First World War art

Page 5 – National Collection of War Art

During the 1950s the First and Second World War art collections were merged to form the National Collection of War Art (NCWA). Custody of the NCWA was transferred to the National Art Gallery. However, like the Dominion Museum, the Gallery did not have the resources to adequately house and maintain this large collection. Approximately two-thirds of the NCWA was sent to regional council facilities (including art galleries), Returned Services Clubs, Defence Force branches, and to the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

The works that remained went back into storage at the National Art Gallery. In the late 1960s the Department of Internal Affairs (DIA) and National Art Gallery debated whether or not to destroy the First World War works that remained at the Gallery because they were in such poor condition and considered to be worthless. Instead of carrying out this drastic action, DIA conducted a major inventory of all the works from the NCWA that had been given to public collections for safekeeping. By the end of 1971 it was discovered that some of these works had gone missing or were in need of repair and conservation treatment. Most, though, were traceable and in reasonable condition.

The national war art collection did not get a proper home until 1981 when DIA passed the custody of the whole war collection over to the National Archives (now Archives New Zealand). Unlike the National Museum and National Art Gallery, Archives could provide quality storage conditions for the works and could accommodate the continued growth of the collection as new donations and purchases occurred.

Archives NZ has exhibited selected works from the First World War component of the national war art collection on several occasions at its onsite gallery, including War Art (2007) and An Impressive Silence (2009). It has also loaned out the work from the collection for various external exhibitions such as the two national touring exhibitions held in the early 1990s, Christopher Pugsley’s The Honorary Rank of Captain and New Zealand Images of War curated by Tony Martin.

The collection today

There are currently around 1500 paintings, drawings, cartoons and prints by approximately 90 artists in the NCWA. The collection contains a mix of official war art, commissioned by the New Zealand forces or government, and unofficial art that has been collected or donated to the NCWA over the years.

Works documenting New Zealand’s military involvement in the First and Second World Wars make up the main bulk of the collection but there are also pieces produced during the South African War (1899-1901), the interwar periods (1901-1914, 1919-1939) and a small portion from the years after 1945. Most of these works were made by New Zealand artists, expatriates or those with strong ties to New Zealand. All the work in the war art collection has been digitised in recent years and can be now viewed as a virtual exhibition.

How to cite this page

'National Collection of War Art', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 5-Sep-2014