Winston Churchill with a jowl or two flatteringly removed, a fierce group of women in pinnies marching out under the banner “Up housewives and at ‘em!” to recycle their domestic waste into “planes, guns, tanks, ships & ammunition”, and a startling image of the assassination in 1942 of a Nazi officer are among hundreds of images of propaganda and war art from the National Archives in a free Wikimedia online gallery launched this week.
Some were the work of famous artists recruited to help the war effort, including Terence Cuneo, who in 1942 painted the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Holocaust, by a British-trained Czech and Slovak team. Cuneo would go on to become the more tranquil official artist for the 1953 coronation, and coveted by collectors as a painter of railway scenes.
Alongside images of tank warfare and bombers picked out by flames or search lights, and stern-faced military commanders in uniform, there are scores of more domestic scenes, including many connected with the desperate need to increase food production at a time of dire scarcity: a poster offers free transport and accommodation to anyone willing to come and help dig potatoes. Dame Laura Knight, famous as a member of the Newlyn School and as a painter of theatre and ballet scenes, contributed many works, including a lyrical image of a land girl stooping over a plough in a wintry field.
However many of the artists are now barely remembered, and some completely forgotten. A pastel image from 1944, showing the then Princess Elizabeth in uniform but as glamorous as any pin-up, is signed only “Tim”.
The archive includes the original artwork for famous propaganda campaigns including Dig For Victory, represented by a heroically patriotic toddler with hoe and shovel, painted by Mary Tunbridge, and an airman being vamped by a sexy blonde over the slogan “Keep mum – she’s not so dumb”, an image by an unknown artist for the Careless Talk Costs Lives campaign.
The first 330 works launched this week are only the start of a project which will eventually place several thousand images online. Some were drafts or never used, and many of these have pencilled comments by the artists or the War Office: a vivid scene by James Gardner of British bombers attacking a German industrial complex has the withering and heavily underlined note in pencil “bomb racks open from centre and not from side as in your sketch”.
Jo Pugh, the education technical officer at the archives, said they wanted to open the extraordinary work of sometimes obscure artists to the widest possible audience. “They are an often overlooked part of Britain’s war effort but their themes resonate down the decades,” she said.
[Wartime propaganda via Wikimedia Commons]