First World War art

Page 3 – Official war art

NZEF war art programme

The first official war art programme of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) was established in mid-1918 by a group of senior New Zealand military and civilian officials. Some records refer to this as the New Zealand War Artists’ Section, but it does not appear to have even been given this title officially. The reason for this may be the haphazard nature of the programme’s conception.

By 1916 Britain, Australia and Canada had each established official war art programmes to document their country’s activities in the First World War and to use for propaganda. New Zealand lagged embarrassingly behind its allies on this issue because its wartime government considered war art unnecessary and expensive. It refused to purchase the entire collection of Gallipoli watercolours by Horace Moore-Jones. It had only grudgingly accepted Henry Armytage Sanders and Thomas Frederick Scales as official war photographers because their appointments had been arranged by the New Zealand High Commissioner in London, Sir Thomas MacKenzie.

Major General Andrew Russell, Commander of the New Zealand Division in France, recognised the potential usefulness of war artists to the NZEF. The ability of photographers to document events was limited to what they could literally see at a certain time, while the quality of their work was hampered by the limited maneuverability of their equipment. War artists had much greater flexibility as documenters of war, particularly in the difficult conditions of the trenches. They could capture the essence of a scene from multiple perspectives using their onsite sketches and recreate important past events in their studios. They could also negotiate the delicate issues of battlefront censorship by omitting certain details whilst strategically emphasising others.

In February 1918, without waiting for the explicit consent of the New Zealand government, Russell launched an initiative to find competent artists from within the New Zealanders serving in the NZEF. Out of this survey, Lance Corporal Nugent Welch, from the 2nd Battalion, New Zealand Rifle Brigade, was employed as New Zealand’s first official war artist in April 1918. The government knew nothing about this assignment until months after the fact.

Over the following months Welch was joined by other official soldier-artists to form the New Zealand War Artists’ Section. This programme was administrated by the War Records Section at NZEF Headquarters in London, under the authority of Brigadier General George Spafford Richardson, Commander of NZEF in the United Kingdom.

New Zealand War Artists' Section

Unlike the official war art programmes established for Britain, Canada and Australia, the majority of New Zealand’s official war artists were soldiers seconded from the ranks of the NZEF. Writing stories, composing poems and songs, sketching, and drawing cartoons or caricatures were all actively encouraged within the NZEF as a healthy answer to the long periods of idleness that occupied much of a soldier’s life. Many of the men selected as official artists, including Nugent Welch, were already well known within the New Zealand forces through their contributions of sketches and cartoons to the NZEF-sponsored publications Chronicles of the N.Z.E.F. and New Zealand at the Front.

Cartoon soldiers

Humour was the guiding principal behind several New Zealand War Artists' Section official publications. In Light Diet: 150 Caricatures and Sketches Perpetrated by a New Zealand Artist in and out of Hospital (1918), Ernest Heber Thompson created an array of comic sketches and caricatures based on New Zealand’s medical services in England. Percy Gower Reid produced the light-hearted Dial Sights (1919) from his experiences serving with the New Zealand Field Artillery. See cartoon from Light Diet.

Many of the official soldier-artists in the War Artists’ Section were assigned to document the various activities of the New Zealand forces in England. George Edward Woolley, a landscape painter and photographer, and Frederick Herbert Cumberworth, a newspaper illustrator, were both convalescing in England from illness when they were contacted by the War Records Section. Cumberworth was assigned to document the camp, surrounding village and personalities of the New Zealand Command Depot, Codford, and the New Zealand Machine Gun Depot at Grantham. Woolley was also tasked with recording the Command Depot as well as the No.1 and No.2 New Zealand General Hospitals at Brockenhurst and Walton-on-Thames.

In addition to this record of medical and training facilities in England, the architect Cecil Trevithick contributed several drawings of his work with the New Zealand Medical Corps on the Western Front. The NZEF also wanted to record aspects of New Zealand’s involvement in the British campaigns in the Middle East. Francis Ledingham McFarlane, New Zealand Engineers, was added to the War Artists’ Section in October 1918, when he was transferred from Basrah, Iraq, to London.  

The scope of New Zealand War Artists’ Section was officially broadened from a documentary to a commemorative function in July 1918. The previous month, New Zealand's High Commissioner in London, Sir Thomas Mackenzie, along with senior NZEF officers, had successful lobbied the New Zealand Government to fund the establishment of a New Zealand War Museum and art exhibition in London. The profits from ticket sales and publications, they claimed, would go towards funding a War Memorial Museum in New Zealand. To supplement this ambitious project, the NZEF recruited two civilian artists, George Edmund Butler and Alfred Pearse, who were sent to follow the New Zealanders in France in late September 1918.

For many of the artists employed by the New Zealand War Artists’ Section, NZEF service was their first opportunity to travel beyond Australia. The variable quality and conservative style seen throughout the collection reflects the limited artistic training received by these artists in New Zealand and their lack of exposure to popular European art movements. Once they completed their commissions in 1919, several artists took advantage of the opportunities available to them while they were in Britain and arranged to receive art tuition through the NZEF’s postwar soldier education programme.

How to cite this page

'Official war art', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 5-Sep-2014