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What is War Art

The National Collection of War Art is composed of about 1,500 artworks, including portraits, battle scenes, landscapes and abstracts, depicting those who served New Zealand in times of war, and the arenas in which they served.

It includes both official pieces of war art, by artists formally commissioned by the New Zealand government, and other unofficial art works that were acquired by or donated to the collection.

The majority of artworks in the collection depict World War One and World War Two, however official war art continues to be commissioned by the New Zealand Defence Force up to the present day.

World War One Art

The collection has its origins in World War One, when countries appointed official war artists to provide a record of their involvement in the conflict. New Zealand did not appoint official war artists until late in the war, due to concerns about the costs involved. However many works of art prompted by the war were produced before that time, and some were later purchased for, or donated to, the collection.

New Zealand’s first officially appointed war artists were Nugent Welch, George Edmund Butler and the English artist, Alfred Pearse. Their appointments were made in 1918, following the example of the British, Canadian, and Australian governments, each of whom had their own war artists in the field. Sir Andrew Russell, Commander of the New Zealand (NZ) Division in France, acted first, asking for a return of artists in the Division. In April, he appointed the landscape artist Nugent Welch as Divisional Artist, attaching him to the Headquarters of the New Zealand Division. In July, Welch returned to London where he painted his first works from photographs and sketches.

Prime Minister Massey approved the employment of further artists in June. Consequently George Butler and Alfred Pearse were enlisted as official New Zealand War Artists for a six month period from September 1918.

Welch returned to France on 22 September 1918, followed by Butler and Pearse on 27 September. There the artists completed sketches and watercolours. Pearse returned to London by the end of October to work on large canvases, while Butler and Welch remained working in France, up to and following the November armistice.

The War Artists were demobilised in March 1919, but further artworks were commissioned by the new War Museum Committee in September 1919. The Committee authorised the commissioning of six portraits of the New Zealand Victoria Cross winners, for which they paid £50 pounds each, and also authorised Butler to enlarge some of his sketches to oils. The number of portraits was subsequently increased to seventeen, with the works being completed by 1921.

The Fine Arts War Collection

Following World War One, the war art collection was nominally under the control of the Dominion Museum, whose register from about 1922 recorded an 86 piece Fine Arts War Collection (refer to Archway for this register).

There was an expectation that the collection would eventually be displayed in the new National War Memorial Museum. However the new Museum building was not completed until 1936, leaving the World War One paintings to be managed instead by the National Art Gallery. The Gallery considered the collection to be of historic rather than artistic worth, and therefore did not display them. The artworks were kept in storage, where some remained until the 1980s. Several attempts were made to organise an exhibition of the collection in the 1920s, but this did not eventuate, and the artworks remained largely unseen.

The collection also received further additions during this post-war period, when, at various times, the British government presented New Zealand with art works by British war artists.

World War Two Art

The role of war artists was recognised more rapidly in World War Two than in World War One, with artists and art groups lobbying for appointments. Army archives indicate some degree of commitment to the idea of a pictorial record of the war, and an official appointment of Austen Deans as war artist was planned in 1941 when, having been wounded, Deans was captured by the Germans and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war.

Instead in January 1941 General Freyberg, General Officer Commanding the New Zealand Forces, made a personal appointment of Peter McIntyre, an artist who had enlisted in London. McIntyre was sent to Crete, where he painted the German invasion. Following this, he accompanied the New Zealand forces on the North African Campaign, being present at the Battle of Sidi Resagh, the fall of Tobruk, the offensive against Rommel, the Minquar Qa’im breakthrough, followed by Tripoli, and the final battle at Wadi Akorit. Later, McIntyre was with the New Zealand Division for the Battle of Cassino in the Italian Campaign.

Several exhibitions were held of McIntyre’s works during the war. An exhibition of his works was taken on tour through New Zealand, raising money for the Red Cross. Another exhibition was held in London where thirty nine of his paintings, which had been shown first to the New Zealand troops in Italy, were exhibited in the New Zealand Fernleaf Club, under the Title ‘Exhibition of Official War Paintings of the Second NZEF’.

Two further official war artists were appointed in March 1943, to provide a record of New Zealand’s involvement in the Pacific campaign. Russell Clark and Allan Barns-Graham, both already enlisted in the Army, were attached to the 3rd Division, which assisted the United States’ assaults on islands held by Japanese forces. Their artwork depicts operations on Vella Lavella, on Mono and Stirling Islands in the Treasury Islands group, and the capture of Nissan and other islands in February 1944.

The collection was further enhanced by the additions of works by “unofficial” war artists. For instance, certain works from a 1943 ‘Artists in Uniform’ exhibition appear to have been purchased for the collection. Other artworks, including paintings by Jack Crippen and Moller, were sent to New Zealand by the Official Archivist, after they had featured in an exhibition in Italy in November 1944. In addition, artworks by McNab from the Greek campaign, which was otherwise little represented in the collection, appear to have been purchased in 1943.

The National Collection of War Art

After 1945 the Second World War portion of the collection was used to assist the preparation of the official histories of that war. The Army Department also had each artwork photographed, with these photographs and their negatives later being deposited with the Alexander Turnbull Library.

The various parts of the collection were recalled to the National Art Gallery in 1952 for a major exhibition, and were subsequently renumbered. The numbering imposed at that time is still maintained in the collection. Subsequently, approximately one third of the collection was lent to the Auckland Institute and Museum, one third remained in the control of the National Art Gallery, and one third was loaned out to a variety of institutions around New Zealand.

Archives New Zealand assumed care of the collection in 1981, at which time a nationwide recall of the paintings was begun. Additional works, some of which had not been exhibited in 1952 and were thus omitted from any later description of the collection, were discovered up to 1987. A number of other works of both official and unofficial war art, which have been recognised as belonging with the collection, have also been added to it by purchase or donation.