Curating the exhibition Architecture of War

Reading a Blue Print for the Manufacture of a Naval Gun by Leslie Cole © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1440)

Reading a Blue Print for the Manufacture of a Naval Gun by Leslie Cole © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 1440)

As a new curator in the team which look after our superb art collection, I was delighted to be invited to curate the upcoming art exhibition Architecture of War.

One of the new exhibitions open to the public at IWM London during our ongoing transformation, the exhibition presents artists’ responses to the impact of warfare on places. Spanning almost a century of British art, from the First World War to the present day, Architecture of War features works by artists including William Orpen, Ronald Searle, William Scott and Langlands and Bell.

All the artworks on display are from IWM’s collection, which is one of the most important representations of twentieth century British art in the world. During my first week as a new curator back in October 2012 I was introduced to the art store where most of the collection is held. Pulling out sliding racks and investigating portfolios I was in my element. I found many images of cities, ruins, factories, bunkers, trenches and prisons from across the collection. It made me think about the far-ranging effect of conflict on people’s lives, the impact it has on the very fabric of the places we inhabit, and the things that we build during times of war.

Echo of the Bombardment by Keith Vaughan © artist's estate

Echo of the Bombardment by Keith Vaughan © artist’s estate Detail

It was difficult to narrow down the final selection. I used a broad definition of ‘war architecture’ so a range of subjects could be included within the exhibition. There are images of construction such as Leslie Cole’s Reading a Blue Print for the Manufacture of a Naval Gun, a scene of harmony and cooperation. On the flip-side, many works are about destruction. Keith Vaughan’s Echo of the Bombardment conveys the mental strain of living in a home under threat from aerial attack.

Pictures about conflict and cities include images of the Berlin wall, Northern Ireland’s murals, and London at different times throughout the twentieth century. George Kenner’s rather relaxed View Overlooking London from Alexandra Palace doesn’t at first appear to be a wartime scene. However, once you notice the watchtowers you realise it shows a snapshot of life as an enemy alien imprisoned during the First World War.

View Overlooking London by George Kenner © artist's estate Detail

View Overlooking London by George Kenner © artist’s estate Detail

I found many atmospheric images of the inside of shelters, control rooms and barracks. The threat from outside hangs over several of these cramped spaces. The bleak view of barricades from the window dominates Anthony Davies’s domestic scene, No Surrender 1.

I’m hoping a visit to Architecture of War will be a visually stimulating and immersive experience. Starting with the energy of industry, progress through the galleries takes in the chaos and alienation of war before entering the more confined space of the final room with its focus on interiors. Whether reaching this area feels more comforting or more alarming will be up to you to decide.

Architecture of War opens 29 July. Admission is free. To find out more visit

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