War art at home
A national collection of war art in New Zealand began in 1918, with the appointment of the first official artists to document New Zealand involvement in the First World War. The collection is now comprised of state commissions, donations, and some purchases. Artworks include portraits, landscapes, battle scenes, sketches and cartoons and mediums include oils, watercolours, lithographs and pencil or ink.
Following the First World War, the Department of Internal Affairs took custody of the collection and the first major additions were added in mid-1920. These were a series of commissioned portraits of Victoria Cross recipients and other distinguished servicemen, such as General Freyberg. That same year, the British Government gifted 66 lithographs titled Britain's Efforts and Ideals, which were originally published by the British Ministry of Information.
The artworks produced during the Second World War were initially toured to raise funds for the war effort and to assist in the official history of the war. They were then later added to the national collection. The most significant additions are from this period, as the collection acquired a range of unofficial works in varying genres and media. Captured German works were also included.
During the 1950s, the First and Second World War art collections were merged to form the National Collection of War Art. The collection has spent most of its time in storage or on loan to various institutions for display purposes, with the exception of the major exhibition held by the National Art Gallery in 1952. The collection was renumbered by the National Gallery according to the order in which the works were hung for display, irrespective of artist, subject, campaign or previous order.
Debate around the future of the collection and whether to destroy the First World War works that were in poor condition was held in the late 1960s. Fortunately, the Department of Internal Affairs instead carried out the first major inventory of the works. Through this they discovered that the majority of the collection was traceable and in good condition. Some works had gone missing or were in need of conservation work and repair.
Archives New Zealand assumed care of the collection in 1981 and expanded on the National Gallery's numbering system as it served as the most comprehensive list available. Numbering now includes works not exhibited in 1952, such as preparatory sketches, donations of works painted after the war, work which had clearly been intended for the collection but had been purchased later at auction, works returned but unidentifiable in the existing lists, and other works considered relevant and complementary to the collection.
Over 100 artists are represented in the collection, with a number of notable artists among them. These include Nugent Welch, Peter McIntyre and George Edmund Butler. Some biographies for the artists have been written over the years. These continue to be added to as new information comes to hand. One of the collection’s most prolific artists has no biography at all – Duncan McPhee has 253 works as part of the National Collection of War Art, but no biography. If you know anything about Duncan, or any of the artists included in this collection, please let us know.
The original artworks that make up the National Collection of War Art are restricted to protect them from unnecessary handling and exposure to agents of deterioration, like light. Each of the 1,500+ artworks has been digitised and is available in our permanent online exhibition, or through Archway, our online catalogue.
Last updated on 24 April 2020