Picturing Conflict: the Arts of War
The Statesmen of World War One by James Guthrie (1859-1930)

Statesmen of World War I 
by Sir James Guthrie,
oil on canvas, 1924-1930,
NPG 4527
© National Portrait Gallery, London

ENQUIRIES: 

  • Why do we remember some of the people in the paintings – Churchill, Lloyd George, Kitchener and Haig for example – and not others? What does that tell us about our view of history and of the First World War?

  • If most of these men were never actually in the same room as each other and two of them – including Kitchener – were already dead, how useful is the painting as evidence of the ‘men who won the war'?

  • Are these the ‘men who won the war’ or ‘the men who won the peace?’ Is there a difference? And does it matter? How could this painting be seen as official post war propaganda?

Who were the leaders of war and peace, and how should they be remembered?

It took the artist, James Guthrie, eleven years to complete this huge painting (nearly 4m high) that he finished only a few months before his death. 

It's one of three connected paintings that commemorate the role of the British Army, Navy and politicians in bringing the First World War to a close. All three paintings were given to the National Portrait Gallery.

Seventeen men are grouped closely around a table in a grand and formal room. These are the politicians who led Britain and her Empire through the war years, to the signing of the Peace Treaty at Versailles in 1919. 

Notice the statue in the centre, lit by a shaft of light. The inclusion of Nike –  the Winged Goddess of  Victory - helps convey the idea that these men, the political representatives of many countries, had between them successfully brought this world conflict to an end.

Here, they also represent the thousands of serving men from the vast British Empire, which then covered a quarter of the globe: soldiers, sailors and airmen from the Dominions and countries of the Commonwealth. On the left is Ganga Singh, Maharaja of Bikaner Bikaner, representing  the 1.5 million members of the Indian army who fought overseas.

Most of these politicians were never actually in the same room as each other. Two  – including Field Marshall Kitchener – were already dead by the time this was painted.  

We might only recognise a few names or faces today: Winston Churchill perhaps, or war Prime Ministers Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George. But they would have often featured in the newspapers and illustrated magazines of the time. Kitchener's face – made famous through a recruiting poster of 1914 –  is still widely reproduced today.

This elevated and formal portrait might seem very detached from the images of mud and suffering in the trenches we have come to associate with the First World War – but many of these men had sons and other family members who had fought and died in the conflict. 

We may not see evidence here of their private experiences or feelings, but no one's life was untouched by this war, which consumed the whole globe.  Fighting took place not just in France and Belgium, but in Poland and Russia, in the Balkans, Italy, Africa, China, the Near and Middle East and the South Pacific.

By the time the Peace Treaty was signed, over sixteen million people had died, and many millions more were wounded.  

FOLLOW UP ACTIVITIES:

  • Investigate the stories behind the commissioning of this portrait and its two companions here and here. Which painting do you prefer and why? How are the paintings linked to each other?

  • Why are there no women in any of these paintings, especially given the important part women played in winning the war? Which women would you have included in the paintings? Why?

  • Can you find out all of the countries that were involved in the war? Which are represented in the paintings, and which are not? Can you explain why?

EXPLORE RELATED OBJECTS:

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Statesmen of World War I

by Sir James Guthrie
oil on canvas, 1924-1930
NPG 2463…

General Officers of World War I

by John Singer Sargent
oil on canvas, 1922
NPG 1954…

Council of Four, Paris Peace Conference

by Topical Press
vintage print, January 1919
NPG x137234…

Ganga Singh, Maharaja of Bikaner

by Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen
oil on canvas, 1919
NPG 4188…

Black Watch and Indians hold advanced section of line near Facquissart Fort guarding Callais

Realistic Travels Publishers, London
© National Museums Northern Ireland

Horatio Herbert Kitchener, 1st Earl Kitchener of Khartoum

by and after Alexander Bassano
bromide print, circa 1902 (1885-1895)
NPG Ax136825…

Winston Churchill

by Sir William Newenham Montague Orpen
oil on canvas, 1916
NPG L250…

David Lloyd George, 1st Earl Lloyd-George

by (Mary) Olive Edis (Mrs Galsworthy)
platinum print on photographer's card mount, 1917
NPG x12475…

Naval Officers of World War I

by Sir Arthur Stockdale Cope
oil on canvas, 1921
NPG 1913…

Tank in Palestine

© The Rifles Berkshire and Wiltshire Museum

Conflict


Contemporary response: Watch the film by Victoria Lucas (9:10)

Lantern slide

British soldiers walking through mud in a trench on the western front
© National Museums Northern Ireland

Stereoscope photograph

A view of signallers keeping lookout on the eve of the Somme push
(Realistic Travels Publishers, London )
©…

Herbert Henry Asquith, 1st Earl of Oxford and Asquith

by Sir James Guthrie
oil on canvas, circa 1924-1930
NPG 3544…