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Ranked alongside Owen, Brooke and Sassoon, Joseph Lee was in his day regarded as one of Scotland’s finest First World War poets. Although his reputation has since been unfairly eclipsed, his poetry and war memoirs remain powerfully evocative. What makes Lee particularly remarkable is that he was also a highly skilled artist who illustrated his own books and, after the war, moved to London to study at the Slade.


The University of Dundee holds over 250 of Lee’s drawings and paintings, many of which can be seen on the Art UK website, as well as unique archive material including diaries and letters. This online exhibition explores Lee’s life and work through a selection of his artwork.

21 artworks

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Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
© the copyright holder. Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Joe Lee (as he was always known) was born in Dundee in 1876. The son of a draper’s assistant and one of nine siblings, he grew up in a cramped tenement. Though highly intelligent, he left school at 14 to work for a firm of local solicitors. Finding this career uninspiring he began attending art classes at the local YMCA and also spent some time travelling through Europe and the Black Sea, working and sketching. He even spent one summer (in 1901 or 1902) as a cowboy on a cattle ranch in Canada.

Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949) 1921
Henry Young Alison (1889–1972)
Oil on canvas
H 125 x W 100 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Sketch from Life
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

In the 1890s Lee undertook further study at Heatherley’s School of Fine Art, and by 1904 he was working as a cartoonist in London and. Drawing and sketching was becoming his passion; he later wrote that he always saw himself as an artist masquerading as a poet and journalist, but he gradually realised that the pen was mightier than the pencil.

Sketch from Life 1909
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil on paper
H 12 x W 8.5 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Frank Sharp
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

In 1905 Lee returned to Dundee where he worked on a number of publications including the People’s Journal and the Dundee Advertiser. He also wrote, edited and illustrated the magazines The City Echo and The Piper o’ Dundee, as well as the socialist publication The Tocsin. The city had a reputation for journalism and publishing with the firms of John Leng and D.C. Thomson being significant figures in the newspaper and periodical world. This is an example of the kind of pen illustrations he was producing as a newspaper artist; Frank Sharp was a popular local musician, teacher and choirmaster.

Frank Sharp 1910
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil on paper
H 13 x W 8 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Robert Gemmell Hutchison (1855–1936)
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Lee was central to the cultural life of Edwardian Dundee and published his first book of poetry, Tales o’ our Town, in 1910. He also knew many fashionable artists of the day, including the Edinburgh painter Robert Gemmell Hutchison, who often visited Dundee while painting at Carnoustie. Lee made this sketch of him which he turned into an ink drawing for publication in his magazine The City Echo in 1911.

Robert Gemmell Hutchison (1855–1936) c.1911
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Graphite on paper
H 15.8 x W 12.5 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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A Battalion Marching*
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

In 1914 war was declared and Lee enlisted in the 4th Battalion of the Black Watch, known as ‘Dundee’s Own’. Lee’s actions were to some extent surprising. Many of his former associates in the labour movement were opposed to the war and, in his late 30s and asthmatic, Lee was far from being in peak fighting condition. He soon experienced at first hand the horrors of warfare in France and Belgium. With other members of the 4th Black Watch he left Dundee for France in February 1915 and saw service in many major battles including Neuve Chapelle, Loos and the Somme.

A Battalion Marching* c.1916
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil & watercolour on paper
H 40 x W 30 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Sergeant J. Callary
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Lee was quick to capture his wartime experiences in both art and poetry. This is a portrait of Drill Sergeant James Callary – Lee wrote “To the good humour of the genial sergeant I owe it that the period of my early drilling, which might thinkably have been a time of deadly dullness, afforded me much entertainment, as well as not a little valuable instruction.” Callary’s maxims inspired Lee’s poem The Rifle:

Clean me clean, and oil me well; I'll kill your man and never tell.

Leave me dirty, oil me ill; You're the chap I'm going to kill.

Sergeant J. Callary 1915
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil & ink on paper
H 15 x W 10 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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The Broken Trees, Ericht Redoubt
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

This drawing was published in Lee’s first book of war poems, Ballads of Battle. It was published in 1916 while he was still at the front, and was an immediate success. According to The Spectator: “Of the verse that has come straight from the trenches, the Ballads of Battle are among the very best. The horror, the exultation, the weariness, and the humour of trench warfare are here.”

The Broken Trees, Ericht Redoubt 1915
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil & ink on paper
H 16 x W 10 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Elderly Woman
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

The Mother, from Ballads of Battle

My mother rose from her grave last night, And bent above my bed, And laid a warm kiss on my lips, A cool hand on my head ; And, “Come to me, and come to me, My bonnie boy,” she said.


And when they found him at the dawn, His brow with blood defiled. And gently laid him in the earth. They wondered that he smiled.

Elderly Woman c.1930–1940
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil on paper
H 21 x W 18 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Corporal, 69th Punjabis
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

An unusual feature of Lee’s wartime drawings is his interest in the soldiers he met from other countries and ethnic backgrounds, and he made many sketches such as this one, which was reproduced in Ballads of Battle. Although Lee was already well-travelled, many of his comrades in the Black Watch would never have left Scotland before the war and meeting men from India and other parts of the empire would have been a new experience. Lee later recorded the friendship between Scottish and Indian soldiers in his poem Tik, Johnnie!

