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1943 "Emblems of a Stable Order"

By the Summer Exhibition of 1943, the Royal Academy had felt the full impact of the Second World War. Burlington House had been damaged during the Blitz, with Galleries IV, V, VI, and VII on the north-west side of the building written off and the glass roof damaged by nearby explosions in September and November 1940. The Academy Schools closed in 1940 for the duration of the war, visitor numbers to the Summer Exhibition slumped in the early years of conflict to around 50,000 in 1940–1941, and the number of submissions fell as contributors put aside art practice in favour of war work.1 The character of the Exhibition also changed. With the damage to the galleries, exhibition space was reduced by almost a third, and visitor experience was impacted by the closure of the Refreshment Room for the duration of the war.2 In some cases, submissions had to be accepted in alternative formats, for example, photographs were now permissible in place of original architectural drawings. Against the backdrop of conflict, exhibits in the 1943 show seem to espouse conformity to tradition, to the extent that some critics suggested the Academy was wilfully avoiding work that addressed the contemporary situation. Such claims, however, belie the inclusion of a vast number of war-themed works, and in particular the Academy’s promotion of pieces commissioned for the “National War Records”.3

Explore the 1943 catalogue

To an extent, critics welcomed the traditional feel of the 1943 show, seeing in it a reassuring mark of stability in tempestuous times. The critic of The Listener responded favourably to portraits of the great and good of the establishment, arguing that: “even now in these days of battle, there is a case for this aspect of the Academy’s action”.4 The critic of The Times agreed, typifying the “signature portraits” included in the show as “emblems of a stable order”.5 The Listener went on to quote The Times’ assertion “that the Academy should still hold its annual festival in the scared London of today is as it should be”, thus showing the importance placed on the Academy during the war as a marker for the stability and perseverance of British cultural tradition.6

T.W. Earp of The Telegraph had a different perspective, however. Far from interpreting the 1943 show as a display of tradition and stability, he characterised it as an “escapist Academy”, with his article carrying the somewhat sensationalist headline: “The Academy that Ignores the War”.7 Earp’s article is not critical, however, instead he seems to feel that the Academy is justified in avoiding works “of topical or dramatic appeal”. In effect, his view was based on the fact that there were numerous opportunities elsewhere to see artistic responses to the conflict. During the war, the government began to commission art through the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC), headed by Kenneth Clark. These commissioned works, depicting all aspects of the war effort, were then shared with the public through exhibition and publication by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA), a forerunner to the Arts Council, involving touring shows as well as temporary exhibitions at the National Gallery.8 Critics such as Earp may have felt that CEMA exhibitions provided ample opportunity to see war art, and that the Academy could better direct its energy towards exhibiting traditional subjects and styles.

Yet critical focus on the traditional elements of the 1943 show actually masks the extent of the Academy’s inclusion of war-themed works. Perusal of the catalogue shows sixty-nine works bearing a title that explicitly references the conflict, with potentially many more works dealing with wartime subject matter not reflected by their titles. Of these sixty-nine works, fifteen were government commissions, and the show included exhibits by key war artists such as Henry Lamb, Meredith Frampton, Charles Ernest Cundall, and Roland Vivian Pitchforth, along with unofficial war art by C.W.R. Nevinson.9 Of the fifteen commissioned works, two are particularly interesting:Dame Laura Knight’s Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring (Fig. 1) and Richard Eurich’s The Landing at Dieppe (Fig. 2, 1942–1943).

Eurich was commissioned by the WAAC and attached to the Admiralty to paint naval subjects. His Landing at Dieppe is a vast, dramatic seascape, Turner-esque in style and scope, typical of his wartime practice in scale and comparable to other works such as Air Flight Over Portland (1940). The critic of Apollo praised Landing at Dieppe’s “aesthetically satisfying”, “historical rendering”,10 and The Studio went even further in its admiration of the work’s authenticity and emotional impact: “luridly dramatic, it is … almost surrealistic in quality … But for heaven’s sake! What was the raid on Dunkirk [sic] if not all of these things.”11

By comparison, Knight’s Ruby Loftus is perhaps one of the most iconic pictures of war on the home front. It depicts the machinist Loftus engaged in the highly skilled task of making a Bofors Breech ring, and in terms of style, conforms to the modern-realist aesthetic typical of Knight’s work. As with Eurich’s exhibit, it attracted widespread contemporary critical praise; now in the Imperial War Museum, it has become an important image of women’s contribution to the war effort.

Both works were major commissions, and their inclusion in the Summer Exhibition is evidence of the Academy’s embrace of war art. In particular, it indicates the characteristics of the type of war art the Academy was prepared to show: large-scale historic scenes, as well as portraits of significant wartime figures, complementing as opposed to replicating the offerings of CEMA. The inclusion of such work in the Summer Exhibition demonstrates that the Academy acknowledged the war as an important contemporary subject for art, and the chief preoccupation of many of its artists at this time. It also indicates their (albeit tacit) support of the government’s commissioning system. While the Summer Exhibition maintained a certain level of tradition and consistency in its exhibits, it could in no way be said to ignore the conflict. Overall, it was marked by a kind of duality in its content: incorporating works emblematic of a “stable order”, while at the same time complementing contemporary state-sponsored shows with the inclusion of officially commissioned war art.

  1. Sidney Hutchinson, The History of the Royal Academy, 1768–1968 (London: Chapman and Hall, 1968), 165–166. Catalogues of the Summer Exhibition show 845 works exhibited in 1942, compared to 1,410 in 1950.↩︎

  2. The Academy catalogues from the war years provide interesting snippets of detail about the effect of the war on the building and the exhibition, including notes about the closing of the Refreshment Room, and the inaccessibility of the north-west gallery rooms.↩︎

  3. See the Academy catalogue, The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts (London, 1 May–7 August 1943). By “national war records”, they mean works commissioned by the government-sponsored War Artists’ Advisory Committee.↩︎

  4. R.H. Wilenski, “This Year’s Academy”, The Listener, 6 May 1943, 544.↩︎

  5. Anon, “The Royal Academy, 175th Summer Exhibition at Burlington House”, The Times, 1 May 1943, 5.↩︎

  6. Wilenski, “This Year’s Academy”, 544.↩︎

  7. T.W. Earp, “‘Artists’ ‘Academy’ that Ignores the War”, The Daily Telegraph, 1 May 1943, 2.↩︎

  8. For a full survey of wartime patronage of the arts in Britain, see Brian Foss, War Paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain 1939–1945 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007).↩︎

  9. See the Academy catalogue The Exhibition of the Royal Academy of Arts (London, 1 May–7 August 1943).↩︎

  10. “Perspex”, “Art Notes, a Bouquet for the RA”, Apollo 37 (January–June 1943): 115.↩︎

  11. Jan Gordon, “London Commentary”, The Studio 126 (July–December 1943): 24.↩︎

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Explore the 1943 catalogue