Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, November 9, 2015

British Art and the First World War 1914-1924
reviewed by Jane Mattisson Ekstam

British Art and the First World War 1914–1924
by James Fox
Cambridge University Press, 2015

British Art and the First World War 1914–1924 sheds new light on the role of art in a nation at war, demonstrating that the war forged a much closer relationship between the British people and their art not only during the war itself but also up to the 1920s. Fox shows that the war had an overwhelmingly positive effect on art because artists and their institutions increasingly operated within society as a whole and no longer in the self-contained sphere of the art world. As a result, art was brought into a more intimate relationship with national life than it had experienced before because it was used to raise morale and recruit, to inform as well as entertain, to remember and to console, and also to fight. Art reached out to the country, the country reached out to art, concludes Fox. Artworks were used by the British government, its press, and civic institutions. Art became an important means by which to come to terms with the unusual conditions of war.

John Nash, "Over the Top – 1st Artists' Rifles at Macoing" (IWM Collection)

Unlike previous art critics, who have focused on the experiences of young, male soldier-artists, the national propaganda campaign and the fate of modernism after 1914, Fox adopts a wider stance, incorporating amateur watercolor painters, popular illustrators, provincial engravers, academicians, and memorial sculptors, all of whom have been neglected but who were nonetheless much affected by the war. Fox also makes the point that it is these artists who became so popular with the British public.

Fox points out that art is produced by networks of individuals and organizations. These constitute "art worlds" that include collectors, dealers, curators, administrators, critics, scholars, and publishers. By relating the activities of museums, galleries, schools, and other institutions where art was produced to government policies and public discussions, Fox demonstrates how the war changed forever the social position and reputation of the art world.

Art fulfilled a number of functions. It enabled the British public to experience the war, but it also provided a means of escape. As a result, by the 1920s, British art and British society were more conscious of one another than they had been only ten years earlier. Art became indeed an important part of national reconstruction after 1918 as British artists advised on and designed memorials throughout the country. Artists also set up regional organizations to bring art closer to the people, making art more democratic and more accessible.

British Art and the First World War 1914–1924 is divided into six chapters: "The Outbreak of War and the Business of Art"; "Perceptions of Art"; "The Arts Mobilize"; "War Pictures: Truth, Fiction, Function"; "Peace Pictures: Escapism, Consolation, Catharsis"; and "Art and Society After the War". Each chapter is accompanied by detailed notes and references, many of which have not appeared in print before.

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Chapter Five is particularly innovative. The numerous black-and-white as well as color illustrations and black-and-white photographs demonstrate clearly Fox's central theme for the chapter — the new art that emerged after the war could not have been more different to the bellicose art of 1914–18 because its purpose was completely different, namely to "escape and overcome" (109) the hardships of war. The pastoral landscapes, mass-produced prints, private portrait commissions, and amateur sketches forged a new relation between the British public and their art and created "novel channels through which art-works could be disseminated and experienced. It deepened the psychological resonances of pictures for nearly all who interacted with them. And, at the very end of the conflict, it even suggested a model of how the community as a whole might recover from war" (110). A new mode of portraiture, for example, was devised that "wanted the most precise, sober and understated likenesses that money could buy" (121), helping families to come to terms with the loss of a loved one.

The bibliography to British Art and the First World War 1914–1924, covering 31 pages, bears testimony to the extraordinary depth and breadth of Fox's research. It also provides valuable references to documents rarely consulted. British Art and the First World War 1914–1924 is eloquent and highly readable. Its numerous illustrations are carefully chosen and beautifully reproduced. Fox's study is about art by the people for the people. He helps us to understand war art and to appreciate it for what it is — an integral part of society and of our heritage. This is a must read for historians and art critics alike.

Jane Mattisson Ekstam


  1. May I ask if this is primarily an illustrated publication or primarily a text publication that includes a number of illustrations?

    1. Fox's book is primarily a text publication with a number of illustrations. The text is extremely informative and accessible and the illustrations large and well-reproduced. It is not a large volume but an informative one. With all good wishes, Jane.

  2. Seems an interesting book to have.

  3. And it is too! I warmly recommend it. With all good wishes, Jane.