MAFA during the First World War

Throughout the First World War, MAFA artists captured the conflict through their artwork. They also raised funds for the war effort and organised exhibitions to lift the mood of the Manchester people.

Outbreak of War

Before the outbreak of the First World War, MAFA artists were increasingly travelling to France, Germany, Italy and Greece to find inspiration from the continent. Until late July 1914, Britain was largely preoccupied with domestic issues. Social, industrial and political unrest and the threat of civil war in Ireland received most of the nation’s attention. However in August 1914 Germany invaded Belgium and all eyes turned to Europe.

Britain issued an ultimatum demanding Germany withdraw its troops, the deadline passed without a reply and Britain declared war. All this happened relatively quickly and MAFA artists, Elias and Louisa Bancroft, found themselves trapped in Germany.

‘They were painting, as they had for several years, in Rothenburg and had not bothered to take passports. The Burgermeister gave them papers of safe passage stating they were artists not spies, and they began a hair-raising journey home amid hundreds of troops, field guns, Italian refugees and ordinary, slightly bewildered Germans returning from their holidays. These people proved friendly and helpful when jittery officials wanted to arrest the Bancrofts. They eventually arrived at Folkestone in a state of exhaustion.’

Extract from The Story So Far: The Manchester Academy of Fine Arts from 1859 to 2003 by Sheila Dewsbury.

Image of painting: Rothenburg ob der Tauber (Bavaria, Germany) by Elias Bancroft, 1903.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber (Bavaria, Germany) by Elias Bancroft, 1903.

The War Effort

MAFA efforts to raise funds for the war effort were led by Eleanor Wood who set up a War Fund Art Union Lottery at Manchester City Art Gallery. Art unions were organisations created to function as patrons of art. Members would pay a small annual subscription. The union would spend the subscriptions on works of contemporary art, which were distributed among its members by means of a lottery. Manchester’s War Fund Art Union Lottery sold over 48,000 tickets which raised £1,760, the equivalent of over £200,000 pounds today.

Many MAFA members were actively involved with the war. Some became soldiers and nurses whilst older members joined the Territorial Army. By 1915 there was a realisation that the war would not be over quickly as many people had originally thought. The Manchester Guardian wrote, ‘The old world came to an end sometime in 1914 and the new world has done nothing yet for art except shatter it.’

Photo taken in 1914, World War 1. Church wrecked by German shells.
Image credit: British Library on Unsplashed

MAFA’s annual exhibitions continued throughout the war, though by 1917 organising them was a challenge. The Manchester City news reported ‘the difficulties of getting together even the nucleus of an exhibition was overwhelming’ but ‘it would have been a calamity if the continuity of the Spring exhibitions had been broken.’

Many MAFA artists lived outside of Manchester where the exhibitions were held. The railways were the best way of moving artwork. However paintings and sculptures were not a priority when munitions, food and the transportation of troops were necessary to support the war effort. Many of the members were also focused on war work and had not been able to produce much new art. This meant that exhibitions were created from work that had been previously exhibited and artwork from past as well as current members. The 1917 Spring exhibition was held as usual through a period of ‘intense cold and dark’.

Official War Artists

During the First World War, several MAFA members were appointed as official war artists. Amongst them was Francis Dodd who served on the Western Front. He produced more than 30 portraits of senior military figures, some of which are housed at the Imperial War Museum. Many of his images were used in newspapers as part of British propaganda in USA. One of his most powerful sketches entitled The Interrogation of a German Soldier was created on a crumpled scrap of paper. He also captured life on board minesweepers and submarines. From this experience he gained a lasting respect for the men serving on these vessels. Francis Dodd later became the President of MAFA, you can see more about his career here.

Thomas Dugdale served as a Staff Sergeant in the Middlesex Yeomanry in Egypt, Palestine and Gallipoli. Whilst on active service he continued to paint and captured the conflict in the Sinai Desert, the Balkans, Palestine and Syria. Many of his sketches are in the collection of the Imperial War Museum.

Image of painting: Military Policemen in Palestine by Thomas Dugdale
Military Policemen in Palestine by Thomas Dugdale

Dugdale latter went on to organise a Home Guard unit and paint portraits of merchant seaman and RAF pilots commissioned by the War Artists’ Advisory Committee in the Second World War.

The Treaty of Versaille

At the end of the First World War Manchester-born artist Sheridan Knowles was commissioned by the French government to paint the peace conference at Versailles. Sir William Orpen, a future honorary member of MAFA also painted the The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28th June 1919. Visit the BBC Art in the Frontline webpage for more information.

In monetary terms, Orpen’s painting was the most important British art commission of the war (costing £3,000, compared to the £300 that ‘Gassed’ by John Singer Sargent had cost) and was to record the roles of the politicians, diplomats and military during the peace negotiations at the end of World War One. The work depicts the moment of resolution, when the leading Allied politicians demonstrate their determination and unity, as well their political power, as the treaty is signed. The setting is the dazzling Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, built by Louis XIV at vast expense, as a demonstration of his own political power.

Art for All

In 1918 changes were made to open up access to MAFA exhibitions to everyone. After the first week, the Annual exhibition was free to visit and visitor numbers soared from just over 2,000 to 23,000 by 1920.

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