Art's war and peace

IAN COLLINS East Anglia was a key field of war 60 and more years ago and now a portrait of conflict in the countryside is painted in a new Ipswich exhibition.

IAN COLLINS

When completing his opera Peter Grimes, close to the Suffolk coast at Snape, Benjamin Britten found it hard to work for all the din of war.

"The aeroplanes are bloody, bloody all the time," he wrote to his partner Peter Pears in 1944.

And indeed, the drone and whine and roar from scores of aerodromes scattered across East Anglia - not to mention the dogfights and the bombing raids - shattered many rural idylls 60 and more years ago.

I now have a hint of how 1940s folk must have felt because at a War Fields exhibition in Ipswich, my concentration kept being broken by kids playing noisily in a model pillbox, tapping on morse-code machines and yelling on field telephones.

Churchill may have preferred jaw-jaw to war-war, but sometimes the two can blur and blare together…

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Still, the pictures in this Imperial War Museum loan display tell a very stirring (and poignant and terrible) story.

One tour de force by Sir Thomas Monnington shows a Spitfire squadron diving into a pastoral landscape - and terrifying a horse into bolting with its cart into a river. Surely a deliberate contrast to Constable's Haywain.

Another presents a Tempest targeting flying-bombs above a Kent oast house. Again a horse is rearing in a potent symbol of conflict over the countryside.

This small but perfectly-formed survey follows two movements for artists during the last war - one being the Pilgrim Trust Recording Britain series, which aimed to record precious scenes in danger of being lost.

The second was the War Artists Advisory Committee, a revival of a first world war scheme instigated by National Gallery director Sir Kenneth Clark.

He chaired a committee with a brief 'to draw up lists of artists qualified to record the war at home and abroad, to advise on the selection of artists on this list for war purposes and on the arrangement for their employment.'

Clearly there was a propaganda purpose to this project - exhibitions would be organised in the UK and US, the former to raise morale and the latter to urge an old ally to come to our rescue.

But an unspoken aim was to save another generation of artists from slaughter.

The protection afforded by Official War Artist status was only relative, of course, and at least three painters would die while recording the raging struggle. Eric Ravilious and Thomas Hennell (the latter represented here) were huge losses to East Anglia.War Fields covers the epic conflict as it affected rural areas. Land girls are seen learning to milk, preparing flax, threshing and carting oats and lunching in harvest fields, while evacuees grow cabbages, Italian prisoners of war lift potatoes and country women dry herbs.

East Anglia's Kenneth Rowntree - a conscientious objector - shows us what happened to A Polo Ground in War-Time. A fine country house looks out over Dig for Victory furrows.

Stalwart members of the Women's Voluntary Service are depicted staffing canteens and rolling miles of bandages.

Michael Ford's War Weapons Week in a Country Town, from 1941, looks at the annual focus for fund-raising efforts, with Guide, Scout, police, air-raid warden and home-guard units all drilling in the market square as a local dignitary rallies a patriotic crowd.

Michael Rothenstein's Road Blocks to the Entrance of a Village, another work from 1941, shows a typical terrace street bizarrely barricaded with a concrete bomb shelter, bollards and reels of wire.

More surreal still is John Piper's Shelter Experiments near Woburn, 1943-4. In a blasted wasteland, with a bomb-crater lake in the foreground and a gaunt church in the distance, various defensive structures are arrayed like a ring of abstract sculptures or an ancient stone circle.

But the most affecting images in this show were sketched on Dunwich Common in April 1943 when what many of us rate among the loveliest landscapes in England was ablaze with Exercise Kruschen.

Edward Bawden - whose duties as an Official War Artist would later leave him torpedoed off the African coast and adrift in a lifeboat for days - created matter-of-fact ink and watercolour images with prosaic titles: Projector Infantry Anti-Tank Gun, Two and Three Inch Mortar Smoke Bombs, Man-Pack Flame Thrower, Ronson Flame Throwers, Churchill Tanks, Tank Fascines.

And then he put these components together in a five-sheet battlefield panorama that even now takes the breath away.

Ranged across the heath and through the pine trees are a dozen tanks, 150 soldiers and a dog. A red sun top left is reflected far away in an explosive encounter top right. Close to the engagement, men wander through a smoking field as if burning stubble.

All this in our beloved East Anglia. Even a mock battle can shock.

t War Fields is at the Wolsey Art Gallery, Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, until October 10. A related exhibition in The Room Upstairs follows the contribution of veteran East Anglian artist Colin Moss to camouflage. Open Tues-Sat 10-5, Sun 2.30-4.30. Admission free. Telephone 01473 433554 or email christchurch.mansion@ipswich.gov.uk for details.

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