Art and the War at Sea 1914-45 || ed Christine Riding

A lot of major art, especially in the twentieth century with the introduction of official war artists, is dedicated to military history. This being a time of anniversaries, there have been several publications devoted to a variety of aspects of it. A further feature is that you get a concentration of work by major artists so that any survey such as this has a wealth of top-quality material to draw on.

The blurb explains that the present book is intended to redress the imbalance in such publications between land-based and maritime war. As the author is Head of Arts and Curator of the Queen’s House at the National Maritime Museum, you might well respond, “Well they would, wouldn’t they?” I don’t mean that unfairly as this is a substantial undertaking that has been handled authoritatively and has a massive resource available to it. The blurb again suggests that it’s the NMM resources alone that have provided the material for the book.

And what a resource! It includes not just paintings but drawings, photographs and posters that record not just the major engagements but the times in between when sailors relaxed or recuperated. It also doesn’t shy away from moments such as Stitches removed: the man who lost his fingers, reminding us that not everything was about the heroic moments, but also their aftermath. It even references the Dazzle [Camouflage] Ball at the Chelsea Arts Club in 1919. This was a post-conflict letting down of the hair by what we might call High Society, but it also reminds us that the age of total war, as well as a conflict closer to home than many previous ones, affected a wider range of society than simply the armed services.

As well as being authoritative and wonderfully comprehensive, with 150 generously-sized illustrations, it’s also worth noting that this is superbly produced and amply justifies its cover price.

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