To Paint a War

To Paint a War follows the artists as they leave Australia in search of inspiration and fame in London and Paris. The artists formed an Australian commune in Chelsea, on the banks of the Thames. There they lived an enviable life that was cut short, abruptly, by the outbreak of war.

To Paint a War is the story of their response to the crisis.

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To Paint a War

The lives of the Australian artists who painted the Great War, 1914-1918

George Lambert Anzac, the Landing 1915 AWM




George Lambert The Sonnet NGA

In the first years of the twentieth century, the cream of Australia’s artists had congregated in London and Paris. Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, George Lambert, Thea Proctor, George and Dora Coates, Will and Ruby Dyson, and Hilda Rix Nicholas were among the artists who moved from Australia to work in London or Paris. Most of them settled in Chelsea where they lived a Bohemian life, painting by day and partying by night.

The outbreak of war shattered this lifestyle. In total war, the artists could not expect to continue painting. They had to contribute to the war effort – but how? Most were too old to enlist. Some were unfit. Few had skills that were of any conceivable military value. Many – including Streeton, Roberts and Coates – enlisted as orderlies in the Third London General Hospital, at Wandsworth.


George Coates First Australian wounded to arrive in England from Gallipoli AWM

Noble as their gesture was, the artists were poorly-suited to work as hospital orderlies. The work was arduous. The hours were long. For men who were not used to lifting anything heavier than a paint brush, service at the hospital was a burden to be endured. In the hospital, the artists soon found themselves caring for Australian soldiers wounded at Gallipoli.



Francis Derwent Woods fitting a face mask to a wounded soldier AWM

The artists contributed to the life of the hospital as best they could. Roberts worked as a dental nurse, and painted the scenery for concerts held by the recuperating soldiers. Derwent Woods and his fellow sculptors were put to work making face masks that could be worn by men with head wounds.

Hilda Rix Nicholas

Hilda Rix Nicholas A Man AWM

Having lost her mother and sister in the first years of the war, Hilda Rix was left alone in London, unable to return to Australia. There she met Major George Nicholas, a dashing Australian officer, whom she married in 7 October 1916. On 14 November 1916, he was killed in action. Does this painting, which she made in 1921, reflect her grief?

The official war art schemes

Will Dyson Coming out on the Somme AWM

Will Dyson, the cartoonist, was the first official Australian war artist. Appointed by the Government to record the lives of the diggers, he promised never to ‘draw a line to show war except as the filthy business it is.’ He made harrowing drawings of soldiers after battle.

Other artists followed, creating a fine painterly record of the war.

Buy To Paint a War

To Paint a War is available in soft cover, from Thames & Hudson, and in a limited edition of 500 copies, in hard cover and signed by the author.

To buy the soft cover, please visit Booktopia or Readings

To buy the limited edition, please click on the red button to the right.