Great War 100 Reads

Commemorating the centenary of the First World War in books

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Art or Memorial? and Beyond the Battlefield

My quest to learn about war memorials and war art has taken me down a longer trail than expected – eight books in all – with some interesting twists along the way. I take an expansive view of what belongs in my Monday Monuments and Memorials feature – statues, cenotaphs, plaques, grave markers, sculptures, ephemera and many other remembrances of the war. My aim is to put them in better context. (Always with the caveat that my summary review cannot do justice to the full analysis in these books.) 

Art or Memorial? The Forgotten History of Canada’s War Art

The crux of the issue is in the title of this book by Laura Brandon. She was in a good place see the role of the individuals, communities and government agencies – and the context of culture and politics – in the social construction of the memory of war. Until recently she was curator of the large collection of war art at the Canadian War Museum.

Beaverbrook started a war art program as propaganda and to commemorate the war. His vision of a memorial gallery to house the art didn’t come to fruition. Instead, local communities built statues and other memorials. They needed to forget the images of war.

Still, public opinions of the works evolve over time. Exhibits like A Terrible Beauty and Canvas of War, in the context of new-found patriotism in commemorating the 50th anniversary of WW2, helped to make the art a locus of memory.

Brandon concludes that the official war art collection “has functioned as an under-recognized war memorial or ‘site of memory’ but that concern with the works as art has obscured their deeper, collective significance.” (p xiii)


Beyond the Battlefield: Women Artists of the Two World Wars

Catherine Speck’s Beyond the Battlefield looks beyond official war art schemes to find “a womanly perspective on war and wartime.” (p 7) She introduces 62 women artists from Allied countries (Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States) and the prejudices that curtailed their working conditions and their oeuvres. Some have international reputations, others are more obscure. (I was introduced to many for the first time.) Together, they give visibility to women’s experience of the war.

Most of the women were not part of the official war art programs … they were subjected to the masculine idea that war artists needed personal experience of conditions at the front. And women would not be sent to the front. In Canada, some women artists were engaged to depict life on the home front. In Britain, the Women’s Work Subcommittee of the Imperial War Museum was tasked with documenting what women did during the war. So at least some of the official programs moved away from the battlefields. But the “home front” programs were not as well funded and the women were generally paid less than the men. Many artists (women and men) were expected to donate their work or accept meagre payment.

Speck’s chapters on WW1 look at women on the home front, behind the front and after the war. The home front art shows that “the stereotype that it was a place of inaction and ‘waiting’ is wholly inaccurate.” (p13) Behind the front, she challenges the perspective of a dichotomy of spaces, male-only front and female dominated home front. Women nurses and voluntary aides moved in an in-between space behind the front. Some of them were artists. Immediately after the war, some women artists ventured into the former war zones to paint the repairing landscape. Mary Riter Hamilton wrote of her time in France:

I feel it is very fortunate that I arrived before it is too late to get a real impression. The changes are taking place rapidly and even in the short time I have been here I can see a great change. In another few months there will be very little trace of the war. (p 97)

Speck provides brief biographies of the artists. The book is illustrated with colour reproductions of the art, but lacks information on where to find each piece. (The only clues are in the photo credits.) That will make it more challenging for me to seek out the works of the women artists of WW1 … Anna Airy, Claire Atwood, Martha Moffatt Bache, Cecilia Beaux, Anna Richards Brewster, Florence Carlyle, Evelyn Chapman, Edith Collier, Joyce Dennys, Olive Edis, Mary Riter Hamilton, Helen Hyde, Nellie Isaac, Lucy Kemp-Welch, Phyllis Keyes, Flora Lion, Beatrice Lithby, Frances Loring, Henrietta Mabel May, Dora Meeson Coates, Victoria Monkhouse, Olive Mudie-Cooke, Norah Neilson Gray, Hilda Rix Nicholas, Elizabeth Nourse, Jane Peterson, Margaret Preston, Isobel (Iso) Rae, Grace Ravlin, Helen Saunders, Grace Cossington Smith, Janet Cumbrae Stewart, Olive Wood, Ursula Wood and Florence Wyle.


Mary Riter Hamilton’s post-war paintings are now in the collection of Library and Archives Canada. LAC features many of them online in Mary Riter Hamilton: Traces of War.

According to LAC, “Hamilton refused to sell any of her battlefield paintings, choosing instead to donate the canvases to the National Archives (now part of Library and Archives Canada). She wanted them to remain in the hands of all Canadians for the benefit of war veterans and their descendants.”

Maria Tippett tells a different story: “Unable to find a purchaser for her collection, she presented it to the National Archives of Canada in 1926.” (By a Lady, p 58)

Wouldn’t sell or couldn’t sell … which account rings true to you?