A poignant WWII exhibition of artists’ records of British heritage offers a snapshot of the time
If asked to celebrate Britain’s natural and built heritage, what subjects would today’s artists choose? Would they include historic castles and palaces and contemporary architectural blockbusters such as the Shard and the Gherkin as well as famous beauty spots? Or would they choose the more everyday, low-key places that wouldn’t get a mention in the guidebooks but somehow capture something of the spirit of the nation?
Sixty-odd years ago, artists in Recording Britain, a Second World War art initiative intended to boost national morale, by and large chose the latter, as demonstrated in a show opening this month at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne.
From 1939-43 around 90 watercolourists were commissioned to celebrate the British landscape and architectural heritage at a time of national crisis and future uncertainty. Commissioned by then National Gallery director Kenneth Clark, the project turned out to be a rather melancholic form of propaganda, capturing often wistful images of run-down churches, cottages, pubs and country houses, threatened not just by war but by changing ways of country life. As a result, the effect is poignant as well as celebratory, and is about decay as much as it is about survival.
‘The artists are all anticipating that themes they’re painting might not survive in that form for much longer,’ says Gill Saunders, senior curator (prints) of the V&A, which organised the exhibition. She adds that artists generally chose to capture scenes and landscapes that were locally precious rather than nationally celebrated, and that they felt were worthy of preserving in paint while they still could.
Although some were specific commissions – Kenneth Rowntree was sent to paint the village of Ashopton in Derbyshire before it made way for a reservoir – other ideas were suggested to the selection committee by the rather mixed bag of artists, of whom the best known are probably John Piper and Rowntree, who contributed more than 50 pictures to the project. The resulting 1500 paintings were shown in hugely popular exhibitions at venues around the country including the National Gallery, whose own collection had been dispatched to secret storage destinations for safekeeping.
‘What is apparent now is how the collection is greater than the sum of its parts – a fascinating snapshot of values and concerns of that moment,’ says Saunders, who describes the Recording Britain work as coinciding with the ‘last flowering’ of the fading British landscape watercolour tradition.
At the Towner, the wartime images are combined with recent paintings and photographs exploring themes of location and transience by artists including Jeremy Deller and Richard Long. The V&A’s Saunders hopes visitors may find some common themes and resonances between the wartime and more contemporary work.
‘There’s a similarity and sense of continuity. The same issues and concerns come up again, such as loss of amenity, the changing landscape and loss of vernacular.’
Recording Britain, 6 February – 2 May, Towner Art Gallery, Devonshire Park, College Road, Eastbourne BN21 4JJ