

All perspectives on conflict are partial and artists as much as anyone else, choose a subject and select and manipulate it in order to create an image under the influence of concerns for saleability, professional advancement, concerns for ‘the truth’, the wish to record bravery, and so on.

4 Political statement

A number of works here show how British society recorded triumphs and victories, from King Billy at the Battle of the Boyne to Wellington in the Peninsular War. Although the themed approach tries to conceal it, the core of the collection seems to be innumerable paintings recording victories against the fuzzy-wuzzies in the countless small wars of the Victorian era. The stories behind each painting (and each artist – there appear to be lots of battle artists) are often interesting – but not many of the paintings are really notable, considered as art (as opposed to as interesting examples of imperial propaganda or of Victorian narrative painting).

But then, Victorian society was complex: there was also a strong counter-thread warning against jingoism, warning against complacency. Kipling’s great poem Recessional comes to mind, and the exhibition quotes from the battle artist, Elizabeth Thompson, Lady Butler, who said: ‘Thank God I never painted for the glory of war, but to portray its pathos and heroism’. In that vein her most famous painting is probably Remnants of an army, 1879 (though it isn’t on show here, being owned by Tate).

Thoughts and reactions

I’m afraid I didn’t find the thematic arrangement very convincing or maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention. I found myself rearranging the exhibits chronologically in terms of style. After a handful of items from the Civil Wars, and a few primitive works from the 18th century, there was a large amount of Victorian boilerplate – sentimental pictures of soldiers off to the wars or returning back by ship, done in a soft-edged Romantic style. Lots about Wellington and the Napoleonic campaigns.

Wellington at Sorauren, 27 July 1813 by Thomas Jones Barker (1853) © National Army Museum

Wellington at Sorauren, 27 July 1813 by Thomas Jones Barker (1853) © National Army Museum

Horses are a popular theme – the cavalry was not only glamorously dressed but gave every painter all kinds of compositional opportunities designed to inspire zeal and admiration in their Victorian spectators.

It seemed to me only in the last decades of the 19th century, and the first of the twentieth, that figure painting reached a kind of peak of excellence – a consistent brilliance of lifelike draughtsmanship, which helps give so many late-Victorian and Edwardian battle paintings such a tremendously vivid, realistic and stirring quality.

The Flag, Albuhera, May 16, 1811, by William Barnes Wollen (1912) © National Army Museum

The Flag, Albuhera, May 16, 1811 by William Barnes Wollen (1912) © National Army Museum

The paradoxical beauty of the Great War

This technical virtuosity carried on into the Great War when even painters who were aware of developments in modern art in France stuck to a more traditional academic style to depict the horrors they saw. It’s a very subjective view, but the works I liked best came from the Great War, for several reasons:

1. Almost all the previous wars, up to and including the Boer War, involved lots of horses in the actual fighting. There’s a big continuity of dramatic horse war paintings from the Battle of Bleinheim through to the campaign in South Africa.

Buller's Final Crossing of the Tugela, February 1900 by Georges Bertin Scott (1900)

Buller’s Final Crossing of the Tugela, February 1900 by Georges Bertin Scott (1900)

2. The Second World War is about machines – Panzer tanks, Spitfires and Messerschmitts, massive warships in the Pacific, U-boats in the Atlantic. The Battle of Britain or El Alamein or Stalingrad, are about machines. Humans dwindle beside them.

3. The iconography of the Great War sits between these eras – although horses were used in their millions to pull carts and artillery, they played little role in the actual fighting which, as we all know, was a grim attritional, trench-based affair. On the other hand none of the machines which dominated the Second World War had yet been invented (OK, early planes and tanks were in action, but not perfected yet, not dominating the scene).

Therefore, the Great War is the war of people, of ordinary people (mostly men, obviously), of millions of poor bloody infantry pushed into a nightmare life. The stories and iconography of the Great War are, paradoxically, very humane, human-scale. It is a face of war acceptable to our modern anti-war tastes and values, because it is predominantly about suffering – lacking all the vainglory and braggadocio of the previous two hundred years of imperial triumphs.

Which explains why it produced a work like this, by Second Lieutenant Richard Tennant Cooper who served in the Great War, sketching and painting as he went – a work focusing on an individual, not a cavalry charge or an attack on a redoubt or the defence of some pallisades, but a wet man trudging along with a heavy weight of barbed wire picket posts on his shoulder.

