Explore the story of the never-built Hall of Remembrance and the artworks created to commemorate the First World War.
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Ten of the paintings from the Hall of Remembrance series were on display in the IWM North exhibition Lest We Forget? (27 July 2018 - 24 February 2019) as part of IWM’s Making a New World season.
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Virtual Hall of Remembrance curated by Alex Walton.
A remarkable group of paintings was commissioned by the British government towards the end of the First World War as a memorial to all Britons who had sacrificed their lives and their loved ones in the First World War. In 1918, the British War Memorials Committee was established within the Ministry of Information to fulfill this task. They wanted to permanently display the paintings in a bespoke memorial gallery, designed by the British architect Charles Holden. The building was known as the 'Hall of Remembrance', and it was to be an integration of art and architecture.
Charles Holden, the proposed architect, was prominent in his field and known for the modernity of his designs. He had an interest in integrating sculpture into architectural elements,but the ambitious plan for a memorial gallery to the war dead was never realised. The entire project ran out of time and money – and the Imperial War Museum became the custodian of the remaining collection of paintings and sculpture. Some of Britain's most talented and influential artists of the First World War period produced large oil paintings for the Hall of Remembrance that never was.
From March 1918 to March 1919, a wide range of British artists from various generations and stylistic schools produced a number of large-scale oil paintings for the 'Hall of Remembrance' scheme, with many commissioned from younger modernist artists who had experienced soldiering first-hand. The paintings were placed firmly within the tradition of European artistic patronage, influenced by models from the Renaissance. For example, the size of the large paintings was based on the dimensions of the renaissance painting 'Battle of San Romano' by Uccello, held in the National Gallery.
As a whole, the 'Hall of Remembrance' paintings were intended to represent and commemorate all aspects of the war effort –this included war on the land, at sea and in the air, as well as on the home front. They were meant to show the totality of the British war effort, including the work of both men and women, and show ordinary people rather than named official figures. In order that the paintings were a 'truthful' representation of the war, the government organised some artists to visit areas of combat, particularly the Western Front.
At the end of the war in November 1918, funding for the 'Hall of Remembrance' scheme was stopped, as money was desperately needed for rebuilding Britain after the war. A decision was taken by the treasury to force the closure of the scheme and the government’s commissioned paintings were transferred to the Imperial War Museum's collection in March 1919. When the British War Memorials Committee commissions came to the IWM to join other official war artist work, it was decided that an exhibition of war art would be held at the Royal Academy to showcase the whole collection.
An exhibition of most of the 'Hall of Remembrance' paintings and sculptures, plus other official war artist works, took place at the Royal Academy after the war. 'The Nation's War Paintings' exhibition was held from December 1919 to February 1920. It ran longer than originally planned because of public interest and received a largely positive response. However, a handful of journalists and art critics disliked the 'ultra modern' style used in some of the paintings, such as those by the Vorticist artists, Wyndham Lewis and William Roberts.
The large paintings were all framed in the same way for 'The Nation's War Paintings' exhibition. The frames employed a modern pared-back style that consisted of a thin wood panel as the face of the frame. This was a departure from earlier 19th century framing styles, which were often very decorative and ornate. The similar frames reinforced the idea that these large paintings belonged together in a series, as other works that were included in the exhibition were framed differently
Art memorials, which are most often recognisable as public sculpture, were produced in Britain in unprecedented numbers during, and years after, the war – and reflected not only the enormous numbers of lives lost but also the many missing whose bodies would have no known grave. The idea for the 'Hall of Remembrance' was different in its conception as a 'memorial gallery', which would feature architecture and painting as public memorial. Sculpture also eventually became part of the vision for the building and its integration of art and architecture.
The scene is the aftermath of a mustard gas attack on the Western Front in August 1918 as witnessed by the artist. The canvas is lightly painted with great skill. Sargent draws the viewer into the tactile relationships between the blinded men. There is a suggestion of redemption as the men are led off to the medical tents, but the overall impression is of loss and suffering, emphasised by the expressions of the men standing in line. In sharp contrast to the victims, the football players in the background are physically and visually co-ordinated and have full kit.
