Incredible places: First World War

  • 27 June 2014

Each month we're asking you to share your favourite incredible places based around a topical theme. To mark the centenary of the start of the First World War in July, we want to know which exhibitions, galleries and artworks you think are best for remembrance.

To get you started, take a look at some of our suggestions. Remember, incredible places could include anywhere from a museum, gallery or historic house, to an amazing exhibition or a work of art that transports you. Find out more about incredible places.

1. The museum

National Museum of the Flight, Haddington. Free entry with National Art Pass

Following the outbreak of the First World War, the Admiralty was tasked with establishing a string of home defence airfields along the south eastern seaboard of the UK, from Edinburgh to the south coast of England. In September 1915 the Director of Naval Air Services gave approval for an air station to be opened at East Fortune – now the site of this museum. Today, it houses personal testimonies, photographs and film and other unique artefacts that tell the story of service at the base. Also on display: the wings of an East Fortune Sopwith Cuckoo and the original painted gate from the Royal Naval Air Station. 

2. The gallery

Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham. Free entry with National Art Pass

Opened in 1962 – three years after Spencer's death – the gallery stands as a lasting memorial to the life and work of the Cookham-based painter. Spencer's life changed irrevocably with the outbreak of the First World War; signing up to serve in the Royal Army Medical Corps, he was posted to Bristol and then Macedonia, before transferring to fight on the front line in 1917. He also worked as an official war artist. When he returned to Cookham he said he had lost that 'early morning feeling' and his struggle to make sense of his experience haunts his later work. The collection contains examples of his paintings, portraits and drawings, as well as letters and other personal items.

3. The historic house

The Royal Pavilion, Brighton. Free entry with National Art Pass

The spectacular 'pleasure palace' of George IV was transformed into a military hospital for Indian Corps soldiers during First World War and by 1916, over 4,000 men had been treated there. The pavilion hospital received unprecedented media attention, and the building and its patients were photographed extensively. These images were sold locally in the form of postcards – 120,000 just in Brighton – while a selection were also published in a commemorative book that was distributed in India. It was an international presence the pavilion had not enjoyed since the Regency period. Many of the photographs are now part of the pavilion collection.

4. The exhibition

Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War, Imperial War Museum, London. 50% off with National Art Pass

To celebrate its reopening in July, IWM London is hosting the largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years. It is divided into two sections: truth, which explores how art was used as a means by which to document the experiences of war, and memory, focusing on its role in commemoration. On display are key examples from artists who were directly involved in the war effort, such as Paul Nash and CRW Nevinson, as well as paintings commissioned in remembrance, such as John Singer Sargent’s Gassed and Wyndham Lewis’s A Battery Shelled.

5. The artwork

Paul Nash, A Shell Bursting, Passchendaele, 1918. Art Funded in 1991

Paul Nash first visited Ypres Salient as a soldier in early March 1917 and spoke of how spring had brought new life to the area. In a letter to his wife he described how 'flowers bloom everywhere'. His time in Belgium was cut short however, after he fell into a trench and broke a rib, and was sent home to recover in England. When he was discharged from hospital three months later, Nash decide to return to Ypres – this time as an Official War Artist – but was horrified by what greeted him. The battle of Passchendaele had begun back in June, and was one of the most gruesome battles of the entire war. Strategy was confused and conditions nightmarish; the British had exploded huge underground mines and the shelling had churned up the soil and smashed the drainage systems. In addition, heavy rains had produced thick mud, which stuck to the soldiers' uniforms and clogged their rifles. Eventually men and horses had begun to drown. Passchendaele was the focus of many of Nash’s drawings of this time. In this work, we see an artillery shell bursting violently behind the remnants of a building. The foreground is a mess of tree stumps, heavily damaged walls and rubble, while the sky is full of the smoke of shellfire.

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