In the years leading up to the Great War, Australia exported many of her best artists to Europe. When war broke out, they had to decide how they might contribute to the war effort. Told that painting was too frivolous a pastime for total war, the artists were channelled into a variety of unpleasant and demanding wartime occupations.
That changed in 1916. Painting was no longer thought frivolous. It was an activity that could support the war effort. There were not one but three war artists’ schemes. The British, Canadians and Australians might vie with one another for the services of the best artists. In a period of just six months, the artists witnessed a remarkable turnaround. At the outset, there was no market for their services, and they were left to eke out a living as orderlies in military hospitals. Six months later, three governments were lining up to bid for their services as artists. The failure of the Battle of the Somme forced British politicians to rethink the balance they had struck between the conflicting demands of operational secrecy and the propaganda war. There was unrest when the government published huge lists of names of the dead and wounded while at the same time suppressing news of what was happening at the front. Overseas, the Germans were winning the propaganda war. They had sent artists to the front shortly after the war began. Their work, depicting both the front line and the home front, appeared in galleries in Vienna and Berlin, and copies of artworks were seen in newspapers and magazines around the world.
The British had established a War Propaganda Bureau in the first few weeks of the war. The bureau had its offices in a block of flats called Wellington House, from which the bureau took its popular name.
The time was ripe for Wellington House to expand its role, especially if it could operate in areas that did not threaten operational secrecy. War art fitted that bill. Wellington House already used official photographers extensively, but its leader, Charles Masterman, agreed with the Germans that some things were better conveyed “through the eye of an artist”.
Muirhead Bone was a Scottish etcher and watercolour artist. In May 1916, he received his call-up papers from the British conscription authorities. As Bone looked for ways to avoid the draft, he met a literary adviser to Wellington House, who suggested a plan. If he could con- vince Masterman that Bone would be better used painting for Wellington House than serving in the trenches, perhaps a tribunal would grant Bone an exemption on the public interests ground. Masterman agreed. With the support of the War Office, he secured Bone’s exemption from military service so long as he worked as an artist for Wellington House. Given the honorary rank of second lieutenant and an annual salary of £500, Bone arrived at the front in August 1916. He was Britain’s first official war artist.
It was probably true that Bone would be better used painting for Wellington House than Australian infantry attack in Polygon Wood
The Somme Valley near Corbie serving in the trenches, but the same could be said of almost every other artist conscripted to serve in the British army. Why should Bone be treated differently? And what was so special about artists? If artists qualified for special treatment, why not musicians, ballet dancers or butchers? In London in September 1916, Will Dyson, an Australian artist born in Ballarat, published a collection of cartoons: Will Dyson’s War Car- toons. Here was a cartoonist at the top of his game. He mixed with the rich and famous. HG Wells wrote the foreword to Kultur Cartoons and called Dyson “this extraordinary artist”.
Yet storm clouds were gathering. Dyson was a fit man of military age. As a British subject, he was liable to be conscripted, like any other British subject. Like Bone, he was anxious to avoid the draft. In that ambition, he found a ready ally in the Australian high commissioner, Andrew Fisher, who opposed conscription. His opposition to conscription brought him into conflict with Billy Hughes, who, as prime minister, was now his boss, but Fisher was firm in his views.
Fisher and Dyson joined in a scheme to save Dyson from the draft in the same way that Masterman had saved Bone. The scheme had two parts. The first was to secure the Australian government to appoint Dyson as an official war artist. The second was to secure the Australian government to intervene on his behalf when the British army moved to conscript him. That would require the Australian government to pressure the local tribunal to exempt Dyson on the ground that it was “expedient in the public interests” for him to serve in a non-military capacity — as an Australian war artist.
The immediate problem was that Australia had no official war artists’ scheme. From London, Fisher had first to persuade Canberra to create the position, and then to secure Dyson’s appointment to it. It was an exercise in bureaucratic manipulation to test the skills of an old hand.
Two documents were prepared. The first was a letter from Dyson addressed to the Commonwealth of Australia, dated 23 August 1916: Sir: I am an Australian artist resident at present in England and am engaged as a black-and-white cartoonist.
(1919) by Fred Leist, top; (1919) by Arthur Streeton, left