John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) was born in Florence to American parents and travelled extensively throughout Europe as a young boy. He studied art in Paris, and later moved to London, becoming the leading society portrait painter of his day. During the First World War he resided in America.
Mustard gas was an imprecise weapon that caused breathing problems, burns and temporary blindness.
Sargent originally sought to paint a scene of Anglo-American cooperation, but was inspired to change the subject.
The soldiers in Gassed are led by medical orderlies towards treatment and recovery.
A view across a battle scarred landscape in northern France. In the foreground are the remains of the old German front line, with the remnants of dugouts, trenches and shell craters in the chalky soil. Charles Sims' eldest son was killed in the war in 1915, and this traumatic experience influenced Sims' art and psychological health in later years. Religious and mystical symbolism began to increasingly pervade his work.
Charles Sims (1873-1928) was born in Islington, London, the son of a costume manufacturer. His family wanted him to learn commerce, but instead he studied art in London and Paris. He exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy and was Keeper there from 1920-1926. He was a member of the Royal Watercolour Society.
A view across the desolate battlefield of Ypres. Flooded bomb craters are surrounded by small islands of mud. The remnants of a row of trees still line a road that runs across the centre of the composition into the distance in the top right. To the left is the ruins of a farmhouse, evidently once served by the road. The sky has a clear, almost iridescent quality, that illuminates the landscape below.
Sir David Young Cameron (1865-1945) was a Scottish painter and etcher. He was born in Glasgow, the son of a minister, and studied art in Glasgow and Edinburgh. He became a successful painter and a very influential etcher, known for his strong tonal contrasts. In 1933 he was made the King's Painter in Scotland.
Henry Tonks is perhaps better-known for being the drawing master at the Slade School of Art and teacher to the likes of Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer and C.R.W. Nevinson. With his medical background, Tonks was an apt choice for a commission from the British War Memorials Committee to depict an advanced medical dressing station. The painting captures a scene amid a German offensive in 1918, within which Tonks makes full use of his medical expertise to showcase a wide range of injuries, treatments and field dressings.
Henry Tonks (1862-1937) was born in Birmingham. He initially studied medicine and became a surgeon. He later took drawing lessons and became a teacher at the Slade School of Art. During the First World War he returned to medicine and joined the RAMC. He made portraits of soldier undergoing facial reconstruction surgery.
In a studio at Chalfont St Giles, shared with his brother Paul, John Nash created his painting, 'Oppy Wood, 1917. Evening'. It shows two soldiers peering out from a trench across the waste of no man's land in France. Before becoming an official war artist, Nash had served as a soldier at the Western Front in the British Army in 1916. For his commission, he elected to create a painting that summarised remembered experiences, rather than re-visit France to sketch.
John Nash (1893-1977) had no formal art training. In the First World War, he was employed by the Ministry of Munitions, before working his way through the ranks of the Artists' Rifles in France. In April 1918, following vigorous canvassing by his brother, artist Paul Nash, he was appointed as an official war artist.
Two soldiers survey 'No Man’s Land', the ground between opposing trenches on the Western Front.
The painting depicts a war-ravaged wood, reduced to a mass of tree stumps and shell holes.
Nash uses vibrant colours in the sky and debris, in contrast to the ruined landscape.
Nash received the commission for this work, which was originally to have been called 'A Flanders Battlefield', in April 1918. Two soldiers try to follow the line of a road that has been mutilated, almost beyond recognition. The whole landscape has been rearranged, with the giant concrete blocks epitomising this harsh new order: the bursts of sunlight have become gun barrels; the reflections of trees, steel structures. Nash wrote, 'The picture shows a tract of country near Gheluvelt village in the sinister district of 'Tower Hamlets', perhaps the most dreaded and disastrous locality of any area in any of the theatres of War.'
