First World War art

Page 1 – Introduction

New Zealand war artists produced a vast body of work during the First World War. Official efforts to depict this country’s war effort began in 1918. This was the first time New Zealand had employed official war artists to work overseas or at home. A variety of amateur and professional artists, though, had produced ‘unofficial’ war art earlier in the war.

New Zealand’s first official war artist was Lance Corporal Nugent Welch. Attached to the War Records Section of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), Welch and other soldier-artists documented NZEF activities in France, Belgium, England and the Middle East. Together with two civilian artists, George Edmund Butler and Alfred Pearse, they formed the New Zealand War Artists’ Section. This unit worked under the authority of the NZEF until disestablished in 1919.

Although short-lived, the Section produced a considerable number of works detailing the social, cultural, psychological and spiritual experiences of New Zealanders during the First World War. During the 1950s these works, together with official Second World War art, were merged to form New Zealand’s National Collection of War Art (NCWA). But this collection was left to languish until the 1980s, when it was transferred into the care of the National Archives (now Archives New Zealand).