Sir David Muirhead Bone : Our first official War Artist.
Muirhead Bone was born in Partick, Glasgow in 1876 and died in Oxford in 1953. Bone trained as an architect before attending Glasgow School of Art where he studied printmaking. At the Fairfield Heritage Centre, Govan road – on the walls of the main corridor – you will see a series of images drawn by Bone in the shipyards along the Clyde between world war one and two. His pre-war visual interests included both rural landscape and complex images or urban architecture in construction and demolition.
He moved to London in 1901 and in 1916 just prior to the battle of the Somme he was commissioned by the War Propaganda Bureau at the rank of honorary second Lieutenant and a salary of £500. He was 38 years old at the outbreak of the war and his role as war artist certainly saved him from active service in the trenches.
Bone visited the western front only twice before 1918, where he recorded in hundreds of sketches and detailed notes the conditions in which British soldiers were fighting. His watercolours were widely reproduced in the British press as they looked equally as impressive in black and white a direct result of his training as an engraver/etcher/drypoint artist.
It was thought ( by the propaganda bureau ) that because Bone was long sighted in one eye and short sighted in the other that he would produce drawings containing more detailed realism that an artist would did not suffer from the same condition, a humorous fallacy, I can with some certainty vouch for this as a trained printmaker and one who also has this optical curiosity. What is true is that Bone had an innate ability to order line and tone in his complex compositions and it was this intuitive skill that made his drawing – colour or black and white – so striking when printed in press.
Of course the real debate is why send artists at all ? ( when photography was already well established as a tool used to record all aspects of life at the time. Prior to the discovery of photography it was quite normal for visual artists to be included on expeditions. Two outstanding examples are the 1760’s voyages of Captain James Cook when 24 artists collected and illustrated unusual flora and fauna, and the illustrations of the 4 artists who accompanied J F Champollion to Egypt to record and aid in the deciphering of ancient hieroglyphs).
Probably due to an option of the time that artists would add some emotional value that film stills could not. An option disproved a little over half a century later during the conflict in Vietnam when easy access granted to photo-journalists by the American military undoubtedly changed public option against involvement in that war. The real reason is of course far more simple and sinister, an artists work was easily censored and on the whole what they painted was carefully selected and sanctioned by the propaganda bureau. To produce sanitised results of a more heroic struggle while redacting the obvious horrors. I suggest that photography was frowned upon by the military elite, many of the photo images taken in the trenches were taken – unofficially – by officers with a keen interest in photography with their own cameras for their own personal records. Bone was knighted in 1937 for his service to art and once again served as a war artist during World War Two.
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