Paul Nash (1889-1946) trained at the Slade School of Art. At the outbreak of the First World War, he joined the Artists' Rifles as a private. Following a successful exhibition in London in May 1917 he became a war artist, creating drawings, watercolours and paintings. Nash expressed the horror of war largely through landscape.
As a war artist, Nash equated the destruction of nature with human death and devastation.
The Nash brothers worked on their 'Hall of Remembrance' paintings in a studio that they shared.
Nash wrote that he wanted to, "rob war of the last shred of glory…"
Charles Holmes was Director of the National Gallery. It was proposed by the British War Memorials Committee that he should paint a picture of a munitions subject. The initial idea was that he should go to Chilwell to the National Shell Filling Factory, but the visit was postponed because of an explosion there. Sheffield was then decided upon as a suitable location, and Holmes visited there in July 1918, visiting the factories of Vickers and of Steel, Peech and Tozer, the latter of which became the subject of his painting. Several drawings from this visit were included in a British government funded art exhibition that was sent to America in 1918.
Sir Charles John Holmes (1868-1936), born in Lancashire, was a painter, art historian and museum director. He was Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University and later Director of the National Portrait Gallery, and subsequently the National Gallery. A self-taught artist, Holmes often depicted landscapes, including industrial landscapes.
Clausen painted a scene commemorating production at Britain’s largest munitions factory, Woolwich Arsenal. By late 1917 the arsenal employed in the region of 74,000 workers and occupied a near 1,300 acres site complete with its own services and railway system. Ever fascinated by the effects of light, the high cathedral-like interior of the ‘gun factory’ offered great scope for Clausen’s impressionistic interest in light. His dramatic diagonal shafts of sunlight cut through the unnatural gloom and furnace heat of the workshop. The munition workers, serving the huge machines of production remain obscured in shadow. Their individuality is subordinated to the common good of making the gun barrels.
Sir George Clausen (1852-1944) was born in London. He studied art in London and Paris. He was a founder member of the New English Art Club, and from 1906, Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy. He worked in a style influenced by 'Impressionism' and often depicted rural scenes.
A group of British soldiers, wearing uniform and carrying their kit, stand at the canteen on a platform of Victoria railway station. Meninsky created The Arrival of a Leave Train, Victoria Station, 1918, after being asked to paint “…typical London scenes...” for his Hall of Remembrance commission. The subject suited Meninsky well, as he wished to concentrate on the human figure in his painting. His work was one of several paintings in the series that showed activity on the homefront in Britain during the war. Meninsky served in the Royal Fusiliers and had to secure special permission to work as an official artist. He sadly suffered a nervous breakdown six months into his commission.
Bernard Meninsky (1891-1950) was born in the Ukraine, and when he was an infant his family moved to Liverpool. He studied art in Liverpool, London and Paris. He taught for many years at the Central School for Arts and Crafts. During the First World War he served in the Royal Fusiliers in Palestine.
A large group of military personnel are gathered on a train platform in Charing Cross station, with a stationary train at the platform beside them. In the centre foreground stand two British Army commanders, Henry Rawlinson and Herbert Plumer, who are talking to one another in the company of a staff officer. Towards the left a senior French officer turns to look towards the viewer. There are numerous other people on the platform, including several British Army staff officers, a Royal Navy officer, female personnel including a nurse and a paper boy who stands on the right.
Alfred Robert Hayward (1875-1971) lived in Sussex, and studied at the Royal College of Art and the Slade School of Art. He was a member of the New English Art Club. Before the First World War, he travelled to the West Indies, Central America and Italy. During the war he served in the Artists' Rifles.
