Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 24, 2017

The Art of War (2004), by Betty Churcher

Last week, with Anzac Day approaching, it seemed a good time to browse through Betty Churcher’s magnificent tribute to the artists who depict war.  The Art of War was written to coincide with a TV program on SBS, produced by Film Australia, and I had not long ago stumbled on my copy at Bound Words in Hampton St Hampton.  But the day after I started drafting this review, my father unexpectedly died, and I forgot about this post until tonight, the eve of Anzac Day 2017.  So for now, I’m just going to focus on what I’ve read of the book, just Chapter One.

The Art of War is a paperback, but it is full-sized and printed on quality glossy paper so  the reproductions of the paintings are superb.  (You need to click the links to see most of them, because of copyright).

This is the blurb:

The wars that have been an unrelenting feature of the past hundred years have left an enduring legacy in the art they have provoked.  Here, Betty Churcher, [1931-2015] one of our leading art historians, explores the range and diversity of art inspired by war.  She explores the work of official war artists in the First and Second World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, and the war against terror in Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf.  She looks, too, at lesser-known artists, ordinary soldiers, who were drawing and painting in the trenches during the First World War, the concentration camps of Europe, the prisoner-of-war camps of Southeast Asia, and at artists who have been inspired by peace-keeping missions in Timor, Somalia, and Eritrea.

The Art of War is stunningly illustrated throughout, featuring images as diverse as George Lambert’s dramatic battlefield panoramas, Will Dyson’s political cartoons, Ray Parkin’s prisoner-of-war camp sketches, and Gordon Bennett’s graffiti-influenced works produced in the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York. Using works created to inspire patriotic sentiment, to record personal insights, or to protest the senseless loss of human life, Churcher shows that where war has influenced movements in art, art has also changed attitudes to war.

The first chapter is called ‘The Birth of a Legend’ and the first painting shown is Grace Cossington Smith’s Reinforcements: Troops Marching c1917.   Churcher, always so observant about the human aspects of art, notes the strident colours of the mother waving off the troops while she ignores her crying child behind her.  This painting is accompanied by a photo of huge crowds lining Collins St Melbourne to farewell troops in 1914, and she tells us the story of her own father’s disillusionment to amplify what follows:

My father never discussed the war. Everything about the First World War turned out to be repugnant to him, yet there could have been no more ardent recruit. (p.1)

The paintings Churcher has chosen to include are influenced by this family history.  Nothing in this book glorifies war.

The government hadn’t officially appointed a war artist by the time of Gallipoli, but there were men there who made drawings and watercolours to record their experience.  When they ran out of watercolours, they used the red and blue pencils issued for military mapping, and they applied washes with an iodine brush, giving their pictures that distinctive sepia tone.   CEW Bean, then a war correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald, gathered the tales and sketches of the soldiers for a compilation to be called The Anzac Book, which with its famous cover art by David Barker, is still in print.   Bean also lobbied for the appointment of a war artist, eventually getting permission for Private Frank Crozier to make sketches on the Western Front, and finally to be appointed as an official war artist in September 1918.  Many readers will have seen his painting Sausage Valley (1919) at the Australian War Memorial.

It was mainly civilian artists who were appointed as war artists, given the temporary rank of lieutenant and kept firmly behind the lines in safety.  However Will Dyson had wangled permission to go to the front as a civilian artist, and he produced some of the finest artworks of the war, concentrating not on big battle scenes but on the men.  ‘Dead beat, the tunnel, Hill 60’ (1917) is typical of these: it shows an exhausted soldier, still in all his kit, fast asleep while his mates stand by in the tunnel.  Another one ‘Patrolling in no man’s land on the Somme’ (1918) manages to convey the danger of the exercise in the anxious turn of a head and in the cautious tread of his shadowy figures’ but Dyson also captured humorous moments, as in ‘The batman (compree washing madame) (1920).  Dyson drew anti-German propaganda cartoons as well, such as ‘Freedom of the Seize’ (1915).  His paintings are held at the Australian War Memorial but if this article from 2016 is correct, they are not on display but you can find them if you search online at the AWM.

