Discover World War One

World War One Art

The collection has its origins in World War One, when countries appointed official war artists to provide a record of their involvement in the conflict. New Zealand did not appoint official war artists until late in the war, due to concerns about the costs involved. However many works of art prompted by the war were produced before that time, and some 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 of whom had their own war artists in the field. Sir Andrew Russell, Commander of the New Zealand (NZ) 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 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.

Welch returned to France on 22 September 1918, followed by Butler and Pearse on 27 September. 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 remained working in France, up to and following the November armistice.

The War Artists were demobilised in March 1919, but further artworks were commissioned by the new War Museum Committee in September 1919. The Committee authorised the commissioning of six portraits of the New Zealand Victoria Cross winners, for which they paid £50 pounds each, and 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.