Over the centuries, soldiers and Prisoners of War (PoWs) have created personal and expressive art on the walls of places where they lived or served.
These murals, cartoons and graffiti were often subversive, humorous, risque, nostalgic, or decorative. Military authorities tolerated some in the interests of morale, while others were officially sanctioned.
These fragile images are often in abandoned or semi-derelict buildings on former airfields and other military sites, subject to erosion and decay. Many have been lost. However, some examples have been preserved and fully documented, and a handful have been removed for display in museums and other sites.
Such art offers important visual traces of the past, unlocking clues to the original use of buildings and intimate insights into military lives, longings, and preoccupations in wartime Britain.
Military war art
Robert Hofton served with No. 19 Squadron RAF and was asked to decorate a barn on the site for a Christmas party in 1940. He did so using aviation fuel and airfield paint. In 1993, over 50 years later, he returned to repaint it.
Wartime shortages inspired ingenious improvisation with whatever substances came to hand.
Materials included carbon from lighter wicks, boot polish, candles and pigments made from vegetables, along with the more traditional coloured pencils, inks, chalk, and wax crayons.
During the Second World War, the United States Army Air Forces (USAAF) were stationed at many aerodromes in East Anglia.
American war art was more prolific than British, often brash, colourful and irreverent. It included decorating the noses of aircraft, often with cartoon characters and skimpily-clad women.
The original buildings at RAF Bottisham housed seven enormous USAAF murals. After the war, the airfield was returned to agricultural use. The buildings deteriorated and were threatened with demolition. An emergency salvage group, the Eighth Wall Art Conservation Society, was formed and cut the murals, including one of the liner Queen Mary and the Empire State building, out of the walls and found new homes for them, including in America.
The ‘Blue Yonder’ mural went to the 100th Bomb Group Memorial Museum, Norfolk, but has now been returned home to Bottisham Airfield Museum, where original airfield buildings are being restored.
Most war art is found in the communal areas of camps and military bases where military personnel relaxed, including canteens, or buildings used for dances or other social functions.
After standing empty for decades, RAF Shipdham’s Officers’ Mess and several rooms were converted into private accommodation. Murals, including the one pictured below, are still in their original places on the walls where they had been painted but are now within a domestic setting.
Wartime graffiti was recently found at Shresbury Flaxmill Maltings, the site of the world’s first iron-framed building, which was used as a Light Infantry Barracks during the Second World War. Its residents named it the ‘Rat Hotel’.
Pingley camp was mainly used to house Italian Prisoners of War (PoWs), many of them captured in the North African campaign and brought to Britain as agricultural labourers. Italian PoWs often painted gentle romanticised pictures of women, as well as religious subjects.
Harperley Camp in County Durham is a Scheduled Monument and a rare surviving example of a purpose-built PoW Camp. It was occupied first by Italian PoWs and then captured German personnel after D-Day.
Civilian war art
Sayers Croft in Ewhurst, Surrey was a camp for boys evacuated from Catford in London. The dining hall and kitchen complex are Grade II listed and the two murals within the dining room were painted by boys from the senior art class in 1942. They creatively recorded aspects of their wartime life at the camp in different seasons.
The huge chambers and tunnels of the former Bath Stone quarry, stretching nearly 100 kilometres, were adapted for use as a secret wartime subterranean aircraft factory: the Bristol Aeroplane Company (BAC).
The owner of BAC commissioned Chilean-born artist Olga Lehmann to paint wall murals, mainly in the canteens, to brighten the surroundings for the 10,000 underground shift workers. Lehmann painted the 32 murals, showing classic British pastimes and rituals, using oil paint and solvents.
Written by Nicky Hughes