The first official war artists scheme was set up by the British government in 1916. Started for mainly propaganda purposes, it soon developed higher and more artistic aims – both to record and memorialise Britain’s war effort. Only four women were commissioned on this scheme, compared with 47 men. Of these four, three had their work rejected and one did not take up the commission. It was left to the Imperial War Museum Women’s Work Sub-Committee to ensure official representation for women artists. This was not put in place until after the war ended. The Imperial War Museum’s first exhibition in 1919 entitled ‘The Nations War Paintings’ displayed 925 works, 15 of which were by women. Other women artists worked outside the official schemes.
This area of our project research has been led by a very enthusiastic and hard working group, the Oswestry Borders U3A Art Appreciation Group. Members of the group have been exploring the use of propaganda to encourage women to send their loved ones to war- as portrayed in posters on display at the Imperial War Museum. This continued until conscription was brought in.
The group has also looked at paintings by women artists, such as Anna Airy and Lucy Kemp Welch, considering what these images show us, both historically and socially. Lively discussion has taken place on how women were portrayed, including changes to their social status and working conditions, how these works were received, why they are not on show today and why women artists still struggle for recognition.
The members have covered work by women artists from Britain and its allies as well as other countries, including Germany. One member of the group has created a piece of work on embroidered postcards – an important means of communication during the war, as they created fewer problems with censorship than letters.