- British Art and the First World War, 1914-1924 by James Fox
British Art and the First World War, 1914-1924 is a compact, well-researched and illustrated national case study on the relationship between art, society, and the Great War in the United Kingdom. In six chapters, it chronologically examines the business of wartime art and the new relationships established between art and its [End Page 697] publics over a 10-year period ending with the British Empire Exhibition in 1924. The book is based on James Fox’s doctoral dissertation. His nearly decade-long exploration of his subject is reflected in the slim volume’s 30-page bibliography. If Fox’s argument that the First World War catastrophically affected British art is perhaps too strongly put, certainly the evidence he provides for a complex, transformational and, at times, contradictory wartime relationship between art and society, including the state, puts any such dispute conclusively to bed. The nature of British art was altered fundamentally by the conflict as it was, albeit differently, in every other belligerent country. Fox quotes from John Ruskin’s 1866 The Crown of Wild Olives: Three Lectures on Work, Traffic, and War: “there is no great art possible to a nation but that which is based on battle.” (p. 3)
British Art and the First World War is a remarkably easy read. Fox writes clearly, fluidly, and concisely, presenting a thematic portfolio that never strays from the book’s overlying chronological structure. To be fair, he acknowledges the restrictions of this arrangement stating “all of these themes overlapped and coexisted throughout the war years.” (p. 10) While in an era of transnational studies it would have been interesting to see some evidence of comparative work, it has to be recognised that on the basis of the bibliography, no such research exists in accessible form. Dispensing in the Introduction with the possibility of art holding itself aloof from wartime society, Fox sets the scene in chapters 1 and 2 for his central argument, that the war’s artistic consequences were enduringly productive. He describes wartime hardship in the form of the absence of sales, dealers, commissions, materials, exhibitions, art organisations, and travel and study opportunities. He shows how artists adapted to the challenging conditions they found themselves in as they sought income to enable them to continue practicing their craft. Within this context, Fox also explores how the state began to revise its early wartime attitude to art as elitist and its possession a luxury in favour of its usefulness to the achievement of military goals. He divertingly discusses how artists had to actively demonstrate that they were not spies when painting or sketching outdoors, skills he later shows to be valued and essential to the work of camouflage and observation.
In chapter 3 we learn that museums—before the war bulwarks of elitist notions of knowledge and art—transformed into centres of national identity to the extent that in 1917 “the War Cabinet approved the decision to form a National War Museum,” now the Imperial War Museum in London. (p. 68) A transformation of past history also occurred in wartime poster design. If the conflict can be posited as having brought the prewar Modernist experiment in British art to a halt, “bold and confrontational” poster design proved the opposite. (p. 69) Chapter 4 explores the expansion of a military visual culture that the proliferation of posters had already demonstrated was growing in strength. The pre-war public was familiar with photography and film and demanded its presence in their wartime lives. The result was the creation of official films like Battle of the Somme (1916) and new and popular illustrated publications such as War Pictorial. Beginning in June 1916, the need for visual images growing ever stronger, artists too became part of the state apparatus with the appointment of Muirhead Bone as the first [End Page 698] British official war artist. His work, and that of the other official war artists, was widely distributed in published form. In this chapter, Fox explains...