Wartime London in Paintings tells the story of the artists commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) who lived and worked in London and how they interacted with the Committee to produce a body of work which today gives us a fresh insight into the city’s wartime history.
Of the eighty or so paintings in the book, roughly three quarters have not been shown or reproduced before. My sources were the WAAC correspondence, together with papers at the National Gallery and the Tate, and nearly 150 books on a variety of topics, many of them biographies or catalogues of exhibitions. Oral history interviews carried out with several of the artists in the 1980s allowed me to listen to them remembering how the war had impacted on their lives. Many put aside their painting for the sake of giving time to the Auxiliary Fire Service or St John’s Ambulance – where they performed vital work during the Blitz. Several lost work – sometimes their entire life’s output – when their studios were bombed. One – Wilfrid Haines - lost his life in a V1 attack.
My research showed the dilemma of the WAAC’s Secretary, EMO’R Dickey, who was answerable to the Ministry of Information, which controlled the news and monitored public morale. Dickey wanted - by instinct - to give the artists a free hand in how they depicted what they saw, but pressures came from above. But pressures came from above. Paintings that told a depressing story were not good for public morale and Dickey was given a clear steer not to allow the output to be too depressing.
Internet researches which would not have been possible twenty years ago produced useful contacts. I was able to track down Dickey’s two grandsons, who had not been in touch with the IWM before – despite their grandfather’s enormous impact on the IWM’s art collection. I also managed to contact the daughter of one of Bernard Hailstone’s sitters, Christian Vlasto, who had been one of the all-female canal boat crews who travelled regularly between London and Birmingham. By tracking down her daughter, Mariam Shera, I was able to quote from her mother’s account of those times.
I took riverboats up the Thames to see the undersides of bridges painted by Edgar Platt (see top of this blog post), and walked around the dense area of streets south and west of St Paul’s where several of the painters found rich material. Notable among these was Shoe Lane, the narrow medieval street whose falling walls in Leonard Rosoman’s painting have come to symbolise the terror of the Blitz.
The book shows the difficulties the artists faced as – alongside other London civilians – they endured the most devastating attack on the capital in its history. A 90 year old friend of mine commented that it took him back to his days as a surveyor in post-war London – when the city was just recovering from the war. I hope that all kinds of readers – but perhaps particularly those with an affection for London and its history – will read the book and share the insights I was able to gain into this largely untold story.
Wartime London in Paintings, published by IWM, is available to purchase from the IWM Shop