Art, Propaganda and Aerial Warfare in Britain during the Second World War

The Social History Society is delighted to report that Rebecca Searle has published Art, Propaganda and Aerial Warfare in Britain during the Second World War as part of our New Directions in Social History book series.

The series is edited by Sasha Handley, Rohan McWilliam and Lucy Noakes and provides new perspectives on a range of historical events and issues. It is published in collaboration with Bloomsbury.

Art, Propaganda and Aerial Warfare book explores the collection of art created by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, which was responsible for some of the most iconic images of the Second World War. Historians have long appreciated the aesthetic qualities of this art, but have tended to use it for purely illustrative purposes. Rebecca’s book places the collection in the broader cultural landscape of wartime Britain, exploring the different ways in which war art can deepen our understandings of the conflict.

Rebecca told us that this wasn’t a straightforward task because the WAAC had seemingly contradictory objectives:

On the one hand, it wanted war artists to document the experience of living through war, arguing that art could ‘pickle for posterity’ in a way that photographs and film could not. On the other hand, the WAAC received funding through the Ministry of Information and there was an expectation that its output should function as propaganda, actively shaping the experiences the artists sought to document!

Rather than shy away from this contradiction, Rebecca’s book explores how artists navigated it, focusing on the way they represented different facets of aerial warfare (including aircraft production, Fighter Command, the Blitz and the bombing of Germany).

The book’s key argument is that while propaganda and experience appear antithetical, they were mutually constitutive during the Second World War. As Rebecca explained:

If propaganda was to be successful it had to strike a chord with the tenor of experience, but if it was successful, it provided an interpretative framework through which people could makes sense of and give meaning to their experiences.  So the wider question the book addresses is how we as historians understand this point of interchange between the social and the cultural.

Lucy Noakes told us that the book was commissioned precisely because it brought art into dialogue with the social and cultural histories of the war, providing a fresh perspective on one of the most studied periods of modern British history. She explained that:

Official war art is an often-overlooked aspect of the Second World War in Britain, but was considered to be enormously important at the time, with artists working to represent experiences that were often absent from or marginalised within, other forms of wartime propaganda … We are sure that the book will be of interest to social and cultural historians who teach the histories of war, the histories of subjectivity and experience, and the histories of art.

The editors welcome expressions of interest for other monographs and edited collections that explore these themes and issues. Bloomsbury have also kindly provided a preview of the first chapter of Art, Propaganda and Aerial Warfare in Britain during the Second World War, which you can access by clicking this link.