Corporal, 69th Punjabis 1915
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil & ink on paper
H 15 x W 10 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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At the Window
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

The women that Lee and his comrades met in France and Belgium also made a big impression on them. One of them inspired this drawing and the poem Marcelle:

For us the ever-generous door, The ever-gracious smile, The attentive ear, the ready tear, The glance devoid of guile.

But not for us that pensive gaze, The sudden mist of tears, The broken sigh that spoke a tale Of lovers' hopes and fears !

Marcelle ! when peace shall dawn at last Upon this night of pain, May thy bold chasseur, all unscathed, Come back to thee again !

At the Window 1915
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil & ink on paper
H 16 x W 11.5 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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The Nurse
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Lee proved to be a good and reliable soldier and was promoted to sergeant before being commissioned as an officer in 1917. One of his fellow soldiers later referred to Lee as “One of the best loved men in the company. There was nothing Joe would not do for a comrade if it was in his power. Above all in France he kept us cheerful in our platoon, because when he was with us no matter how filthy was the trench scene and how nauseous the smell of the dead he never let us forget the background of civilised life; he was our link with great minds and great art and the pure pleasures of the mind.” This illustration was published in his second volume of war poems, Work-a-day Warriors (1917), which was praised internationally.

The Nurse 1917
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil & ink on paper
H 15.1 x W 9.6 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Karlsruhe
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Having been present at bloody fighting on the battlefields of Loos and Ypres, Lee’s luck appeared to run out at the end of November 1917 when he was reported as missing in action at the Battle of Cambrai. However, a short time later his family were informed that he had been taken prisoner. Lee was first taken by his captors to Caudry, then Le Cateau, before being moved to Karlsruhe camp in Germany. Despite numerous attempts, no one ever managed to escape from Karlsruhe.

Karlsruhe 1918
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pen & ink on paper
H 42 x W 29 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Colonel Stevan Milavanovitch
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

En route to Karlsruhe, Lee had persuaded one of his captors to buy him a sketchbook and pencil and after careful scrutiny he was allowed to retain his drawings and sketch freely within the camp. Once again Lee was fascinated to meet soldiers from other countries – he noted seventeen different nations represented in the camp, including this Serbian colonel.

Colonel Stevan Milavanovitch 1918
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Ink & chalk on paper
H 42 x W 29 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Altes Amt, Beeskow Lager
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

In July 1918 Lee was moved to another camp at Beeskow, where once again he was allowed to sketch his surroundings. Security here was much more lax, a parole system allowing Lee to wander unaccompanied into town and sketch his surroundings. It was clear the war was nearly over.

Altes Amt, Beeskow Lager 1918
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil on paper
H 48 x W 32 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Kirchestrasse, Beeskow
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

This is one of the sketches Lee made of Beeskow while on parole. Note the name written in the corner - Lee told the story in his book A Captive at Carlsruhe: “I am sketching in the Kirchestrasse. The name, however, is not visible at my end of the street, and I make inquiry of the little girl who for the last ten minutes has been standing quietly at my side. She misunderstands me at first, and upon my sketch-block writes her own name, ‘Charlotte Reseler.’ There let it remain, to add the value of a memory to the drawing.”

Kirchestrasse, Beeskow 1918
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pen & pencil on paper
H 25 x W 32 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Portrait of a Woman
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Lee was eventually released from the camp in 1919 and after briefly returning to Dundee he moved to London, where he resumed his career in journalism, becoming sub-editor for the News Chronicle, a major national newspaper. His last major poem was A Northern Town, published in 1922, but although he largely abandoned poetry he continued to draw, producing many fine portrait sketches such as this one.

Portrait of a Woman c.1920–1930
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil on paper
H 35 x W 28 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Seated Female Nude
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

After the war Lee was keen undertake further artistic training, and signed up for life drawing classes at the Slade School of Fine Art, where his fellow students included Stanley Spencer. He produced dozens of drawings of both male and female nudes like this one.

Seated Female Nude 1920s–1930s
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil on paper
H 24.8 x W 10.5 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Young Woman
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

In London, Lee renewed his acquaintance with a young viola player called Dorothy Barrie, whom he had first met at a music competition when she was a schoolgirl in Dundee before the war; they were married in 1924. This sketch is probably of Dorothy.

Young Woman 1926
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil on paper
H 53 x W 38 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934)
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Dorothy’s music career brought Lee into contact with many famous figures of the time, including John Barbirolli, Edith Sitwell and Max Beerbohm. Here he has sketched the composer Edward Elgar.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934) 1924
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil on board
H 37 x W 26 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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Figures in the Countryside
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Joe and Dorothy Lee settled in Epsom, Surrey, and in his later years he painted many watercolours of the English countryside. During the Second World War he again served his country, this time as a member of the Home Guard. He returned to live in Dundee shortly before his death in 1949.

Figures in the Countryside c.1920s–1930s
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Watercolour on paper
H 20 x W 27.5 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

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A Game of Cards
Photo credit: University of Dundee Fine Art Collections

Extract from The Home-Coming, from Ballads of Battle

When this blast is over-blown, And the beacon fires shall burn, And in the street Is the sound of feet — They also shall return.

When the bells shall rock and ring, When the flags shall flutter free, And the choirs shall sing, “God save our King” — They shall be there to see.

When Te Deums seek the skies, When the Organ shakes the Dome, A dead man shall stand At each live man’s hand— For they also have come home.

A Game of Cards c.1918
Joseph Johnston Lee (1876–1949)
Pencil & ink on paper
H 15.6 x W 13.5 cm
University of Dundee Fine Art Collections