War Artists' Advisory Committee

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The War Artists' Advisory Committee (WAAC), was a British government agency established within the Ministry of Information at the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 and headed by Sir Kenneth Clark. Its aim was to compile a comprehensive artistic record of Britain throughout the war. This was achieved both by appointing official war artists, on full-time or temporary contracts and by acquiring artworks from other artists. When the committee was dissolved in December 1945 its collection consisted of 5,570 works of art produced by over four hundred artists. [1] This collection was then distributed to museums and institutions in Britain and around the world, with over half of the collection, some 3,000 works, going to the Imperial War Museum.


Aims and objectives

Factory workers going to work at the Mather & Platt, Manchester, in the snow, by L. S. Lowry, 1943 Going to Work - L S Lowry.jpg
Factory workers going to work at the Mather & Platt, Manchester, in the snow, by L. S. Lowry, 1943

The stated aim of the WAAC, and the War Artists Advisory Scheme, which it ran, was: [2]

to draw up a list of artists qualified to record the war at home and abroad. In co-operation with the Services Departments, and other Government Departments...to advise on the selection of artists on this list for war purposes and on the arrangements for their employment

Clark, then director of the National Gallery, was the driving force behind the establishment of the committee. The advent of World War II saw many artists cease working and lose their incomes as commercial galleries closed, private commissions ceased and the art schools reduced their teaching or closed altogether. This led Clark to fear artists’ unemployment, and he sought to keep artists engaged with wartime commissions, aiming for an contemporary artistic record of the war. Clark also led the Pilgrim Trust’s Recording Britain watercolour scheme which was devised as a pictorial Doomsday Book of British life before an anticipated German invasion. Clark later admitted that he hoped to prevent artists from being killed on active service. [3] Clark's lobbying for Government support for artists at the outset of the war directly led to the formation of the WAAC. The primary purpose of the committee was officially propaganda and keeping up public morale with art exhibitions, which were staged at the National Gallery. Showing British war art in North America during 1941 was aimed at persuading the United States to lend economic and military support to Britain at a time of American neutrality. [4]


The WAAC met at the National Gallery once a month, with members drawn from government departments, the forces and London art schools. [5] The original members of the committee were

Later in the war representatives from the ministries of Supply, Production and War Transport joined the committee. Although some of the original members were moved to other duties as the war developed, Clark, Bone, Dickey and Russell remained active members throughout the conflict. [4]


The Passage to the Control-room at South West Regional Headquarters, Bristol, (Art. IWM ART LD 170), by John Piper The Passage to the Control-room at South West Regional Headquarters, Bristol (Art. IWM ART LD 170).jpg
The Passage to the Control-room at South West Regional Headquarters, Bristol, (Art. IWM ART LD 170), by John Piper

The committee operated by employing artists on full-time contracts, offering short-term commissions to artists on individual subjects and by purchasing finished works offered to it. In total WAAC acquired artworks from some four hundred artists. [4] It also issued permits allowing artists access to otherwise restricted areas and rationed materials. Wartime rationing restricted good quality paper for printmaking and materials for sculpture so such works were under-represented in the WAAC collection. In June 1941, WAAC established a scheme to obtain artworks by artists from Britain's overseas colonies. [6] Although four artists were sent to record the activities of the British Expeditionary Force in France, at the start of the war the majority of WAAC commissions were for subjects on the British home front, [7] but as the conflict progressed twenty-six men were given overseas commissions. Among these were Edward Ardizzone, Henry Carr, and Edward Bawden who each went to the Middle East, Leslie Cole was sent to Malta, France and South-East Asia, Vivian Pitchforth went to Burma, and Anthony Gross went to the Middle East and Burma before joining the Normandy landings. Two women, Mary Kessell and Laura Knight, were also, towards the end of the war, given overseas commissions. [8] [9] Other artists serving overseas but working without a WAAC commission or contract, submitted work which was then purchased by the committee. These included Doris Zinkeisen and Stella Schmolle serving with the Red Cross and the Auxiliary Territorial Service respectively. [8] Three artists, Thomas Hennell, Eric Ravilious and Albert Richards, were killed during the Second World War whilst working on WAAC commissions. [10] [9]


The committee produced two sets of four paperback booklets during the war, both called War Pictures by British Artists. Each booklet consisted of an introductory essay and fifty black-and-white reproductions. The first set of four, entitled Army, Blitz, R.A.F and War at Sea, sold some 24,000 copies and led to a second set, Air Raids, Production, Soldiers and Women, being published in 1943. [11] Attempts by the committee to produce more extensive and higher quality publications fell foul of war-time printing restrictions and rationing. [4]

Exhibition programme

Coggeshall Church, Essex, (Tate, 1940) by John Armstrong Coggeshall Church, Essex. by John Armstrong, 1940. Tate.jpg
Coggeshall Church, Essex, (Tate, 1940) by John Armstrong

Overseas exhibitions

UK exhibitions

A Brother and Sister Sheltering in the Underground, 1941, (Art.IWM ART LD 795), by Edmond Xavier Kapp A Brother and Sister Sheltering in the Underground, 1941 (Art.IWM ART LD 795).jpg
A Brother and Sister Sheltering in the Underground, 1941, (Art.IWM ART LD 795), by Edmond Xavier Kapp

WAAC organised exhibitions around the United Kingdom on a large scale and to a regular schedule.


London Docks, Building Caissons for Mulberry (1944) by Frances Macdonald (Art.IWM ART LD 4039) London Docks, Building Caissons for Mulberry (1944) (Art.IWM ART LD 4039).jpg
London Docks, Building Caissons for Mulberry (1944) by Frances Macdonald (Art.IWM ART LD 4039)

The WAAC was dissolved in December 1945 and its operations transferred to a joint committee of the Imperial War Museum and the Ministry of Information. When the Ministry of Information itself was disbanded in March 1946, WAAC's remaining responsibilities passed entirely to the Imperial War Museum. Whilst some artists were still finishing WAAC contracts and money was available to purchase works to fill any gaps in the collection, the major responsibility at this point was deciding how to disperse the collection. The collection now consisted of 5,570 works of art. By the end of 1947 these works had been distributed to some sixty museums, galleries, government departments and other bodies in Britain and around the world. Care was taken to ensure that works by the finest artists was distributed as widely as possible. For example, the twenty-seven drawings by Henry Moore of coal mines and the London Underground shelters went to eleven different museums and galleries while the hundred or so works by Graham Sutherland were placed with thirty different institutions. Over half the collection, some 3,000 items, was acquired by the Imperial War Museum, while the Tate took seventy-six pieces and the British Council some twenty-five works. [4]

WAAC artists

Thirty-six men and one woman were given full-time employment by the committee, a hundred other artists were given short-term contracts, and works by a further 264 artists, both professional and amateur, were purchased. Three artists donated works to the collection. [4]

Artists on full-time salaried contracts

Artists given short-term WAAC contracts

Artists whose work was acquired by WAAC

See also

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