A Tommy wearing rain cape and carrying picket posts, 1917 by Second Lieutenant Richard Tennant Cooper, 1918 © National Army Museum

A Tommy wearing rain cape and carrying picket posts, 1917 by Second Lieutenant Richard Tennant Cooper, 1918 © National Army Museum

The visitor assistants at the Museum are extremely helpful and one of them pointed out something I’d missed, which is that this detailed sketch was just one of many Cooper made for his large oil painting, The Working Party (hanging next to it). The figure above is the fourth from the left in the finished composition, below. (She also pointed out that the fifth figure from the left is smoking a crafty fag – you can just make out if you lean right up to the canvas, a tiny pinprick of orange flame.)

The Working Party, 1917 (1918) by Richard Tennant Cooper © National Army Museum

The Working Party, 1917 (1918) by Richard Tennant Cooper © National Army Museum

In a way this may be one of the many reasons why the Great War continues to haunt our imagination – because it was a war of mostly powerless men, men reduced to pawns, a war of great and pointless suffering. It is to this day a morally acceptable war, in that most of the soldiers are felt to be victims – contrasted with pretty much every war before it, which tend to be seen as being fought to expand the British Empire, generally against much less well-equipped opponents, whether Sudanese or South Africans – endeavours which, in our time, are coming in for greater and greater criticism.

Cooper (1885-1957) is one of the most featured artists in the exhibition, with four or five atmospheric works on display.

Warrington Road, 1917 (1926) by Richard Tennant Cooper © National Army Museum

Warrington Road, 1917 (1926) by Richard Tennant Cooper © National Army Museum

An older contemporary whose work recurs is William Barnes Wollen (1857-1936). The Museum appears to have 15 of his works in total of which about five are on display. At the turn of the century and into the Edwardian era Wollen made a reputation for painting historical battles in the dashing, realistic style of a good book illustrator.

The Battle of Lexington, 19 April 1775 (1910) by William Barns Wollen © National Army Museum

The Battle of Lexington, 19 April 1775 (1910) by William Barnes Wollen © National Army Museum

And he lived on into the Great War, which he painted in the same thrilling style. There’s a display case showing the passport and paperwork he used to wangle permission to go to the Front to see and sketch for himself.

The Territorials at Pozières, 23 July 1916 by William Barns Wollen © National Army Museum

The Territorials at Pozières, 23 July 1916 by William Barnes Wollen © National Army Museum

The Second World War

My impression is that there is a lot less art from the Second World War, and what there is is much more mannered i.e. under the influence of modern art. For example, when I think of WW2 art I think immediately of Stanley Spencer’s eccentric style applied to the shipbuilders on the Clyde – or Paul Nash’s very stylised depictions of aerial battles over the South of England or of fighter plane graveyards, or of Ravilious’s wonderful submarine drawings. None of them are here and the examples here are just not so impactful as the Great War imagery.

One of the best pictures from the Second World War is Sepoy Nand Singh, 1st Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment, winning the VC in Burma, 12 March 1944 by Second Lieutenant Edward E L Mortelmans. In it you can see the modern approach most obviously in the stylisation of the entire landscape, the loose handling of the paint, and especially the odd perspective of the tank which seems to be on a different plane from the other elements in the picture. This makes it an interestingly modernist painting but less clear about what is going on than any of the Great War paintings. You need to read the wall label top understand the action.

Sepoy Nand Singh, 1st Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment, winning the VC in Burma, 12 March 1944 by Second Lieutenant Edward E L Mortelmans © National Army Museum

Sepoy Nand Singh, 1st Battalion, 11th Sikh Regiment, winning the VC in Burma, 12 March 1944 by Second Lieutenant Edward E L Mortelmans © National Army Museum

Post-colonial wars

After 1945 the British Army saw policing actions in – to mention the main ones – Israel, India, Cyprus, Malaya, Kenya, Rhodesia and then, from 1970, in Northern Ireland. Maybe because they weren’t full-blown ‘wars’ I didn’t see any evidence of art about them. I wonder if there are any works of art which take the British Army’s involvement in these events as their subject (as opposed to photos, news reports, TV news and documentaries etc).

Contemporary war art

But the biggest break in this 350-year-long narrative of war art is between everything which went before and the advent of the contemporary era. When does that start? Well, the most commonly agreed date suggests that the contemporary world started in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – itself quickly followed by NATO’s first adventure in the Middle East, during the First Gulf War (1990-91). This set the tone of the world we still live in.