The big battle paintings were tackled by other artists, but the works Churcher has chosen are not like the heroic battle paintings of the 19th century.  I can show you this one: ‘First Australian artillery going into the third battle of Ypres’ by H. Septimus Power is in the public domain now.

In the book, the painting is accompanied by Betty Churcher’s keen observations, and a full page reproduction of a detail which emphasises the mud and the stoic determination of the men.  ‘Stretcher bearers’ (1922) is a vivid testament to non-combatants.

Cathedral Interior c1918 (Streeton)

Arthur Streeton was appointed as a war artist in May 1918, but most of his paintings are about the aftermath of war.

He painted the landscape of war-ravaged France, the valley of the River Somme and the landscape around Mont St Quentin.  If figures appear in his paintings, they’re there only to give scale to the landscape.

There is only one painting by Streeton in the book, ‘French Siege Gun’ (1918) which shows the monumental size of this monstrous weapon.  It’s such a ghastly contrast to the ‘Golden Summers’ paintings for which Streeton is so famous, that I prefer to show the painting at right, called ‘Cathedral Interior’, painted in 1918 or so.

George Lambert was the most famous of the war artists, but his great epic paintings were all done in the studio.  However, he had visited Anzac Cove with CEW Bean in 1919, where he gathered information for his famous picture (also now in the public domain):

Anzac, the Landing 1915 (George Lambert)

But Churcher also tells us that Lambert chose to ignore some of the facts:

For example, [Bean] remembers telling Lambert that the soldiers had been instructed to roll their sleeves to the elbow, so that in the half-light they would stand out from the Turks.  However, he also remembers that nothing would have persuaded Lambert to depict the landing in that way: his soldiers would be properly uniformed in this official record.

He also told him that the men wore British-style flat caps.

‘I suppose some of them wore hats, Skipper?’ Lambert asked.

‘Certainly,’ said Bean.  And that was enough for Lambert – they all wore slouch hats!  (p. 24)

This painting doesn’t show the courage or bravado of hand-to-hand fighting.  It shows the terrain as enemy.  Like its companion piece ‘The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek, 7 August 1915’ (1924) it shows the futility of war, and again the book offers a full-page detail so that its emotional impact is profound.

The chapter goes on to show that Lambert’s paintings of the desert in Palestine influenced artists in the post-war period to begin a tradition of inland painting.

Previously the desert had been recorded by exploration artists in topographical studies; never before had it been seen as a landscape subject in its own right.

But that was not the only way in which this wicked, wasteful war influenced art:

… in Europe the soldier-artists who had served in the trenches of the Western Front returned to their studios seething with anger and disgust at the cruelty and mindless waste of war.  They saw themselves as victims of the war who had escaped the shells and bullets but not the trauma, and they introduced dramatic new movements in modern art to reveal their psychological damage.  Neither art nor its audience would ever be the same again. (p.47)

The chapter concludes with Sidney Nolan’s Gallipoli Series, reminding us that he once said that he wanted his Gallipoli pictures to ring like metal – to ‘clang’  as if they’d been beaten into shape at a blacksmith’s forge.  And Churcher once more invokes the personal when she tells us that the figures in the left hand panel of Nolan’s Gallipoli diptych, are Nolan’s father, trying valiantly to prevent his son Raymond, (with his corporal’s stripes) from sliding deeper into death. (p.53) (To see both paintings at that AWM link scroll down below the descriptions and click the blue Gallipoli link).

Author: Betty Churcher
Title: The Art of War
Publisher: The Miegunyah Press, 2004
ISBN: 9780522850994
Source: Personal copy, found at Bound Words Secondhand Bookshop in Hampton St Hampton for $25.00

Availability: try your second-hand sources…



  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. What a wonderful testament to the work of these artists who produced some extraordinary drawings/paintings in such extraordinary circumstances.


    • It’s a gorgeous book. But it really is quite striking how the artworks become so much more starkly modern in style after WW1. They seem cleverer, but they convey less feeling than say ‘Dead Beat’ does. I can’t look at that one without feeling anguish.


  3. […] The Art of War, by Betty Churcher […]


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