War Artists

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War artists

For many of us, the First World War is remembered through art, with powerful paintings such as John Singer Sargent’s ‘Gassed’ creating lasting images in our national memory. At first there were no official war artists, but from 1916 the British government began to sponsor artists to record the experience of the war, not just create propaganda. By 1918 the official war artists scheme was run by the British War Memorials Committee, with the idea that the art would be part of the remembrance of the war.

Travoys arriving with wounded at a dressing station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 by Stanley Spencer © IWM (Art IWM ART 2268)

Artists were sent to theatres of war away from the Western Front, especially during the final year of the war. In Salonika, Stanley Spencer captured a very personal aspect of the soldiers’ life. In Egypt, Palestine and Mesopotamia, it was often the exotic setting which inspired them.

We are fortunate to have been approached by Coline Chaptal, a History of Art student at the Université Paris Nanterre, offering to write an article for us based on her research, which we reproduce here.

Official war artists in the Middle East

The Middle Eastern theatre may have been considered a sideshow of the First World War but it gave many Europeans an experience of different countries and cultures. Some were attracted by the tourism opportunities offered by their enrolment in the armies, such as the volunteer nurses who travelled to the East for the first, and for some the last, time. The network of HQs and the development of transports for military use in the region expanded the possibilities of travel, even for civilians. In the 19th century, Europeans’ view of the Middle East was a romantic one, seen through the eyes of orientalist painters and writers and of course through the Bible. Despite the huge occidental influence on the region in the beginning of the 20th century, the region continued to fascinate, and the war gave people unique opportunities to see these lands and to illustrate them.

British troops entering Baghdad © IWM (Q 113329)

While photographers captured the events of the war (left), mostly for propaganda purposes, artists went even further in witnessing that special moment in time in the Middle East. Being an artist during the war was not the most obvious role that an artist had to play. However, some really grasped the opportunity offered to them while they served their country. Richard and Sydney Carline were two such men. The British government set up a scheme during the First World War: the official war artists. Their role was more to do with commemoration of all the aspects of the war than propaganda. Among them were prominent artists who were dispatched to the Western Front such as C R W Nevinson (1889 – 1946), as well as artists sent to ‘minor’ fronts such as those in the Middle East. The Carline brothers were there, in 1919, while the future of the region was being debated in Europe. The French and the British were trying to supervise the creation of new countries such as Iraq in order to get the control of the region, and particularly the oil around the Persian Gulf, after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The British had great ambitions for the Middle East after the war and the deployment of artists there, even after the 1918 armistice, confirms that.

Richard Carline self portrait, 1918 (Source: Wikipedia)

Richard (1896 – 1980) and Sydney Carline (1888 – 1929) were enrolled as official war artists during the First World War. In 1918, Richard was sent to France while Sydney was in Italy. The British government paid them to capture the war from above and their paintings are now in the Imperial War Museum and the Royal Air Force Museum, both in London. Towards the end of the war, their supervisor decided to send them to the Palestinian front because the war was clearly coming to an end and they wanted them to obtain the details before all record was lost.

Damascus and the Lebanon Mountains from 10,000 Feet, R Carline, 1920 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 3082)

Richard and Sydney arrived at Port Said, Egypt in January 1919. They flew over the Suez Canal and visited some parts of the country before embarking on a road trip towards Palestine. They visited famous landmarks, especially from the Bible, such as the Judean mountains, Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives and Bethlehem. They travelled in the Levant region for two months, alternating car journeys and flights.

At the end of the spring of 1919, they went back to Egypt to embark for Mesopotamia. They had to make a layover in India and finally arrived in Mesopotamia at the end of June. There, they visited Baghdad, Kut-el-Amara and important places where the British army had fought against the Ottomans in the previous years. They were also able to fly over them. They even went to Persia and wanted to take the route to Constantinople but were demobilised and made their way back home by the autumn of 1919. Their tour of the Middle East may have been arranged for political reasons, but it may sound like they were just two British artists journeying through the Middle East, yet in an unusual context.

When they got back to London, the Imperial War Museum, which had commissioned the artists, did not have the finances to pay for all their works, to their disappointment. However their sketches and watercolours ended up being shown and sold in five exhibitions throughout the 1920s. The titles of these exhibitions give an insight into the type of work the Carlines did and how it was perceived: ‘The East’ (1920), ‘Lands of the Bible’ (1921), ‘Pictures of the East’ (1926), and ‘Scenes in Persia’ (1931). In these exhibitions were presented views of cities such as Jerusalem, Gaza or Damascus and the landscapes that shape the region. Almost all of these were aerial views. They sketched directly from the cockpit of the biplanes they were in, and completed these once they landed, sometimes adding watercolour to their annotated pencil sketches. It was not only a new point of view artistically, but also gave a new view of the region. The Middle East they represented from above was based on their previous knowledge of it – their Biblical vision of the Middle East – but incorporated a modern aspect through the aerial viewpoint. The Carline brothers did not capture the war as we might think of it, but instead presented a new portrait of the Middle East. They shared that vision with the public, back in London.

James McBey self portrait, 1918 © IWM (Art.IWM ART 1517)

The work of the two brothers was very different from the one of James McBey (1883 – 1959), who was an official war artist in service from 1917 until early 1919. McBey witnessed the war and depicted the troops in the Middle East; he was more restricted than the Carlines because the area was a war zone. He followed the advance of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force and was dependent on their route for his subject matter.  Click on any of the images below to open larger versions in a slideshow .

Due to the different subject matter, the three artists’ work was used in different ways on their return to Britain. While McBey drawings and watercolours were used to illustrate books relating to the events of the war (such as The Desert Campaigns by W T Massey, official correspondent of London newspapers, published in 1918), Sydney Carline used his and Richard’s drawings as illustrations for articles that he wrote for a Boston newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, between 1921 and 1922. In these articles he recalled his journeys through the Middle East, omitting his status of war artist and not even mentioning his brother Richard. Once more, the titles give away the content and the way the Carlines perceived their tour of the Middle East: ‘Journeying down to Damascus’ (May 1921), ‘On the Highways of Persia’ (May 1921), ‘Mesopotamia from the air’ (June 1921), ‘Teheran, the capital of Persia’ (December 1921), and ‘Samarrah, Reverie on a Mesopotamian Journey’ (March 1922). Sydney shared with the reader a mix of his own impressions and his knowledge of the region. He recalled his personal experience and not the one of the soldiers who had fought there.

While their deployment as official war artists in the Middle East in 1919 gave the Carlines access to unfamiliar and new landscapes and places, it also explains the lack of acknowledgment of their work in war-related exhibitions and publications. The aerial work of Sydney Carline had appeared in the 2017 London exhibition ‘War in the Sunshine: The British in Italy 1917 – 1918’ which focused on works representing the Italian front of the First World War, yet few people took an interest in their work done in the Middle East, partially because of the tourism aspect.

Richard and Sydney Carline were not the only artists in the Middle East during the period. James McBey has already been mentioned, and there were some who were not official war artists, but serving soldiers with a background in art such as Stuart Reid (1883 – 1971).

Expression des Dardanelles by Henry Valensi 1917 (Photo: Marc Feldmann Flickr Creative Commons)

Despite the lack of an official government war artists’ programme, the French also had some artists in the Middle East. One was Henry Valensi (1883 – 1960), who depicted the Dardanelles during the disastrous campaign of 1915. Unlike the British artists described here, his work reflects the modernist context of French art in the early years of the 20th century.


Coline Chaptal, 2018