Back to Book Reviews

Back to Cercles



War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945
Brian Foss

Published for The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art
Yale University Press, 2007
264 pp., ISBN-10: 0300108907; ISBN-13: 978-0300108903


Reviewed by Antoine Capet



Few books have taken so long to write, as the author good-humouredly explains in his “Acknowledgements”—but then few books constitute such a landmark in the subject treated. When Brian Foss submitted his Ph.D. thesis  to University College, London, back in 1990,1 it was pioneering work. Now, incredible as this may seem, seventeen years later, the present book (whose core material was provided by that thesis) remains also almost alone in the field. Vast numbers of books on Britain at War were published before or since 1990—but no real substantial monograph on the specific subject of the drawings and paintings commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), headed by the famous connoisseur and art historian, Sir Kenneth Clark.
The book is far more than a detailed history of the WAAC, though the complicated politics of its relations with the Government, the military high command and the Ministry of Information, seemingly all-powerful in wartime, receive a comprehensive and illuminating treatment. It is in a way a “History of Art”—only, this History only covers six years (though of course the various influences and “schools” are traced to pre-1939 elements where appropriate). The coverage cannot be exhaustive, with “some 6,000 items in a variety of media, created by more than 400 artists” [1]—but Foss has done his best not to leave out any work of significance for one reason or other. Naturally, all the great Official Artists and their famous offerings are present, starting with the dustjacket cover and its familiar picture, A Balloon Site, Coventry, by Dame Laura Knight.2 For its part, the back cover has the spectacular A House Collapsing on Two Firemen, Shoe Lane, London, EC4 by Leonard Rosoman.3 It so happens that these two paintings were on show in the excellent recent exhibition at Imperial War Museum North, Manchester4—a fact that Foss could not foresee when he delivered his text to the publishers, but a fact which shows how spot-on his selection is. The two-way process of showing “examples” and commenting in depth upon some of the more complex5 ones is perhaps seen at its best in the author’s treatment of Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring, also by Dame Laura Knight5 [Fig.126, with full-page detail on Fig.81].
I first saw the “real” picture—as opposed to reproductions—during the “Women and War” Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, London (15 October 2003 - 18 April 2004),6 and was so intrigued by the circumstances of the composition that I dug up some additional information, which formed part of an article which I contributed on the representation of the working classes at war.7 But now Foss’s extensive treatment almost puts me to shame. A large part of his Chapter 3 on “Women’s Work in Art and War” is devoted to the Ruby Loftus story under the sub-heading “The Exceptional Woman” [107-15]—and he blends all the current concepts of Gender Studies with the old-established canons of Art Appreciation (including the psycho-analytic approach founded on the examination of the “sub-text”) in a masterly turning of the tables on the subliminal meaning of the picture:

Knight’s close association in the public sphere with Ruby Loftus […] confirmed their shared identity as women who had managed to transcend the biological and social restrictions of their sex. But in the process, their extraordinary abilities were read as making them not beacons of gender equality so much as outstanding exceptions whose achievement underscored the limitations, rather than the possibilities, of other women. [115]

