As the RA turns 250 years old, we’re exploring 250 beautiful, odd and inspiring objects from the RA Collection in 25 themes. In this edition, we mark 100 years since the Armistice, looking at how artists have experienced war and conflict over the centuries.
This plaster cast of a Classical sculpture from the Temple of Apollo at Bassae in Greece shows a mythological battle taking place between the Greeks and the Amazons. In the centre, Herakles (or Hercules) fights Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. This encounter was the ninth of Herakles' Twelve Labours in which he had to retrieve the magic belt that Hippolyta had been given by her father Ares, the god of war.
This plate shows the 'War Dance of the Sauks and Foxes' from the first volume of a book entitled 'The Indian Tribes of North America' by McKenney and Hall (London, 1837). Fearing the destruction of Native American culture, McKenney commissioned paintings of the most important chiefs and the lithographs in his book are based on these. Almost all of the paintings were destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian Institute, Washington in 1865, making the book a very significant record.
This shocking scene is from Goya’s series 'The Disasters of War' or, as he himself described it, ‘Fatal consequences of Spain’s bloody war with Bonaparte, and other emphatic caprices’. Rejecting romanticised depictions of heroic victories entirely, Goya instead revealed the atrocities and horrors of war. The title of this graphic image of mutilated corpses translates as ‘A heroic feat! With dead men!’
During the First World War, an air-raid on 24 September 1917 caused considerable damage to the galleries in Burlington House. Repairs were completed just in time for the preparation of the next Summer Exhibition. You can still see a small sign in the doorway leading to Gallery IX commemorating the event.
During the First World War, artists got together at the RA to produce 'Dazzle' camouflage designs. Two model ships painted in these striking zig-zagging and curving patterns are still in the Collection. Dazzle was intended to protect ships from attack by enemy submarines not by hiding them – as in traditional camouflage – but by creating optical illusion to distort their appearance and make it harder to determine their course.
At first glance, Gertrude Hermes's print 'The Warrior’s Tomb' looks like an abstract work, but closer inspection reveals that it depicts the sea viewed from above as a submarine disappears below the surface. Created during the Second World War, the faint inscription below the image reads: "And all that remained to be seen were bubbles rising and oil spreading over the surface of the sea". Two birds and the shadow of an aeroplane can also be seen reflected in the water. The inscription is, reportedly, a quotation from a bomber pilot returning from a mission in January 1940.
Thomas Hennell's watercolour shows soldiers at work on a war materials dump in Iceland during the Second World War. Hennell was sent to Iceland as an official war artist in 1943, replacing Eric Ravillious. He wrote of this posting that "the war effort is seen in a passive state and one turns for interest to local surroundings and people and being a civilian I am more naturally in touch with this". Hennell continued as a war artist in France, Belgium and Holland before travelling to the Far East with the Air Ministry. Captured by Indonesian nationalists in 1945, he is presumed to have been killed soon after.
In the early 1970s Ken Howard was commissioned to accompany British troops to Northern Ireland. He wrote, ‘It was an incredible experience... I went out on patrol: I was very much at the sharp end of it'. As a result of the commission he produced numerous 'Grafitti' paintings like this one, inspired by the murals he saw in Belfast. Howard recalls 'I was quite a student of graffiti by this time, which in Belfast had developed into an art...These walls were incredible. I used to say, if you put one in the Tate, it would have been art just as it was.’
Tim Shaw's ‘Tank on Fire’ refers to a series of photographs taken in Basra in 2003 during the Iraq War. These show a soldier leaping from an armoured vehicle that was attacked by a crowd throwing petrol bombs. Shaw writes: 'During the making of this piece, I met some of the soldiers from a tank battalion that had fought in Iraq. Listening to their experiences, one becomes acutely aware of the plight of each individual within the frame of that newspaper photograph—the anger and resentment felt by a disempowered population towards a foreign occupying force and that of the soldiers whose job it is to stay alive in such situations’.
Carel Weight's painting 'The Silence' refers to the two minute silence traditionally observed each year at 11 o'clock on 11 November to commemorate the end of the First World War. Weight said that he was drawn to this subject as he always found it 'an eerie moment ... when everything was absolutely quiet, except for a dog, or some noise that couldn't be stopped'. Weight's painting addresses the theme of human isolation and he wished it to convey his belief that although people join to perform identical rituals they are essentially solitary individuals. To emphasise this, the three figures never met and were painted separately.