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Room 31: Britain 1914-59

Room 31: Britain 1914-59

Room 31: Britain 1914-59

See the portraits currently on display in Room 31 here

The First World War

The First World War saw appalling losses on all sides. Human slaughter and suffering were perpetrated on an industrial scale as artillery, machine-guns, flame-throwers, gas and tanks were deployed. On the first day of the Battle of the Somme, British casualties reached 57,470. It is estimated that by the end of the conflict Britain’s war dead numbered over 740,000. The portraits displayed here represent some of those associated with the conflict.

Three of the Gallery’s most important commissions are shown in this room. In 1918, the leading financier Sir Abe Bailey proposed to pay for the creation of two life-size group portraits to commemorate the role of the army and navy during the war. General Officers of World War I by John Singer Sargent and Naval Officers of World War I by Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope were the result, and these paintings were eventually joined by a third: Statesmen of World War I by Sir James Guthrie. These imposing works were given to the nation, and have been re-united here for the first time in many years following the recent restoration of the Naval Officers.

The Interwar Years: 1920s and 1930s

The period that followed the First World War was characterised by progressive developments – socially, politically and artistically – and also by increasing uncertainty.

In 1918, women over the age of thirty were given the right to vote, and this was extended in 1928 to all women. In 1919, the aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. In 1922, the BBC began regular radio broadcasts, thus marking the onset of mass communication that would be a dominant engine for social change. In 1924, the first Labour government was formed under Ramsay MacDonald. In the arts there were important stylistic developments, and, as the portraits displayed here demonstrate, tradition and innovation co-existed.

However, during the 1930s the instability created by the First World War magnified cracks in the social order. Economic recession, strikes and mass unemployment put a brake on recovery. Aldous Huxley’s novel Brave New World (1932) presented an anxious view of the future, which seemed confirmed by subsequent events. In the same year Sir Oswald Mosley formed the British Union of Fascists. In 1936, King George V died and was succeeded by Edward VIII who, within months, abdicated. In 1939, Britain responded to German aggression in Europe by declaring war.

The Second World War and Post-war Renewal

As had been the case in 1914–18, the Second World War struck at the foundations of British society. In addition to the huge loss of human life, both military and civilian, an even darker shadow was cast by new developments. In 1945, the war against Japan was ended when atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with devastating consequences. In 1946, the trials of defeated Nazis revealed the horror of the Holocaust. With these developments, relief that the war was over was accompanied by a sense that the world had changed significantly.

The televised coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 illuminated a nation still subject to food rationing, and provided a link with Britain’s historic past. However, tradition also now seemed less relevant in a society seeking a way forward. The door was opened to new means of expression. The formation of the Arts Council in 1946 provided official support for more progressive approaches, and this led to the increasing visibility of modern art. During the 1950s, there was a growing sense of renewal as television, cinema, radio, advertising, magazines and colour printing communicated the latest developments in fashion, design, music, science and the arts.