A group of women land workers gathering flax, which they tie into bundles and stack in a pile. Their camp of bell tents lies in the background next to a group of trees. Schwabe was a well-known British artist and professor at the Slade School of Art, but during the war he worried that he might be targeted due to his German heritage. Nevertheless, he was approached by the British War Memorials Committee to create a painting. Schwabe suggested that he cover land subjects. Schwabe was the only artist to make a painting for the Hall of Remembrance that focused on women and women's work.
Randolph Schwabe (1885-1948) was the son of a Manchester cotton merchant whose father had emigrated from Germany. He studied at the Slade School of Art and the Académie Julian. Poor health prevented Schwabe from enlisting during the First World War. In later years he replaced Henry Tonks as Professor of the Slade School.
When approached by the British War Memorials Committee in July 1918 for a commission, Rushbury expected to produce air war subjects but was asked to serve as a 'general utility artist', to be sent out to depict London scenes as and when was needed. In the course of this he produced a series of drawings of the British Museum, showing the sand-bagging of antiquities as a defence against German air raids. He also produced his painting, 'The War Refugees' Camp, Earl's Court 1918' (1919) for the Hall of Remembrance. He used tempera rather than oils for the painting.
Sir Henry Rushbury (1889-1968) was a painter and etcher. He studied at the Birmingham School of Art, and early in his career worked as an assistant to a stained-glass artist. During the First World War he served as an aircraft mechanic with the RAF. He was a member of the New English Art Club.
In April 1918, while serving in Macedonia, Spencer was approached by the British War Memorials Committee to complete a commission. The subject of a religious service at the front was suggested, but Spencer wanted to show 'God in the bare real things, in a limber wagon, in ravines, in fouling mule lines'. His painting shows an old Greek church that was used as the dressing station and operating theatre. The wounded were brought down by means of the mule-drawn stretchers shown in the painting. This work is based on his experiences with the 68th Field Ambulance.
Sir Stanley Spencer (1891-1959) was born at Cookham on Thames, the eighth of nine children. He studied at the Slade School of Art and was tutored by Henry Tonks. During the First World War he was posted to Macedonia, having spent time in Salonika serving with the Field Ambulances.
Rather than capturing individual faces, Spencer highlights the overall calmness and stoicism of all present.
The medical staff are not just performing a life-saving operation but are part a redemptive process.
Spencer uses religious symbolism. The setting, with its human and animal onlookers, recalls the birth of Christ.
When Roberts had finished working for the Canadian War Memorials Fund, he was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to complete this painting of a shell dump in France. However, Roberts did not return to France but made preparatory sketches at Bramley Dump and completed the painting once the war had ended. He explains this in a letter written in 1918: 'I have arranged with Major Read to go to Bramley Dump near Reading on Wednesday. We have decided on Bramley because I shall be able to see some of the smaller types of shell there, some of which I wish to paint in my picture.'
William Roberts (1895-1980) won a scholarship in drawing to the Slade School of Art. He was interested in modernist French and Italian art. He later joined a group of painters led by Wyndham Lewis known as the 'Vorticists'. In the First World War, Roberts served as a gunner in the Royal Field Artillery.
This scene shows the moment at which the allies enter Jerusalem after defeating Ottoman forces and accepting the official surrender of the city. The painting was given an enlarged title by McBey: "General Allenby, with Colonel de Piépape, commanding the French Detachment, and Lieut-Colonel d'Agostio, commanding the Italian Detachment, entering the city by the Jaffa Gate." The figures of senior officers walk towards the right side of the composition. They are watched by a crowd standing behind them who are held back by a line of soldiers. The Jaffa gate stands in the right background.
James McBey (1883-1959) was a landscape painter and etcher, born in Newburgh near Aberdeen. In April 1917, he was one of the early official war artists, appointed to Egypt and Palestine. A skilled draughtsman, he made a many drawings, watercolours and oil paintings. He also created successful print portfolios.
