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1940 Art and War, Time for Realism

Britain faced invasion from September 1939, once Hitler occupied Poland. Extreme shortages such as essentials like butter, bacon, and sugar were rationed from January 1940. On 9 April 1940, as the galleries at Burlington House were being prepared to display the nearly 1,400 Summer show exhibits, the so-called Phoney War ended.1 Homes were commandeered to house evacuees, children were evacuated from London, and civil servants were transferred elsewhere.

It was a time for united action. Academicians forsook their Annual Banquet, and instead two private views were held at which the uniforms from the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) or Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) made clear that solidarity held command at the annual occasion for meeting old friends and colleagues. For the first time in the Academy’s history, one of its Royal Academicians, Reginald Grenville Eves, was in khaki.

Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, at the Academy Banquet in 1938 (his first) had said that no community was more remote from politics than artists. However, war meant little time for the fine arts to be “nearer to the angels than any other of man’s enterprises or accomplishments” (as Chamberlain believed).2 Straitened times in the lead-up to the war, leaving artists without buyers or commissions, ended their fractious arguments of the inter-war years. The Summer Exhibition opened against the lightning speed of the German advance and the unleashing war across the Channel. On 10 May, Germany invaded Holland, Belgium, and Luxembourg. King George VI appointed Winston Churchill as Prime Minister, replacing Chamberlain. By the end of May, Holland surrendered, Belgium fell, and German troops reached Abbeville. A full-scale evacuation of Allied troops trapped at Dunkirk was required. On 14 June, German troops marched into Paris. On 1 August, Hitler instigated the Battle of Britain, ordering that victory should be “as soon as possible”.

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Against this, the Exhibition seemed lost in time, a fragment from foregone days. Cornish Venus, a huge nude by Alfred Kingsley Lawrence held place of honour in the main gallery. A mezzotint of Chamberlain by engraver Henry Macbeth-Raeburn typified the customary selection representing the world of affairs. Disconnected to real-time events were paintings like the sun-drenched My Back Garden by Sir George Clausen (Fig. 1). Drifting by Alfred J. Munnings portrayed two girls gliding in a canoe, enjoying a languid summer’s day. Francis Dodd exhibited Suburban Wits (who clearly were without care for the world beyond local gossip); and Goings on by Alan Beeton, depicted two canoodling soft toys. By contrast, Charles Cundall represented contemporary events with Exeter Home, showing the return of the Royal Navy’s cruiser from the war’s first naval engagement, The Battle of the River Plate. “All the war pictures are good; but they are so few and far between that the first general impression is that our artists have overlooked the subject altogether,” observed one critic.3 Nor did the Chantrey Bequest purchases announced mid-August reflect the war, the exception being Edward Le Bas’ Saloon Bar, the backs of two soldiers in view.4 

The press hailed Nazi Persecution and Sacrilege, A.D. 1939 (Dedicated to the Peace Conference) by London the furrier and self-taught amateur Cyril Joshua Ross as picture of the year.5 Evident passion for the plight of his Jewish kinfolk got his naïve eight-foot canvas “across the line”. It succeeded in being among the comparatively few selected from the 15,000 works normally presented before the Selection Committee for judgement. With London adjusting to the influx of refugees and threats from Hitler foremost in mind, it arrested attention.

The most popular canvas was by the veteran Victorian painter, Charles Spencelayh. There Will Always Be An England expressed the patriotic sentiment popularised by Vera Lynn. “Britons awake”, she sang. “… Freedom remains … There’ll always be an England.”

“Isms” were no longer noted with a war to win. The quarrels of previous decades, in reaction to the formula of the art establishment, dissolved when liberty itself was at stake. Old critics Wilson Steer, Dugald Sutherland MacColl, and Frederick Brown, stalwarts of the New English Art Club, hung at Burlington House for the first time. With events of the day charged with emotion, artists became more realistic. Augustus John accepted re-election as Academician, after resigning in protest over the Academy’s rejection in 1938 of Wyndham Lewis’ portrait of T.S. Eliot. Former breakaways Henry Lamb and Ethel Walker, CBE, were welcomed as Associates with the self-taught John Nash. Inclusion mattered when the purchase and price of a picture often depended on its exhibition at the Academy. “Something—perhaps the war again—has caused a return to the simple,” it was said.6 Besides, what painter could compete with David Selznick’s Gone with the Wind, which stole the Motion Picture Academy Awards in 1939, or John Ford’s Oscar-winning Rebecca (1940).