Some people argue that 9/11 and the advent of ‘the Age of Terror’ (as some people call it) should be seen as the start of a new era – but it can also be regarded as simply an intensification of the new post-Cold War atmosphere of anarchy, the era when the international community struggled to make sense of conflicts in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Somalia and across the Middle East.

And, after all, 9/11 was Osama bin Laden’s ‘revenge’ for the massive American military presence in Saudi Arabia during that first Gulf War, so it ultimately stems from the events of 1990 which, in my opinion, sowed the seeds of the era we now live in.

Anyway, the art by British soldiers and ex-soldiers dating from about 1990 has a completely different feel from everything which went before. The artist-soldiers who are featured here all have a modern sensibility i.e. they have never experienced a world war, they come from a basically peaceful country used to a calm, comfortable lifestyle – war and conflict somehow seem all the more alien and alienating, upsetting in a completely new way, somehow qualitatively different from the experience of either of the world wars.

Maybe because it’s carried out by the relatively small numbers of a professional army and not by mass recruits (there are currently around 82,000 soldiers in the British Army), and in places which seem remote and far away, that actual reports on and image of conflict seem both more remote and more… jarring.

Battle (2010) by Jules George © Jules George

Battle (2010) by Jules George © Jules George

One of the names which cropped up several times in the contemporary era was Captain Jonathan Wade of the Royal Highland Fusiliers. It was he who made the beautifully atmospheric sketch of the hills full of snipers in Bosnia which I mentioned earlier on – and who is also represented by a couple of cracking oil paintings from the Iraq War.

British infantry vehicles advancing, Iraq, 1991 by Captain Jonathan Wade (1992) © National Army Museum

British infantry vehicles advancing, Iraq, 1991 by Captain Jonathan Wade (1992) © National Army Museum

We live in confusing times. The moral certainties of earlier conflicts are no longer so available to us – and certainly servicemen and women are more informed than ever before about the political and strategic realities behind the conflicts they are called upon to fight. The presence of mobile phones and other digital technology, combined with a high level of modern education, means that any soldier knows more about the war they’re engaged in than ever before. It must be hard, it must be very hard, to fight a modern war.

Something of that difficulty – and the modern psychological costs of being a soldier and seeing conflict – are captured in by far the most striking piece in the exhibition, Brothers in Arms (2012) by Michael Crossan. This is made up of masks roughly stuck onto a big canvas and then painted over with the Union Jack. What you can’t see from this reproduction is how big it is, or that it is in three-dimensions – the masks, and the arms reaching across from bottom left to top right – are all thrust right out in your face.

Brothers in Arms (2012) by Michael Crossan © National Army Museum

Brothers in Arms (2012) by Michael Crossan © National Army Museum

To quote the catalogue:

Michael Crossan joined the Royal Highland Fusiliers as a teenager. He travelled extensively after leaving the army, but struggled with alcoholism and ended up homeless before getting help from veterans’ charities. Art therapy can help struggling veterans address the symptoms of psychological injury, reduce anxiety and manage stress. In his art Crossnan explores issues around army rehabilitation and life after service.

I found this almost unbearably moving, far more moving than even the Great War paintings. This is the face of modern war art, inconceivably different from the academic traditions which dominated from the 17th century to the mid-twentieth century. And conveys the cost of war, which somehow, in our times, seems to be more psychologically damaging to the participants than ever before.

Ironically, it is, according to the visitor assistants, the most popular piece in the show with young children who are otherwise – and pretty understandably – bored by a series of dusty old paintings about the Napoleonic or the Crimean or the Boer War. By contrast, this inventive, big and bright sculpture, which could be hanging in a school sixth form art department, which is so immediate and accessible – they can understand.

Bolan market

Artist Mark Neville spent a three-month residency with the British Army in the Afghan province of Helmand as the UK’s official war artist in 2011. ‘Bolan Market’ was one of the results. It is a slow-motion video filmed from a British Army ‘husky’ support vehicle as it rolled slowly through Bolan market, capturing the expressions of local inhabitants, perplexed, bored, resigned, sullen – the interpretation is up to you.

It also, maybe, helps to convey the feeling of the British soldiers tasked with patrolling this country and these people, unable to read their moods or intentions or feelings, permanently anxious and on edge. I saw it as a powerful study in alienation and disconnection.


Search the catalogue

You can search the National Army Museum catalogue online.

Here you can look up all of the art works I’ve featured above and read more about their subject matter and about the artists (or about the thousands of other works which the NAM owns).

Related links

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