Nevinson provides his own description of this work in a letter written in 1919: 'A typical scene after an offensive at dawn. Walking wounded, prisoners and stretcher cases are making their way to the rear through the water-logged country of Flanders. By now the Infantry have advanced behind the creeping barrage on the right, only leaving the dead, mud, & wire; but their former positions are now occupied by the Artillery. The enemy is sending up SOS signals and once more these shattered men will be subjected to counter-battery fire. British aeroplanes are spotting hostile positions.'
C.R.W. Nevinson (1889-1946) was born to a war correspondent father and suffragette mother. He trained at the Slade School of Art, London, and the Académie Julian, Paris. In the First World War, Nevinson served with an Ambulance unit in France. He was an official war artist from July-August 1917.
Nevinson's painting style was initially influenced by European modernism, but later developed a greater realism.
Between 1914 and 1915, Nevinson was a Red Cross ambulance driver in northern France.
In the widespread use of brown and green, Nevinson provides a grim overwhelming sense of decay.
This picture has as its subject a battery of 9.2 howitzers - the gun known familiarly to the troops as 'Mother'. Their patchwork camouflage made them unrecognisable to hostile aircraft, and the green netting helped to conceal the emplacements. On the right of the picture are two infantrymen resting by the gun-pit on their way back from the line, and on the left is a wayside calvary broken and overturned by a shell explosion. The Forward Observing Officer and his signal sargeant, leaving the battery for the observation post in the front trenches and a ruined village in the background, form part of the decorative scheme.
Colin Unwin Gill (1892-1940) was born in Kent and studied at the Slade School of Art. In 1913, he won a scholarship to attend the British School in Rome. During the First World War he joined the Royal Garrison Artillery, but was later seconded to the Royal Engineers to work as a camouflage officer.
The First World War, especially the Western Front, was dominated by artillery. Counter-battery work was essential in order to suppress enemy barrages and this painting illustrates the deadly effect of precise German bombardment. The three gunners in the foreground calmly observe the devastation before them; stylised figures struggle through the cratered landscape and distorted columns of smoke rise above the battery position. The serenity of the gunners in the face of immediate chaos reflects a fatalism and detachment perhaps derived from their distanced and impersonal mode of warfare. In style and content this painting was one of the most controversial to come out of the First World War.
Percy Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) was a founder member of the Vorticist group, a literary and artistic movement which celebrated the values of energy and violence of the 'modern' machine age. Lewis served as a Battery Officer on the Western Front between May and November 1917.
The heavily stylized figures of British gunners seemingly forming part of a mechanical structure.
The three gunners in the foreground reflect the distanced and impersonal nature of artillery warfare.
Lewis wrote in 1937, 'A gunner does not fight. He merely shells and is shelled…'
A view of the white cliffs of Dover from the harbour. There are anti-submarine defences in the centre of the image with boats moored alongside, and dazzled ships further in the distance. A motorboat is heading towards the right corner of the composition, and two bi-planes fly overhead. Steer was commissioned by the British War Memorials Committee to create a large painting of a naval subject because of his expertise in capturing seascapes. His Impressionist style is apparent in 'Dover Harbour'.
Philip Wilson Steer (1860-1942), born in Birkenhead, was a leading figure in the Impressionist movement in Britain with his sea and landscape paintings. He studied in Paris, and later became a founder of the New English Art Club. He was a painting tutor at the Slade School of Art for many years.
A view of the upper deck of a troopship filled with American soldiers enroute to France. Another troopship similarly crowded is berthed on the opposite quay. Originally, the proposed subject for this painting was colonial troops disembarking, and Derrick was interested in depicting Australian troops because of their distinctive uniform. There is a parallel in this respect with Sargent's 'Gassed', which was originally to be a painting depicting Anglo-American cooperation. The British War Memorials Committee had to be flexible in respect to topics for paintings, because they also required artists to witness the subjects for themselves.
Thomas Derrick (1885-1954) was born in Bristol, and trained at the Royal College of Art. He became known for his work as an illustrator and cartoonist, and he also designed murals and stained glass. He married Margaret Clausen, daughter of the artist George Clausen.
