First World War art

Page 4 – Establishing a collection

For a few short months between April 1918 and the beginning of 1919, New Zealand had a small but productive group of official war artists engaged in documenting the activities of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) in France, Belgium, England and the Middle East. The NZEF had intended to expand this war art programme further but the November 1918 Armistice saw the New Zealand government discontinue funding.

The New Zealand War Artists’ Section was progressively disestablished in 1919. The plan to showcase New Zealand’s wartime achievements in a major London exhibition also lost momentum when the project’s major advocates – Brigadier General George Richardson, Major General Sir Andrew Russell and Colonel Heaton Rhodes – returned to New Zealand. High Commissioner Sir Thomas Mackenzie was able to organise an exhibition of George Butler’s war paintings in June 1919. But this event fell well short of the original vision, intended to rival the success of similar exhibitions held by Britain, Australia and Canada.

Finding a home for the collection

The NZEF had hoped to house the official war art collection in a National War Memorial Museum in Wellington. Debate over the viability of this Museum continued for several years but ultimately the project never went ahead. The war art collection suffered badly from neglect as a result of this decision. Following the demobilisation of the NZEF in 1919 the official paintings, drawings and sketches were sent back to New Zealand in a haphazard manner. Records of what was sent and, especially, what had actually been made by the artists, were not well kept (or have been lost over the years).

The official war art was placed in the custody of the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA). As the prospect of a separate National War Memorial Museum dwindled, the Dominion Museum reluctantly became the de-facto home of the collection. Regrettably, this institution showed little appreciation for the historical and artistic significance of the official war art and had no intention of arranging a major exhibition to show the collection to the public. The works were instead kept in marginal storage conditions and left to decay. In late 1921 and into 1922, several newspapers condemned the Museum for its indifferent attitude towards the collection. But the situation did not change.

In mid-1920, there was a glimmer of hope for the future of the war art collection when the DIA commissioned a series of portraits of New Zealand’s Victoria Cross recipients and other distinguished servicemen such as Generals Chaytor and Freyberg. These portraits were mainly produced by local New Zealand artists. Although the Dominion Museum was charged with arranging these commissions, it did not have the space or resources to accommodate the growth of the collection. Selected works were loaned to the Dominion Industrial Exhibition in Christchurch (1922-3), Dunedin’s South Seas Exhibition (1925), and for the openings of the Auckland War Memorial Museum (1929) and the National Art Gallery (1936). But several works never came out of storage. During the Second World War an inventory report was conducted on the First World War art collection still held at the Museum. This judged the works to be in very poor condition and some remedial restoration and reframing was undertaken.

Impact of the Second World War

By contrast, official war art played a much greater and more dignified role in the Second World War. The Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force (2NZEF) was quick to recognise the necessity of a war artist and employed Peter McIntyre in January 1941. McIntyre followed the New Zealanders through Crete, North Africa and Italy. The New Zealand campaign in the Pacific was recorded by official artists Allan Barns-Graham (from March 1943) and Russell Clark (June 1943 in New Zealand, early 1944 in the Islands).

These works were given considerable public exposure. An exhibition of McIntyre’s early war paintings toured New Zealand in 1942 and further exhibitions were held in London in 1943 and 1944. Unofficial war art was also widely exhibited: a Patriotic Fund show, Artists in Uniform, was held in 1943, from which several works were purchased to add to the war art collection.

In 1952 the National Art Gallery hosted a major exhibition of official and unofficial war art from both world wars. In contrast to the bold graphic styles of the Second World War paintings, the dominantly brown- and ochre-toned First World War works would have appeared quite drab. Having been kept in a damp basement for several decades, some of the original colour had faded and the paper discoloured. Their affected ‘Edwardian’ emphasis on intricate detail would have also seemed fussy to a 1950s viewer. All this did not bode well for the immediate future of the artworks.

How to cite this page

'Establishing a collection', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 5-Sep-2014