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The IWM collection comprises 800,000 items, collected by the museum since 1917, that tell the story of modern war and conflict. It includes a diverse and exceptional art collection with many great works of art from the war art schemes of the First and Second World Wars. It is a world-class representation of British modernism. IWM has continued to commission and collect work from artists through the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


Art Unlocked is an online talk series by Art UK in collaboration with Bloomberg Philanthropies. This Curation is based on a talk by Rebecca Newell, Head of Art at Imperial War Museums, on 6th October 2021. You can find a recording at: https://youtu.be/ZKNETgz2EVE

6 artworks
  • Anna Airy was one of the first female war artists, employed by the Munitions Sub-Committee of the newly founded Imperial War Museum in 1918.


    Airy was one of the leading female artists of her generation, but the Committee imposed strict and inequitable terms on her contract of employment when compared with male war artists. These terms included their right to refuse a work and leave Airy without payment.


    Painting from life, Airy completed four large paintings of munitions factories for her commission. She described capturing this scene at Hackney as the ‘most taxing’, since it demanded she worked with great speed to capture the colour of the molten metal. On one occasion the floor became so hot that her shoes were burnt off her feet.

    A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London 1918
    Anna Airy (1882–1964)
    Oil on canvas
    H 182.8 x W 213.3 cm
    IWM (Imperial War Museums)
    A Shell Forge at a National Projectile Factory, Hackney Marshes, London
    Photo credit: IWM ART 4032

  • In 1916, Spencer was posted to the Salonika front in an area of Northern Greece and Macedonia. Stationed with an ambulance unit, he soon dealt with an attack in which the wounded, he wrote, ‘passed through the dressing stations in a never-ending stream’. In 1918 he was commissioned to make a work on ‘a religious service at the front’ and returned to the event.


    He found spiritualism in his battlefield experiences partly because of his fervent, unconventional Christianity. Spencer wrote of his aim to ‘show God in the bare ‘real’ things, in a limber wagon, in ravines, in fouling mule lines’. This scene of casualties being drawn on sledges, or travoys, towards a dressing station in a converted old church, is imbued with a feeling of veneration.

    Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 1919
    Stanley Spencer (1891–1959)
    Oil on canvas
    H 182.8 x W 218.4 cm
    IWM (Imperial War Museums)
    Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916
    Photo credit: IWM ART 2268

  • Paul Nash was a very well-known artist at the outbreak of the Second World War. He had already been an official war artist and was a firm believer in the use of art for propaganda.


    In this image of modern warfare, he presents a vision of British RAF fighters in their defeat of the German Luftwaffe. Defences seem to rise up out of the English landscape to meet the machines of fascism. The painting is also a statement of the value of art in helping to defeat the enemy.


    Produced close to the event, Battle of Britain encapsulates the scale and importance of the aerial campaign. In its symbolism and allegory, the scene is an imaginative summary of the event rather than a literal description.

    Battle of Britain 1941
    Paul Nash (1889–1946)
    Oil on canvas
    H 122.6 x W 183.5 cm
    IWM (Imperial War Museums)
    Battle of Britain
    Photo credit: IWM ART LD 1550

  • Knight was appointed a ‘war correspondent’ and made a special BBC broadcast from Nuremberg in 1946. She gained special access to a courtroom box above the prisoners at the Palace of Justice, where she made charcoal studies of the main protagonists.


    Accused Nazi leaders, headed by a white-suited Hermann Goering, stretch away from the foreground in the centre of the painting, attended by lawyers in black robes. Many wear headphones to hear a translation of proceedings. Twenty-one Nazi leaders were tried at Nuremberg, including the architects of the notorious death camps.


    She added a floating landscape at the top of the painting, linking a representation of the courtroom with the more intangible horror and desolation wrought by totalitarian power.

    The Nuremberg Trial 1946
    Laura Knight (1877–1970)
    Oil on canvas
    H 182.8 x W 152.4 cm
    IWM (Imperial War Museums)
    The Nuremberg Trial
    Photo credit: IWM ART LD 5798

  • In 1993, official war artist Peter Howson travelled to Bosnia and Herzegovina to record the work of the UN peacekeeping forces.


    In this close-up view, a group of Bosnian Muslim refugees sit by the side of the road outside a village in Bosnia. Driven from their homes at gunpoint, they wait next to a UN camp hoping to seek refuge inside.


    In 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia, exacerbating tensions between Bosnians, Croatians and Serbians. The perpetration of war crimes, including forced expulsion, physical and sexual brutalisation, and murder as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing, defined the ensuing Bosnian conflict and its legacy. Howson later said the horrors he saw in Bosnia risked his sanity.

    Cleansed 1994
    Peter Howson (b.1958)
    Oil on canvas
    H 182.8 x W 243.6 cm
    IWM (Imperial War Museums)
    Cleansed
    © IWM. Photo credit: IWM ART 16521

  • This painting is based on the F-117 Nighthawk stealth bomber, used during the Gulf War in 1990–1991. Stealth bombers executed direct airstrikes.


    Kalkhof was interested in the geometry and form of the aircraft, part of a sustained investigation into colour, shape and space in his work. He was also concerned by the tension between human creativity and the invention of tools for destruction.


    Behind the bomber, an earthy, desert landscape is covered by a grid. Kalkhof’s layers and textures point to the duality of presence and absence, both in the artist’s struggle to represent three-dimensional space on a flat canvas, and for the stealth bomber, a huge machine designed to be unobservable.

    Stealth 1995
    Peter Kalkhof (1933–2014)
    Acrylic & metal foil on canvas
    H 146 x W 180 cm
    IWM (Imperial War Museums)
    Stealth
    © IWM. Photo credit: IWM ART 16824