THEY marched to war armed with sketch pads and pencils, their weapons of attack just a talented eye and a remarkable skill for creating something provocative and poignant.
Working side by side with soldiers and officers, deep in muddy trenches on the very tip of the front line and under fire from enemy attack, the paintings, sketches, photographs and images they eventually produced would provide an alternative vision of war in all its bloody horror.
Many war artists witnessed at first hand the hellishness of conflict – the first of their kind, they were a new breed of observer. Others stayed at home to capture the daily grind, women hard at work in factories, the relentless war effort, the grief and, eventually, the relief.
Now a selection of Scottish war artists’ paintings, drawings, prints and photographs have been gathered together along with images created in the aftermath of battle, for a timely exhibition at the City Art Centre.
Entitled Picturing Conflict, the exhibition aims to give visitors a valuable insight into the events of the Great War and the impact on those involved through the eye of the artist.
Among the stunning works of art are paintings which show the bleak, ravaged landscape of the battlefields and the terrifying spectacle of exploding shells. Others, explains City Art Centre fine art curator Helen Scott, are examples of how art was used for propaganda, while one particularly poignant photograph not only captures the obliterated fields around Arras but also tells a moving story of loss.
“There were official war photographers,” she explains, “but we also have a photograph by an unknown photographer, thought to be the brother of Sergeant John Walker, an Edinburgh man who went to Arras and died in 1917.
“Just after the Armistice, his brothers went to Arras area and we believe that the photograph we have was taken by one of them.
“It shows the shattered buildings, the devastated landscape. Because it’s an amateur image, it’s interesting to see the contrast between that and the more official war images that are much more clearly staged.”
The government created the War Art Scheme in 1916. Originally intended to provide propaganda material, they were soon valued for their unique vision of conflict.
However, war artists were often regarded with suspicion by military leaders and were often under strict orders concerning what they could produce. Among the restrictions was a ban on creating images of dead soldiers.
“There was heavy censorship at the time,” adds Helen. “The military was keen not to damage morale and didn’t want to compromise military planning in terms of what artists showed. That must have been frustrating for some artists. But there were also some who flouted the rules.”
Among the most striking paintings in the exhibition, which runs until January 18, is a large landscape created by Glasgow artist David Young Cameron which shows wrecked buildings silhouetted against flames.
“He was in his late forties so was too old to be conscripted. However, he went with the Canadian Army to Passchendaele in 1916,” explains Helen. “After the war he focused on battlefield landscapes for government commission.
“While the painting is one of the last he painted in 1926, it is still a very evocative image and shows the devastation of the landscape.”
Because of the restrictions many artists opted for abstract art. Others, such as Edinburgh artist Eric Robertson, adopted the style even after the war ended. “His work, Shellburst, shows the moment a shell explodes, a blinding blast with soldiers huddled amongst sandbags,” adds Helen.
Councillor Richard Lewis, Edinburgh’s convener for culture and sport, says: “After the war, artists were vital in depicting the people, places and experiences of the war.
“These works provide a valuable insight into the impact on Scottish artists, and portray those emotions and moving thoughts that are often difficult to put into words.”
The exhibition, which is free, is being staged as part of the commemorations marking the centenary of the First World War.
How those blinded in conflict rebuilt lives
THE story of how thousands of war blinded soldiers rebuilt their lives is being told in a new exhibition.
Silhouettes in the Fog & Guiding Lights: The Foundation of Scottish War Blinded tells how chemical warfare developed on the Western Front, causing devastating suffering and death.
Survivors suffered lifelong disabilities, blindness, respiratory problems and psychological trauma.
Many would never be the same again and were unable to return to jobs or engage in public life.
Scottish War Blinded was founded in 1915 to support them in their rehabilitation, helping to train them in trades such as woodwork, piano tuning, poultry farming and basket weaving.
Outreach manager Rosie McLaughlin says it Is hoped the exhibition will remind people of the plight of soldiers who returned home without their sight.
“The impact of war blindness is seldom publicised and we encourage people of all ages to learn about the foundation of Scottish War Blinded in 1915.”
Included in the exhibition, which runs until Saturday at the Central Library, is artwork produced by the organisation’s members who attend its Linburn Centre in Wilkieston, West Lothian.