The Weekend Australian - Review - - Art -

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

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