A torpedo-damaged ship being repaired. A group of men in the right bottom corner of the composition are visible at work, with two men inside the ship. Wheatley was discharged as permanently unfit and so was fully available to paint Naval subjects for the British War Memorials Committee. During the summer of 1918 he was put on board two ships, HMS New Zealand and HMS Princess Royal, but swiftly sent from both; the Fleet apparently did not like having an artist, particularly a civilian, on board. Subsequently, Wheatley was sent to Southampton to record the activities of the Salvage service.
John Wheatley (1892-1955) was born in Abergavenny in Wales, and attended the Slade School of Art. During the First World War he served in the Artists' Rifles. He was an official war artist, recording the work of the Royal Navy in the British home ports. After the war he spent some time in South Africa.
An elevated viewpoint of a scene showing an encampment under bombardment at an hour before evening 'stand to'. Dense clouds of smoke drift across the scene from exploding shells. Soldiers run and attempt to shelter from the bombardment, while two soldiers carry a wounded soldier in the lower right of the composition. Henry Lamb was serving in the Egyptian Expeditionary Force when he was approached by the British War Memorials Committee in February 1918 to paint a canvas for the Hall of Remembrance. He was unable to start work on the painting until after he demobbed in March 1919.
Henry Lamb (1883-1960) was an Australian-born British painter. Initially studying medicine in Manchester, he abandoned this to study painting at the Chelsea School of Art. During the First World War he served in Palestine and on the Western Front. He was a founder member of the Camden Town Group and the London Group.
The scene depicted in this painting is taken from Lamb’s experiences as a soldier in Palestine.
Lamb highlights the trajectory of the Turkish artillery shells raining down on the Irish soldiers.
The painting is reminiscent of Spencer's 'Travoys…', particularly in its use of an elevated perspective.
The painting shows enemy country opposite a portion of the line held by the British Salonika Force from mid-1916 to September 1918. Wood served in a kite balloon section, and made a number of panoramic drawings for use by artillery spotters, sketched from the views he was able to obtain from the balloons. Based on this work, Wood was proposed to the British War Memorials Committee for a commission. While his painting of the 'Doiran Front' was intended for the Hall of Remembrance, his panoramas were reproduced in information packs that were given to frontline units during the war.
William Thomas Wood (1877-1958) was born in Ipswich, Suffolk. He studied at the Regent Street Polytechnic and in Italy. He was recognized as a landscape and flower painter, and regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy. During the First World War he was appointed the British official war artist in the Balkans.
A view of Gorizia looking down over the rooftops, the hills in the distance. There are clouds of smoke blown into the air from shells landing on some of the houses and a plume of black smoke rising from a bare hill in the background. Seabrooke painted landscapes and still lifes. His landscape, 'The Bombardment of Gorizia' was painted from his experiences in Italy during the war. In the earlier part of Seabrooke’s career he was influenced by the work of Cezanne, and this influence can be seen in aspects of this painting.
Elliott Seabrooke (1886-1950) was born in Essex and studied at the Slade School of Art with Henry Tonks. He exhibited with the New English Art Club and was a member of the London Group. During the First World War he served with the British Red Cross and as a war artist on the Italian Front.
This is a small maquette for what was to be a large sculptural frieze that would be integrated into the Hall of Remembrance building. Ledward was serving in the Artillery in Italy when he was approached by the British War Memorials Committee. It was proposed that he draw up a design for a long relief depicting the experiences of the British Army up the the Battle of the Marne, but only make a fragment of this initially. He also discussed the idea for a "biblical history of the war" with Muirhead Bone, who was a key advisor to the Committee.
Gilbert Ledward (1888-1960) was born in London. His father was a sculptor, but died when Ledward was very young. Ledward won the British 'Prix de Rome' for sculpture in 1913, and during the First World War served in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He became professor of sculpture at the Royal College of Art.