The First World War and artists

By Judith Phillips

Partly because The Bowes Museum is renowned for its fine art collections, I have been thinking about how artists were involved in and responded to the First World War.  I recently saw an exhibition of work by some British artists working in the inter-war period.  And, of course, that means that many of them were of military age during the war.  Not all the short biographies in the catalogue gave information about the war years but I was struck by how many men saw active service, and several of them suffered significant physical damage.

One female artist served in the Land Army but there was no information about the other women.  Of the men, 21 enlisted and saw active service, mainly on the Western Front.  Two served as ambulance drivers, two registered as conscientious objectors, two were exempted on grounds of ill-health and two were official war artists.

Two paintings in particular struck me.  One was by David Jagger and was entitled ‘The Conscientious Objector, 1917’.  The catalogue entry notes that the picture is probably a self-portrait.  Jagger was exempted from military service because of ill-health and, although a strong pacifist, he was not a conscientious objector.  As you will know from Megan Leyland’s talk earlier this month, conscientious objectors were frequently viewed with suspicion and contempt.  The catalogue prints the Daily Telegraph comment when the painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1917: ‘Jagger’s “Conscientious Objector” need not have been named.  There he is to the life, with his haggard cheeks, dogged, argumentative face, and pink comforter.’

As this portrait is in a private collection, it does not appear on the Art UK website ( but, looking at David Jagger’s works on this site, I immediately noticed a portrait of Charles Jagger in what looked like First World War army uniform.  A closer inspection of the picture showed it was painted in 1917, and I think it must be the artist’s brother (and he survived the war).  The painting is held by Museums Sheffield, so I’ll view it with keener interest on my next visit to Sheffield.

The other painting that really took my attention for its First World War connections was completely different. ‘Why War?’ was painted by Charles Spencelayh in 1939 and is in the Harris Museum and Gallery, Preston.  An image is available to view on Art UK, as are two First World War portraits of Vernon Spencelayh – another example of an artist’s brother?  An old man sits in his old-fashioned parlour gazing into space.  His medals from an earlier conflict are pinned to his jacket and the death of Nelson is shown in an engraving on the wall, but the gas mask on the table and the newspaper referring to Neville Chamberlain’s meeting with Hitler in 1938 bring us immediately to the Second World War that had its beginnings in the aftermath of the First World War.

The exhibition ‘True to Life: British Realist Painting in the 1920s & 1930s’ is at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (Two)in Edinburgh until 29th October.

Professor Dibble’s talk on British composers and their response to war was very popular.  Perhaps we should arrange a talk on artists’ responses to the war?  Please let us know what you think.