It was a time for realism, seen in the finest war pictures. They came from Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson (the most prominent of the official war artists of the 1914–1918 War) and Dame Laura Knight. Among the most celebrated artists of the day, both were well received in America, and their autobiographies came out within a year of each other in 1936–1937. As Nevinson did in the First World War, he recorded scenes met with. Made an ARA in 1939, Nevinson’s Suburbia 1939 showed the searchlights, the anti-aircraft guns, and the barrage balloons of the blacked-out home front. The Thames in Black and Silver depicted the river brooding in lowering light, in seeming defiance to Hitler (Fig. 2). As witnesses to history, their paintings stressed the demands of war on civilian populations. Dame Laura Knight’s January, 1940 depicted a war-time land girl in morning light with a plough team, the clay soil of a field laden with snow between rows of icy stripped trees in the bitter cold. Executed in cold palettes, their paintings conveyed foreboding. 

With good reason. On 24 August, the Luftwaffe attacked central London for the first time. Aged seventy-five, Spencelayh lost his home and over four hundred drawings. In September, and again in mid-November, the Royal Academy Schools and galleries were damaged through bomb explosions in Burlington Arcade.

  1. Eric Newton, “Royal Academy, The Documentary Side of Painting”, The Manchester Guardian, 4 May 1940, 6.↩︎

  2. “The Royal Academy Banquet, Premier’s Eulogy of Creative Art, Mr Churchill and the ‘Rebels’”, The Observer, 1 May 1938, 23. Chamberlain quoted the popular Gifford Lectures delivered by Professor McNeile Dixon; see William McNeile Dixon, The Human Situation: The Gifford Lectures delivered in the University of Glasgow 1935–1937 (London: E. Arnold & Co., 1938).↩︎

  3. “Royal Academy Show Held in London in War-Time Setting”, The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld), 23 May 1940, 6. The scarcity of war pictures is evident from the illustrated annual covering the Exhibition that the Academy issued, in which landscapes and society portraits prevail. Representations of contemporary events were largely evident in military portraits. Examples include: Sir John Lavery, Admiral Phipps Hornby, CMG, 32; T.G. Dugdale, Major-General J. H. Beith, C.B.E., M.C., 85; Mario Grizoni, Admiral Sir Edward Evans, K.C.B., D.S.O., LL.D., 100 in The Royal Academy, The Royal Academy Illustrated (London: Walter Judd, 1940).↩︎

  4. The Chantrey bought a watercolour by Augustus John, Blue Cineraria, and oils from Sir George Clausen (My Back Garden); Reginald Brundrit’s Nutwith Common, Masham; Ronald Ossory Dunlop’s Rosalind Iden as “Ophelia”; Grace Golden, Free Speech; and Steven Spurrier’s Yellow Washstand. The National Portrait Gallery bought James Gunn’s deft portrait, The late Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, K.T.. He served the Academy as an Honorary Royal Academician as Secretary for Foreign Correspondence from 1914. The total sales in the 1940 Exhibition amounted to only a little over £5,000 (as against about £7,500 in 1939, when 175 works sold). Sculpture fared poorly; only seven pieces found buyers. No large canvases found purchases.↩︎

  5. Ross’s painting reflected on attempts made by President Roosevelt with Hitler and Mussolini to open discussions towards peace in mid-April 1939: Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Press Conference”, 15 April 1939. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, Cyril J. Ross was Treasurer of the Ben Uri Art Society for many years and ensured that the Society acquired its own premises in 1944. Schwab, Walter and Julia Weiner (eds), Jewish Artists: The Ben Uri Collection, Paintings, Drawings, Prints and Sculpture (London: Ben Uri Society in association with Lund Humphries, 1994), 10.↩︎

  6. “Royal Academy Show Held in London in War-Time Setting”, The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld), 23 May 1940, 6.↩︎

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Explore the 1940 catalogue