Sir Muirhead Bone: a great recorder of war

Tanks drawing by Muirhead BoneLucy Harris, of the Imperial War Museum, considers the role of the first official war artist, and the significance of the work ‘Tanks’.

Muirhead Bone, the fourth of eight children, was born in 1876 in Partick, a western suburb of Glasgow. Bone’s artistic talents were encouraged by his family and he became an apprentice to an architect at the age of 14, while studying at the Glasgow School of Art in the evenings.

In 1902, Bone settled in London and became a founding member of the New English Art Club. He became internationally renowned after his work was shown in the Franco-British Exhibition of 1908, and in 1910 in Thieme and Becker’s Künstler Edition in Germany (Bone, 1966).

The first official war artist

In 1916, A P Watt, a literary agent who worked for the propaganda agency at Wellington House, bought a blank canvas to be worked on by Bone to make a drawing of Winchester College. Due to the Military Service Act (Gazette issue 29454), however, Bone informed Watt that he was soon to be called up (Bone, 2009: 87). Watt therefore suggested to Charles Masterman, director of Wellington House, that Bone’s talents be put to better use in making him the first official war artist (Malvern, 2004:13-14) (Gazette issue 29735).

The question of truth

Wellington House decided to initiate the War Artists programme, focusing on illustrated propaganda, because of the minimal variety of photographic work available.

The public had become bored with photography, with its ‘endless shots of soldiers going over the top or sitting in trenches’ (Cumming,1978: 468). In order to convince the public, those from the neutral territories – and even the enemy – that the propaganda that Wellington House produced was authentic, it was decided that the illustrated propaganda should be made by artists in the field of war (Gough, 2010: 43-44).

Bone did not have carte blanche from Wellington House when he sent off to France; he was steered towards certain subjects. In a letter from EA Gowers of Wellington House, Bone is asked to ‘to make drawings of appropriate war scenes’ (IWM, G4010/27, p2). Later, after Bone had completed his pictures of the Somme, he returned to the Front, where general headquarters suggested that the pictures of the Somme battlefields were ‘a little stale’ and that Bone should concentrate on ‘the area to the east of the old British Front’. 

Bone’s pictures were published by Country Life, a respectable publisher, in a collection called The Western Front, 12,000 copies of which were to be used for propaganda.

The subject of realism in Bone’s drawings has generated much debate. When Bone’s pictures were shown to the public in 1917, they received mixed reviews, and were criticised by Wilfred Owen for being unrealistic, ‘Those “Somme Pictures” are the laughing stock of the army’ (Owen and Bell, 1967: 429).

The famous art critic, Frank Rutter, however, praised Bone’s accuracy in depicting subjects of war (Rutter, 1916: 174). Bone’s war work was shown in 1917 in an exhibition at Colnaghi’s Gallery, though this was not successful. Despite this one exhibition failure, there was moderate demand for the issues of the Western Front, and Bone’s popularity did increase in World War 1, encouraging Wellington House to hire more official war artists (Rutter, 1916: 174).

Style of working

Bone’s most acclaimed drawings were those of the Battle of the Somme and Tanks. His drawing of a tank was the first made of this newly acquired piece of machinery, therefore it is of significant historical importance (Harries,1983:10). Even Bone himself understood the significance of his sketch:

‘The Tanks drawing. This is drawn from the actual tanks and is the only drawing existing as far as I know. It is therefore urgent to get it well reproduced and at once. It would certainly make the first number of the “Western Front” “go” like anything to have the Tanks in it and it seems a great pity to bring out a book of drawings of the front with not Tanks in it, a week or so after it has been in all the illustrated papers.’ (IWM 428/9, part 1)

Bone’s artistic skill and style of working have accorded him a reputation for being a great recorder of war (Burlington Magazine,1954). Bone drew in a hand-held sketch book, using elastic bands to secure torn out pages, enabling him to complete a drawing on the spot (Bone, 1966). This ability enabled him to produce an image in one sitting, thus reducing the need for further embellishments from memory in a studio. Bone chose not to use the technique of premeditated composition, which is usually integral to an artist’s work (Home, 1918: editorial note); instead, his pictures are like snapshots, with nothing fabricated. 

In comparison with other contemporary artists, Bone became relatively wealthy during the war, and in the years that followed. He was well respected by art appreciators in Britain and abroad and was instrumental in the founding of the Imperial War Museum’s art collection (Bone, 2009: 109).

Bone was very influential in helping to promote the modernist artists that we associate so much with WW1. For example, in a letter to Paul Nash, Bone stresses what pleasure he had in viewing Nash’s show, and he even seems to perhaps be a mentor to Nash, giving him advice on his work, ‘I think you have a big journey to make ahead of you yet, you are expanding steadily and it seems to me your latest things are the best’ (TGA, 8313/1/2/18).

Bone received a knighthood in 1937 for services to art (Gazette issue 34408).

About the author

Lucy Harris is a learning officer at the Imperial War Museum. She gained a Masters in War and Society at the University of Exeter and has eight years' experience of working in museums and arts organisations, working primarily in informal and formal museum learning.

Primary sources:

Author unknown. Article title unknown, December 1954, Burlington Magazine, Durant’s Press

Imperial War Museum, Department of Art, ‘Bone, Muirhead, clippings’

Bone M. ‘Introduction’, Exhibition catalogue for Imperial War Museum exhibition celebrating 50th anniversary of Sir Muirhead Bone’s appointment as Official War Artist, London, 1966, Imperial War Museum, Department of Art, ‘Artists Catalogues-Bone’

Cumming R. ‘Recorder of a World at War, Sir Muirhead Bone (1876-1953)’, 23 February, 1978, Country Life, Imperial War Museum, Department of Art, ‘ Bone, Muirhead, clippings’, p 468

Home C. The War Depicted by Distinguished British Artists, London, 1918, editorial note

Letter from Muirhead Bone to Mr Gowers, 18 July, 1916, Imperial War Museum, First World War Artists Archive, ‘Artists at the Front. Muirhead Bone’, 1916-1917, G4010/27

Letter from Muirhead Bone to Mr Masterman, 24 November 1916, Imperial War Museum, First World War Artists Archive, ‘The Western Front, English and General’, 18 September 1916-18 November 1955, 427/9

Letter from [Sir David] Muirhead Bone to Paul Nash, 31 May, year unknown, Hyman Kreitman Research Centre, the Tate Archive, ‘Nash, Paul’, c.1911-1930, TGA 83134/1/2/18

Rutter F. ‘The Influence of War on Art’, The Great War, 12: CCLXII, 1916, pp 161-180

Secondary sources:

Bone S. Muirhead Bone, Artist and Patron, London, 2009

Freeman J. British Art, A Walk Round the Rusty Pier, London, 2006

Gough P A. Terrible Beauty, British Artists in the First World War, Bristol, 2010

Harries M and S. The War Artists, British Official War Art of the Twentieth Century, London, 1983

Malvern S. Modern Art, Britain and the Great War, Witnessing, Testimony and Remembrance, New Haven, 2004

Malvern S. ‘"War as it is": The Art of Muirhead Bone, CRW Nevinson and Paul Nash 1916-1917’, Art History, 9:4, December 1986, pp 487-515

Owen H and Bell J (eds). Wilfred Owen, Collected Letters, London, 1967

Image: Tanks, Muirhead Bone