Scotland

A century of war art that began with Muirhead Bone

Muirhead Bone crossing a muddy road in France, 1916 Image copyright IWM
Image caption Partick-born Muirhead Bone was already a successful and well-known artist when he was called up to provide morale-boosting work from the Western Front

Muirhead Bone was born in Partick, Glasgow, in 1876. He was the UK's first official war artist and became a household name - yet today he is largely forgotten. BBC Scotland's Social Affairs Correspondent, Reevel Alderson, reports on the work of Bone, who was first called up 100 years ago.


Muirhead Bone was a successful and well-known artist by the time World War One began.

His early training as an architect showed through in his detailed and complex drawings and drypoint works of buildings under construction.

A plate he produced in 1915 of Picadilly Circus under wartime conditions - with soldiers on horseback and searchlights raking the sky - caught the attention of Queen Mary.

Image copyright Fleming-Wyfold Art Collection
Image caption Bone's depiction of Picadilly Circus in the early years of World War One attracted the Queen's attention

As British losses in the war mounted, the new Conscription Act meant Bone, already 40, would be called up for active service.

But the government's propaganda department, Wellington House, had other ideas and recruited Bone on 12 July 1916 to the rank of Second Lieutenant.

He was tasked with producing artwork which would help justify the war effort both at home and in neutral countries, particularly the United States.

It was not an easy task. He was prevented by censors from portraying dead bodies or casualties - and he was frequently sketching under fire.

A gunnery officer who accompanied him recalled: "It was heroic of him to bring out his sketch book and make rapid notes of the scene around him.

"Once when a shell burst near him his pencil went clean through his paper, but he carried on while our men were taking cover under bits of wall, and wounded were being carried off."

Image copyright IWM
Image caption Bone's battlefield scenes were often captured while he was under fire

According to Dr Patricia Andrew, who wrote a history of Scottish war artists in the 20th Century called A Chasm in Time, there was another problem for Bone.

"It was always a sea of mud, shattered trees, shattered buildings, and it all looked rather the same," she said.

"If you look at his pictures of the Western Front, they're not the best examples of his work.

"He's struggling to make some sort of individuality in pictures that are just mud, trees that are shattered, houses that are shattered, the odd chateau that is shattered. It's a bit samey."

Image caption Bone's pictures were swiftly produced in cheap booklets which were widely sold in Britain and sent abroad

But the public eagerly bought Bone's pictures when they were published in monthly instalments under the title: "The Western Front: Drawings by Muirhead Bone."

Sold for two shillings each, 30,000 copies of the 10-part series were printed, with 6,000 being distributed in America. The money raised went to the war effort.

Their propaganda value was immediately recognised, with Bone given permission to include a charcoal drawing of the Army's latest technology deployed in the Somme - the tank.

Image caption Muirhead Bone's picture of a tank in action was included in the first edition of his Western Front series

By 1917, Bone had returned to Britain where he was deployed recording the huge industrial efforts - particularly in the Clydeside shipyards - being undertaken to win the war.

He also pictured munitions factories in the Midlands, steelworks on Teeside and the Royal Navy in the Firth of Forth.

Image caption Impressive and complicated industrial scenes like this factory producing shells were what Bone did best

Dr Peter Trowles of Glasgow School of Art curated the last significant exhibition of Bone's work in 1987.

He said the artist's techniques were the victims of fashion.

"He's certainly a very skilled artist and at the time of the First World War, he was certainly up there as being one of the most significant artists coming out of the UK at that time."

Ground-breaking

He added: "He very much led the way. By the end of the First World War there were a number of other war artists employed to do similar work.

"What Bone was doing was very much ground-breaking. He himself learned a lot from his experiences in 1916 and 1917.

"Equally the War Office learned a lot themselves from the initial idea of sending a war artist into a war zone.

"It was the first time it had been done on a formal basis and I think you could argue Bone's experience and his relationship with the War Office at the time very much shaped how artists have been used to depict conflict zones in subsequent years."

Image caption Bone's training as an architect was evident in his complex drawings of industrial scenes

Bone, who was knighted in 1937, was called up again, aged 64, to serve in World War Two, but his works were of a far grander and more finished scale.

When he retired in 1943 his commission was taken up by his son, Stephen. Bone died in 1953, aged 77.

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites