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June 13 2012

National Archives publish wartime propaganda in online gallery

Hundreds of images of war art including posters and a portrait of the future queen are released online

Winston Churchill with a jowl or two flatteringly removed, a fierce group of women in pinnies marching out under the banner "Up housewives and at 'em!" to recycle their domestic waste into "planes, guns, tanks, ships & ammunition", and a startling image of the assassination in 1942 of a Nazi officer are among hundreds of images of propaganda and war art from the National Archives in a free Wikimedia online gallery launched this week.

Some were the work of famous artists recruited to help the war effort, including Terence Cuneo, who in 1942 painted the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Holocaust, by a British-trained Czech and Slovak team. Cuneo would go on to become the more tranquil official artist for the 1953 coronation, and coveted by collectors as a painter of railway scenes.

Alongside images of tank warfare and bombers picked out by flames or search lights, and stern-faced military commanders in uniform, there are scores of more domestic scenes, including many connected with the desperate need to increase food production at a time of dire scarcity: a poster offers free transport and accommodation to anyone willing to come and help dig potatoes. Dame Laura Knight, famous as a member of the Newlyn School and as a painter of theatre and ballet scenes, contributed many works, including a lyrical image of a land girl stooping over a plough in a wintry field.

However many of the artists are now barely remembered, and some completely forgotten. A pastel image from 1944, showing the then Princess Elizabeth in uniform but as glamorous as any pin-up, is signed only "Tim".

The archive includes the original artwork for famous propaganda campaigns including Dig For Victory, represented by a heroically patriotic toddler with hoe and shovel, painted by Mary Tunbridge, and an airman being vamped by a sexy blonde over the slogan "Keep mum – she's not so dumb", an image by an unknown artist for the Careless Talk Costs Lives campaign.

The first 330 works launched this week are only the start of a project which will eventually place several thousand images online. Some were drafts or never used, and many of these have pencilled comments by the artists or the War Office: a vivid scene by James Gardner of British bombers attacking a German industrial complex has the withering and heavily underlined note in pencil "bomb racks open from centre and not from side as in your sketch".

Jo Pugh, the education technical officer at the archives, said they wanted to open the extraordinary work of sometimes obscure artists to the widest possible audience. "They are an often overlooked part of Britain's war effort but their themes resonate down the decades," he said.


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July 22 2011

Mervyn Peake's war paintings unveiled by National Archives

Museum at Kew to display series showing victims of atrocities as the artist imagined Hitler might have drawn them

A series of war paintings is to go on display for the first time to mark the centenary of the artist, novelist and poet Mervyn Peake – more than 60 years after the government lost its nerve over his extraordinary attempt to help the war effort.

The rejected paintings were transferred to the National Archives from the Ministry of Information, but have never been displayed until now. A selection will be shown in the archives' museum at Kew, taking their place beside the Domesday Book and Magna Carta.

In 1940 Peake, a genius best known for his trilogy Gormenghast, created the paintings showing mutilated, raped or starving victims of war atrocities, as he imagined Hitler might have drawn them.

Peake, who was already striving to become a formal war artist, proposed to the Ministry of Information that they be published as a propaganda leaflet, presented as an illustrated catalogue for an exhibition by Hitler, complete with a title page showing an artist's palette pierced by the barrel of a rifle, and banal titles such as "Family group" and "Still life" and "Reclining figure" for the shocking images. Surprisingly the government accepted the idea, paid the perennially broke artist 140 guineas for the works, and proposed to print 100,000 copies and distribute them across South America.

Within a few months there had been a change of heart, to Peake's disappointment: the paintings would never be used and, as he had sold them, he could neither exhibit nor publish them.

When his son Sebastian visited the archives this month, it was the first time he had seen the originals. "What is so extraordinary about my father's paintings is that he was creating these powerful images of ruined cities and devastated people, which would later become so familiar from films and photographs, out of the force of his own invention, years before any of these events had happened," he said.

Peake's biographer, Peter Winnington, believes the artist must have been inspired by Goya's Disasters of War etchings, but wrote: "There is something disturbing about the idea that these pictures were drawn entirely from Mervyn's imagination, as he sat in the relative comfort of his Suffolk cottage, long before he had seen anything of the horrors of war."He would go on to become a more conventional war artist, and produced drawings in the aftermath of the war, including from Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, for the magazine the Leader.

The Hitler album paintings were never published in full or exhibited, but sat for decades in the Ministry of Information files, which were then transferred to the old National Archives in Chancery Lane, and eventually to Kew. His son believes that inspiration for the paintings, and for much of the rest of his work, came from scenes Peake saw as a child in China, where he was born in 1911 when his doctor father was running a mission hospital in Hunan province. He died in 1968 after years in hospitals and mental asylums after physical and mental collapse blamed on Parkinson's disease and Encephalitis Lethargica (sleeping sickness) which he probably contracted in an epidemic in China.

Original paintings from Mervyn Peake's Hitler series will be on display in the museum of the National Archives at Kew, free, until the end of 2011


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February 10 2011

Out of Africa: archive revealed

Kew curators put unique collection of more than 10,000 images from Colonial Office on website and Flickr

Something had made the group of young African men hysterical with laughter. In the photograph of the scene, one struggles to cover his mouth politely but his friends are helpless: only the toddler on somebody's shoulders is not laughing but looking incredulously at the peculiar grownups.

The photograph is a favourite of the curators at the National Archives in Kew, but they have absolutely no idea who the young men are, where or when it was taken, never mind why or what the joke was.

Like most of the images in a unique collection of photographs, including some of the earliest ever taken in Africa, dating from the 1860s, it came without any caption. It is about to be loaded on to the archives' website and the photosharing site Flickr, along with 10,000 more from the continent, in the hope that members of the public may be able to help.

Already the curators have learned, by taking images from the collection to community groups, that the Victorian caption on a striking photograph from Ethiopia, showing a woman in elaborate costume, is considered grossly offensive by Ethiopians today. The images will be displayed on the archives' website with a warning notice to modern sensitivities, that the original captions reflect the spirit of the empire for which they were recorded.

The photographs came from the old Colonial Office library, which closed in 2005. They are part of a huge collection of images, captured usually with a camera but occasionally in sketches and watercolours by soldiers, civilians and diplomats across the empire, from the earliest days of photography right up to Harold Macmillan's tour in 1960, when he warned the South African parliament that "the wind of change is blowing through this continent, and whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact". The images include one of Macmillan looking acutely self-conscious draped in a chieftain's leopard skin, with his wife jostled by a rowdy, cheerful crowd in a marketplace.

The collection began when Earl Granville, as secretary of state for the colonies in the 1860s, issued a request to all governors to arrange for "noteworthy buildings and scenery … together with individuals peculiar to the colony" to be recorded.

Since his request coincided with the rise of the craze for photography as an amateur hobby, images and neatly bound albums were soon pouring in. The entire collection holds more than 40,000 images, including a unique 1860s panorama of Toronto, all of which will eventually be added to the website.

Taken by colonial administrators for a colonial archive, the images inevitably give a sanitised view of empire: spotless nursing and school uniforms, bunting hung out for royal weddings and coronations, joyous reception committees greeting visiting dignitaries. One album, where the curators can spot the gulf between the image and the reality, shows happy, healthy people in the concentration camps of the Boer war, where thousands died of disease and hunger.

Steven Cable, specialist in photographic records at Kew, can find no evidence that the images were censored or weeded when they arrived back in London. "The photographers knew the type of image that was required, and that is what they supplied. The collection is permeated by an unquestioning acceptance that the empire was a good thing."

Some of the photographs are captioned, and if occasionally the European officials in their sweaty uniforms and plumed hats are named, the Africans are hardly ever identified. The laughing youths have no caption of any kind. The Colonial Office catalogue merely recorded the album as taken in Nigeria by WF Hackman in 1922/3 – though at Kew conservator Stephen Harwood is convinced even that is wrong, that many of the images are decades older. From the quality of the print he dates the laughers to around 1910.

Somebody, the staff at Kew are convinced as they embark on the biggest attempt ever to engage the public in their research, knows who they are.


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