I recently visited the refurbished York Art Gallery, with my cultured friend, to see the exhibition, “British Art of the First World War”. It’s a very impressive display, with many large-scale, and strikingly evocative paintings. The kind of images generally associated with the war on the Western Front feature strongly. We can all envision the muddy trenches, the shell-blasted landscapes, the branchless, shattered tree-trunks, and the dispirited, broken soldiery. But there are other, less familiar, depictions of the conflict on view in the exhibition.
We Are Making a New World, 1918, by Paul Nash, collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, IWM Art 1146
The above work, with its ironic title (“We are making a new world”) and its new-day sun rising over a scene of total desolation, epitomises how we have come to picture the war. But my attention was most powerfully drawn to a painting of women war-workers taking a canteen break at the Phoenix Dynamo Manufacturing Co factory at Thornbury in Bradford.
Women’s Canteen at Phoenix Works, Bradford, 1918, by Flora Lion, collection of the Imperial War Museum, London, IWM Art 4434
The women pictured are clearly tired, but a strong sense of purposefulness and solidarity shines through all the same. Painted by a female artist, the depiction points the way to a new world that was in the process of being created. The women represented would have been doing the sort of industrial jobs that, before the war, would have been an exclusively male preserve. In wartime, women filled men’s places in all sorts of home-front occupations they were not previously thought capable of, or were not thought suitable for them. As a result of this massive contribution they won (partially) the parliamentary vote in 1918. The prospect also dawned of their entrée into broader walks of life than housekeeping, and into higher occupations than the ones of drudgery and servitude that had hitherto been the norm. Even the most atrocious events are not always without beneficial consequences.