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Imperial War Museum Concise Art Collection

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Artwork: Parachutes, Kennington, Eric Henri (RA)

VADS has worked with the Documentation Manager of the Imperial War Museum Art Collection to develop a fully searchable on-line database of the Museum's concise Art Collection. The digital images and raw text data were delivered to VADS, allowing us to develop a Web interface for the collection. This on-line record consists of 2,000 text and image records, copyright cleared for educational use. The collections may be searched using a general term which will return results from any part of any record or alternatively by using more specific searches on categories of information from the collection in the advanced search, such as artist name, title or description, or a combination of these. These search facilities have been developed by VADS in partnership with Affinity Vision Ltd.

Previous to this development, the Art Collection digital record was only available via a single terminal in the Museum Print Room. The Imperial War Museum is not perhaps best known for its Art Collection and it is certainly the case that this important and fascinating collection does not currently have as high a profile as its quality would justify. Therefore it is hoped that this on-line system will serve to develop its profile but also to provide an invaluable resource for the higher education visual arts community and beyond this for a broad cross section of users from schools and colleges to members of the general public.

Approaching the On-line Collection: reacting to the horror of the sublime

When you first approach the on-line collection and are asked to submit a term to search for, an initial instinct is to think of something readily associated with a "Boys-Own" view of war, such as "plane", "tank", "gun" or "soldier". However, even if our own mental horizons of the constituents of war tend to be somewhat clichéd, the art that is returned will soon confound these perceptions. It is certainly true that searching on the familiar vocabulary of war and conflict does not reveal the images that may be expected, and that the rich rewards of the collection soon become apparent. Rather than the documentary record of weaponry, artillery and machines - the mechanisms of war - the human histories are poignantly revealed.

Artwork: A Grenadier Guardsman, Orpen, William (Sir) (RA)

It soon becomes evident that by searching on more oblique terms redolent of the causation or legacy of conflict such as "hospital", "flowers", "peace", "blood" or "wound", we seem to get to the heart of the collection and uncover the messages and stories it has for us. It is also of note that given its origins (see below), surprisingly, propaganda seems far from the intentionality of war artist. In fact, the full diversity and richness of the collection as a social document is perhaps what is more apparent than the documentary evidence of conflict. What is most striking over all is the uneasy juxtaposition that surfaces between the aesthetic value of the work and the horror of the human suffering portrayed. Many of the art works are pleasing to the eye and function as aesthetic objects while depicting scenes of pain, loss and hardship which sit uneasily with the poise and harmony of their composition and the apparent ease of their pictorial realisation.

History and Context

This IWM Art Collection is acknowledged as one of the leading collections of 20th century art in this country. It contains important examples of both fine and graphic art, and is perhaps most notable for the work of the official artists commissioned to record the events of World War 1.

The collection began in 1916 when Sir Muirhead Bone, a Scottish draughtsman and etcher, was commissioned as an official war artist to illustrate propaganda publications. In 1917 the emphasis shifted somewhat to the work of the "solidier-artist" to draw upon those who had had direct experience of serving in the war, for example Paul Nash and C.R.W. Nevinson. Ultimately what began as propaganda became under Lord Beaverbrook a response to the need to create a memorial to the Great War. This involved commissioning those who were perceived as the finest artists of the time, but also involved those at the fore front of the avant garde for example, Stanley Spencer, Augustus John and John Singer Sargent. The collection was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1919 and was initially housed in the Crystal Palace.

Artwork: Regimental Band (Design for Poster), Japp, Darsie (MC)

In World War 2, the initiative was renewed, primarily for propaganda purposes, with an initial intention to draw up a list of official war artists and also to make arrangements for their employment. This was fostered by Sir Kenneth Clark, the then Director of the National Gallery. Its remit was also to protect a generation of artists from being wiped out in the conflict by keeping them otherwise employed. Some artists were commissioned to record the effects of the Blitz (for example Henry Moore, John Piper and Graham Sutherland) and others to record other stages in the so called "theatre of war". For example, Anthony Gross, Edward Bawden and Edward Ardizzone were commissioned to record events in North Africa, Europe and the Far East. During this period 5,570 works were commissioned or bought from over 300 artists. This collection was dispersed to a number of public art galleries at the end of the war. However, one third was allocated to the Imperial War Museum.



Further Information

Contact Details

Address: Art Collection
Imperial War Museum
Lambeth Road
London SE1 6HZ
Collections: Works of art, posters, art medals, postcards and printed ephemera
Access facilities: Main Building, Lambeth Road - the Print Room and Photographic Services are open by appointment
Copyright: Much of the collection is Crown copyright and licence fees are administered by

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