The discussion of Sir Kenneth Clark’s own choices in Chapter 6, “State Patronage and National Culture: Kenneth Clark and British Art,” also constitutes a superb handling and blending of elements derived from different disciplines, mixing as it does biographical and psychological information on Clark with complex discussions of the concept of “British Art” (of exemplary clarity—non-specialists will be most grateful to Foss for the total absence of abstruse jargon all through the book). These discussions include the examination of the implicit (and fascinating) debate between Herbert Read—who supported the Modernist defence of abstraction—and the conservative Kenneth Clark, who saw this as “essentially German” [186] (the ultimate insult in wartime Britain, of course) or—little better after Dunkirk and the establishment of the Vichy Government—as a French threat to stolid, no-nonsense “English” values in art [164-65]. There was of course a major difficulty for Kenneth Clark, who publicly argued that popular art is bad art, when he had to ask his political masters for funds to sustain the consensual concept of the People’s War. Yet, Foss draws a picture of Kenneth Clark which makes him sympathetic. This complicated man, in the great tradition of lofty educators who believed that you could not trust the common man’s judgement until he had been educated, was not a hypocrite (at least not a conscious one): unlike some who used that argument to leave the illiterate to their fate, he used it in vibrant pleas for the development of art education. He had no doubt that given the right teachers (i.e. men like himself) the people was perfectly capable of acquiring refined tastes. So in his own eyes, he was an active, sincere participant in the People’s War.
And “the people” is everywhere in the book. Granted, there are many scenes in which no human presence as such can be seen, like the great Paul Nash compositions, Battle of Britain8 and Totes Meer.9 Admittedly, the illustrations include some of the conventional portraits of warlords (Gort,10 Portal11), with a picture-within-the picture of Ironside.12 But Chapters 2 (on the Home Front) and 4 (on the military) are full of “ordinary” men and women in pictures which are not often shown in exhibitions or books: a canal-boat woman,13 gasworkers,
14 a woman bus conductor,15 prisoners of war,16 ATS17 and WRNS personnel.18 Foss provides an extensive discussion of the ambiguities of the People’s War seen from the point of view of the WAAC commissions. He does not limit himself to aesthetic and artistic analyses, but strives to relate the genesis of these pictures to the broader military history and social mythology of wartime Britain, very convincingly suggesting that they perfectly illustrate Calder’s theses on “the myth of the Blitz.”19 Let it be noted, incidentally, that Foss has “read everything” on his subject, which allows him to offer a masterly Bibliography, with many wartime sources not often listed elsewhere.20
Like most commentators, as we have argued elsewhere,21 he seems to be far less at ease when faced with the Belsen art work. His discussion of the three works illustrated (two in black and white, unfortunately)22 concludes that “it is Mary Kessell’s drawings that approach their subjects from the most original stance” [145]—which is already a debatable point. But then he makes no mention of what is perhaps the most powerful “artist’s impression” of the horror of the camp by a WAAC painter, namely Belsen, April 1945 by Doris Zinkeisen.23 Curiously, Foss does not draw a parallel between the prostrate (dead) bodies in Taylor’s drawing [Fig.180] and the sleeping ones of Moore’s tube shelter sketches, as illustrated in his Fig.78.24 Yet, many critics have underlined the analogy between the scenes in Moore’s tube shelter sketches and pictures of the catacombs.25 But then, of course, every reader will form his own intertextual links from the wealth of illustrations provided (though unfortunately not all in colour26).
One the great strengths of Foss’s book lies in its Appendix listing the names of all the artists who contributed at least one work to the scheme. Thus we understand why Ainsworth (who left a large-size harrowing sketch of Belsen victims27), Harrison (whose depiction of a family in a cellar during an air raid is among those that one never forgets28) or Searle (with his grim records of Japanese camps—the object of a recent exhibition at the Imperial War Museum29) are left out: technically, they were of course “war artists”—but legally they had no ties with the WAAC and cannot therefore be considered as “ ‘official’ war artists.” This would perhaps provide a ready subject for Professor Foss—he could complement his superb survey of the WAAC artists’ work with another state-of-the-art monograph on the work of those who, for some reason or other, were not in WAAC employ, as the only reasonably comprehensive study so far remains that of the Harrieses.30
War Paint is indisputably an important book, which should be in all Art School and University Libraries, and it is unreservedly recommended to advanced students of British Art and Twentieth Century British History. There is no better introduction to British art in the Second World War. Ideally, the reader should then go to the Imperial War Museum, where most of the works discussed and illustrated in the book are regularly exhibited.


1. Foss, Brian. ‘British artists and the Second World War – With particular reference to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Information’. Ph. D. Thesis. University of London, 1990. back

2. Oil on canvas, 1943. IWM ART LD 2750. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website:

3. Oil on canvas, 1940. IWM ART LD 1353. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website, ibid. back

4. ‘Witness II : Highlights of Second World War Art’. Imperial War Museum North, Manchester
(3 February-29 April 2007). See review on H-Museum website:
The Imperial War Museum published an excellent full-colour catalogue on this occasion, with many pictures which are only reproduced in black and white in Foss’s book: Campus, James [Editor]. Art from the Second World War. Introduction by Roger Tolson. London : Imperial War Museum, 2006.

