The Art of the First World War

by Adam BarhamArt Library.

The First World War had a striking effect in the art world, influencing both the style and themes of many artists. Our collection at Central Library includes an impressive range of books concerning art from the wartime period. Housed in the Art Library, the books cover various art styles ranging from pencil drawings to poster art. While many of the books are modern publications, some of our more intriguing titles were published during the wartime period.

One of our earliest titles is a 1917 publication called ‘The Western Front: Drawings by Muirhead Bone‘ (available for reference use). Muirhead Bone was a Scottish draughtsman and etcher who became Britain’s first official war artist. Commissioned the British Government in 1916, Bone produced eyewitness wartime images that were used for propaganda and information purposes.

The Western Front, drawings by Muirhead Bone
The Western Front, drawings by Muirhead Bone

‘The Western Front’ contains over 200 drawings, which Bone produced during visits to war-torn France and other locations such as shipyards and munitions factories. The drawings are preceded by an introduction which is attributed to Field Marshal Douglas Haig (although this may have been written by an assistant).

'The Western Front', foreword.
‘The Western Front’, foreword.

The drawings in ‘The Western Front’ cover many aspects of the wartime situation. Bone often depicted daily life on the Western Front, showing the unforgiving conditions faced by soldiers in the trenches. He also drew medical facilities and ruined French architecture, highlighting the death and destruction caused by the conflict. There are also drawings which highlight the effects in wider society. These include drawings showing the manufacture or repair of war equipment.

'The Western Front'. Dugouts.
‘The Western Front’. Dugouts.
‘The Western Front’, The Ruined Tower of Becordel-Becourt.
‘The Western Front’, The Ruined Tower of Becordel-Becourt.

Bone’s drawings employ an accurate, true-to-life drawing style which is ideal for representing the harsh realities of war. Each drawing is accompanied by a short commentary which provides context and extra details. The commentary was written by journalist and novelist C. E. Montague.

'The Western Front', A Gun Hospital.
‘The Western Front’, A Gun Hospital.
'The Western Front', A V.A.D. Rest Station.
‘The Western Front’, A V.A.D. Rest Station.

Due to Bone’s broad choice of subjects and his finely-detailed drawing style, ‘The Western Front’ provides a comprehensive, striking contemporary account of both the conflict and wartime society.

‘Images of wartime: British art and artists of World War I’ is one of our recently-published wartime art books (available for loan). ‘Images of wartime’ features over 100 paintings from the Imperial War Museum. These include paintings by prominent names such as Paul Nash and Wyndham Lewis. There are also paintings by less well-known figures, such as Richard Carline. Most of the paintings are reproduced in full colour, giving readers a realistic, vibrant rendition of the original artwork.

'Images of wartime', The Menin Road by Paul Nash.
‘Images of wartime’, The Menin Road by Paul Nash.

Alongside the paintings, ‘Images of wartime’ includes insightful commentaries about the wartime situation and its impact on the art world. The book also describes the wartime experiences of each featured artist. This provides a sense of realism which enhances our appreciation of the paintings, making ‘Images of wartime’ a rewarding read.

'Images of wartime', A Group of Soldiers by C. R. W. Nevinson.
‘Images of wartime’, A Group of Soldiers by C. R. W. Nevinso

‘Fragments from France’ is another of our early wartime art books (available for reference use). Published shortly after the War in 1919, this book features the wonderfully illustrated cartoons of Bruce Bairnsfather. Bairnsfather was a British Army officer who served with a machine gun unit on the Western Front. During his time in the trenches, Bairnsfather drew humorous cartoons which depicted the daily experiences of the average soldier. The cartoons originally saw print in the weekly ‘Bystander’ magazine, but they were quickly re-published in collections such as ‘Fragments from France’.

'Fragments from France', So Obvious.
‘Fragments from France’, So Obvious.

The cartoons in ‘Fragments from France’ are sharply observed and do not shy away from the dangers of warfare. However, Bairnsfather treats his subject matter with light-heartedness and a keen eye for absurdity. This combination of honesty and humour gives the cartoons a strong sense of humanity and determination.

'Fragments From France', Our Adaptable Armies.
‘Fragments From France’, Our Adaptable Armies

During the First World War, Bairnsfather’s cartoons were immensely popular with both the troops and the public. His publications frequently sold over a million copies and were often used to raise morale. Thus ‘Fragments from France’ is a valuable piece of historical evidence, providing a fascinating insight into the attitudes and values of the wartime period.

Our collection of First World War art books also includes the following titles:

  • ‘Kultur cartoons by Will Dyson’ (1916)
  • ‘Joseph Pennell’s pictures of war work in England’ (1917)
  • ‘Modern war paintings by C.R.W. Nevinson’ (1917)
  • ‘The war, depicted by distinguished British artists’ (1918)
  • ‘British artists at the Front’ (1918)
  • ‘An onlooker in France, 1917-1919’ by William Orpen (1921)
  • ‘Posters of the First World War’ (1968)
  • ‘World War I in postcards’ (1988)
  • ‘A bitter truth: avant-garde art and the Great War’ (1994)
  • ‘Brushes & bayonets: Cartoons, sketches and paintings of World War I’ (2008)
  • ‘Fit men wanted: Original posters from the Home Front’ (2012)

Each title is available for reference use or loan from the Art Library. A selection of images from the books can be found below.

'Posters of the First World War', The Liberation Loan Poster.
‘Posters of the First World War’, The Liberation Loan Poster.
'Joseph Pennell's pictures of war work in England’, Gun Testing.
‘Joseph Pennell’s pictures of war work in England’, Gun Testing.


‘A bitter truth: avant-garde art and the Great War’, Springtime in Flanders by Erich Heckel.
‘A bitter truth: avant-garde art and the Great War’, Springtime in Flanders by Erich Heckel.

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