The National Collection of War Art consists of about 1,500 artworks, including portraits, battle scenes, landscapes and abstracts, depicting those who served New Zealand in times of war, and the arenas in which they served.
The collection includes both official pieces, by artists formally commissioned by the New Zealand government, and other unofficial art works that were acquired for or donated to the collection.
The collection originated in World War One, when countries used official war artists to provide a record of involvement in the conflict. New Zealand did not appoint official war artists until late in the war, due to the cost. Many works of art prompted by the war were created before that time. Some of these were later purchased for or donated to the collection.
New Zealand’s first officially appointed war artists were Nugent Welch, George Edmund Butler and the English artist, Alfred Pearse. Their appointments were made in 1918, following the example of the British, Canadian, and Australian governments, each with their own war artists in the field.
Sir Andrew Russell, Commander of the New Zealand Division in France, acted first, asking for a return of artists in the Division. In April, he appointed the landscape artist Nugent Welch as Divisional Artist, attaching him to the Headquarters of the New Zealand Division. In July, Welch returned to London where he painted his first works from photographs and sketches.
Prime Minister William Massey approved the employment of further artists in June. Consequently George Butler and Alfred Pearse were enlisted as official New Zealand War Artists for a six month period from September 1918.
On 22 September 1918 Welch returned to France, followed by Butler and Pearse 5 days later. There the artists completed sketches and watercolours. Pearse returned to London by the end of October to work on large canvases, while Butler and Welch worked in France, up to and after the 11 November armistice.
The War Artists were demobilised in March 1919, but further artworks were commissioned by the new War Museum Committee in September 1919. These included six portraits of the New Zealand Victoria Cross winners, for which they paid £50 pounds each. The Committee also authorised Butler to enlarge some of his sketches to oils. The number of portraits was subsequently increased to seventeen, with the works being completed by 1921.
Following World War One, the war art collection was nominally under the control of the Dominion Museum, whose register from about 1922 recorded an 86 piece Fine Arts War Collection (refer to Archway for this register).
There was an expectation that the collection would eventually be displayed in the new National War Memorial Museum. However the new Museum building was not completed until 1936, leaving the World War One paintings to be managed instead by the National Art Gallery. The Gallery considered the collection to be of historic rather than artistic worth, and therefore did not display them. The artworks were kept in storage, where some remained until the 1980s. Several attempts were made to organise an exhibition of the collection in the 1920s, but this did not eventuate, and the artworks remained largely unseen.
The collection received further additions during this post-war period, when, at various times, the British government presented New Zealand with art works by British war artists.
The role of war artists was recognised more rapidly in World War Two than in World War One, with artists and art groups lobbying for appointments. Army archives indicate some degree of commitment to the idea of a pictorial record of the war, and an official appointment of Austen Deans as war artist was planned for 1941. However, having been wounded, Deans was captured by the Germans and spent the remainder of the war as a prisoner of war.
Instead, in January 1941 Bernard Freyberg, General Commanding the New Zealand Forces, made a personal appointment of Peter McIntyre, an artist who had enlisted in London. McIntyre was sent to Crete, where he painted the German invasion. Following this he accompanied New Zealand forces on the North African Campaign, being present at the Battle of Sidi Resagh, the fall of Tobruk, the offensive against Rommel, the Minquar Qa’im breakthrough, followed by Tripoli, and the final battle at Wadi Akorit. Later, McIntyre was with the New Zealand Division for the Battle of Cassino in the Italian Campaign.
Several exhibitions were held of McIntyre’s works during the war. An exhibition was also taken on tour through New Zealand, raising money for the Red Cross. Another was held in London where thirty nine of his paintings, which had been shown first to the New Zealand troops in Italy, were exhibited in the New Zealand Fernleaf Club, under the title ‘Exhibition of Official War Paintings of the Second NZEF’.
Two further official war artists were appointed in March 1943, to record of New Zealand’s involvement in the Pacific campaign. Russell Clark and Allan Barns-Graham, both already in the Army, were attached to the 3rd Division, which assisted the United States’ assaults on islands held by Japanese forces. Their artwork depicts operations on Vella Lavella, on Mono and Stirling Islands in the Treasury Islands group, and the capture of Nissan and other islands in February 1944.
The collection was further enhanced by the additions of works by ‘unofficial’ war artists. For instance, certain works from a 1943 ‘Artists in Uniform’ exhibition appear to have been purchased for the collection. Other artworks, including paintings by Jack Crippen and Wolf Moller, were sent to New Zealand by the Official Archivist, after they had featured in an exhibition in Italy in November 1944.
After 1945 the Second World War portion of the collection was used in the preparation of the official histories of that war. The Army Department also had each artwork photographed, with these photographs and their negatives later being deposited with the Alexander Turnbull Library.
For information on War era photography held at Archives New Zealand in Wellington see Research Guide 9 Photographs –Wellington.
The various parts of the collection were recalled to the National Art Gallery in 1952 for a major exhibition, and were subsequently renumbered. The numbering imposed at that time is still maintained in the collection. Subsequently, approximately one third of the collection was lent to the Auckland Institute and Museum, one third remained in the control of the National Art Gallery, and one third was loaned out to a variety of institutions around New Zealand.
Archives New Zealand assumed care of the collection in 1981, at which time a nationwide recall of the paintings was begun. Additional works, some of which had not been exhibited in 1952 and were thus omitted from any later description of the collection, were discovered up to 1987. A number of other works of both official and unofficial war art, which have been recognised as belonging with the collection, have also been added to it by purchase or donation.
Digital images of much of the National Collection of War Art can be viewed and downloaded on ARCHWAY [AAAC 898] as well as at http://warart.archives.govt.nz. A few items by Oscar Kendall are listed separately on ARCHWAY [AAAA 898 W5816/1].
The website contains selected biographies of War Artists, further contextual information about the collection and also gives researchers the ability to ‘tag’ images with their own keywords.
The majority of the original paintings and drawings are restricted from public access for preservation reasons. In special circumstances researchers can make an appointment with Archives New Zealand’s Preservation Service to view them.
High resolution TIFF copies of the images can be ordered for a fee by contacting Archives New Zealand, Head Office in Wellington.
Permission to publish, which is free, is needed before any image sourced from Archives New Zealand is published. Please apply to the Group Manager of Research Services, providing a full archives reference and description of the file/image, and stating the title and format of the publication/website/documentary.