5. Oil on canvas, 1943. IWM ART LD 2850. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website, ibid.back

7. Capet, Antoine. ‘La représentation de la classe ouvrière en Grande-Bretagne au cours de la Deuxième Guerre mondiale’. In Millat, Gilbert [Editor]. La classe ouvrière britannique, XIXe-XXe siècles : Proscrits, patriotes, citoyens. Paris : L’Harmattan, 2005 : 231-256. back

8. Oil on canvas, 1941. IWM ART LD 1550. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website, ibid.back

9. Totes Meer (Dead Sea). Oil on canvas, 1940-41. Tate Britain N05717. Visible on the Tate website:


10. Reginald Eves. General The Viscount Gort, VC, GCB, CBE, DSO, MVO, MC. Oil on panel, 1940. IWM ART LD 730. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website, ibid. back

11. Eric Kennington. Air Chief Marshal Sir Charles Portal, KCB, DSO, MC. Pastel, 1940. IWM ART LD 641. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website, ibid. back

12. Eric Kennington painting a portrait of General William Ironside, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. Photograph, 1940. Hulton Archive/Getty Images. back

13. Bernard Hailstone. Christian Vlasto, a Canal-boat Woman. Oil on canvas, 1944. IWM ART LD 4950. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website, ibid. back

14. Stephen Bone. Gasworkers. Oil on canvas, 1942. IWM ART LD 2430. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website, ibid. back

15. Hilda Harrisson. A Woman Bus Conductor. Chalk on paper, 1942. Imperial War Museum.back

16. (Lieutenant) John Worsley. Shower-room: Marlag 'O'. Oil on canvas, 1944. IWM ART LD 5153. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website, ibid. back

17. (Sergeant) Stella L.M. Schmolle. Beginners learning about the Engine on Stationary Vehicles: Cordwallis MT Training Centre, Camberley, 1943. Watercolour, 1943. IWM ART LD 3522. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website, ibid. back

18. Robert Sargent Austin. WRNS Ratings signalling to HM Ships at Sea. Chalk on paper, 1942. Imperial War Museum. back

19. Calder, Angus. The Myth of the Blitz. London : Jonathan Cape, 1991 [Pimlico Paperbacks, 1995]. back

20. Foss had already shown his interest in the historiography of the Second World War artists in ‘The war and the visual arts’.  In Lee, Lloyd E. [Editor]. World War II in Asia and the Pacific and the War’s Aftermath, with general Themes : A Handbook of Literature and Research. Westport: Greenwood, 1998 : 305-322. back

21. Capet, Antoine. ‘The liberation of the Bergen-Belsen Camp as seen by some British Official War Artists in 1945’. Holocaust Studies 12-1/2 (2006) : 170-185 (Reprinted in Bardgett, Suzanne & Cesarani, David [Editors]. Belsen 1945: New Historical Perspectives. Published in Association with the Imperial War Museum. London : Vallentine Mitchell, 2006 : 170-185). back

22. Leslie Cole. Belsen Camp: The Compound for Women. Oil on canvas, 1945. IWM ART LD 5104. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website, ibid.; Eric Taylor. Human Wreckage at Belsen Concentration Camp, 1945. Watercolour on paper, 1945. Imperial War Museum; Mary Kessell. Notes from Belsen Camp, 1945. Sanguine, 1945. IWM ART LD 5747e. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website, ibid. back

23. IWM ART LD 5767. Visible on the Imperial War Museum website, ibid. back

24. Henry Moore. Women in a Shelter. Pencil, wax, crayon, chalk, watercolour wash, pen and ink on paper, 1941. Museum of London.back

25. For a discussion, see my article, ‘Que nous apprennent les « artistes officiels » sur le front de l’intérieur (Home Front) dans la Grande-Bretagne en guerre, 1940-1945 ?’ Lisa IV-3 (2006) : 62-90. Electronic publication :


26. Unlike the recent catalogue of Imperial War Museum paintings, which forms a useful complement to Foss’s monograph in that it gives all the pictures (albeit in very small size) in full colour. Ellis, Andrew & Roe, Sonia [Editors]. Oil Paintings in Public Ownership in the Imperial War Museum. Photography by Andy Johnson. Oil Paintings in Public Ownership Series. London: The Public Catalogue Foundation, 2006. back

27. Edgar Ainsworth. Belsen 1945. Ink, wash, 1945. IWM ART LD 16555. back

28. A.R. Harrison. The long Night: London Blitz 1942. IWM ART LD 7266. back

29. CAPTIVE. Imperial War Museum, London, 2 July 2005-5 February 2006. See review on H-Museum website:


30. Harries, Meirion & Harries, Susie. The War Artists: British official War Art of the Twentieth Century. London: Michael Joseph in Association with the Imperial War Museum and the Tate Gallery, 1983. back



All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner. Please contact us before using any material on this website.