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18 September 2014
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Art from Different Fronts of World War One

By Roger Tolson
'Shipbuilding on the Clyde' by Sir Stanley Spencer
Panel from 'Shipbuilding on the Clyde' (early 1940s) by Sir Stanley Spencer, Imperial War Museum ©
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'Welders' from 'Shipbuilding on the Clyde'
Detail showing a man welding
Detail showing shipyard worker arc welding ©
This painting is one of a series of eight panels on the theme of the Glasgow shipyards. It was painted by Stanley Spencer during World War Two, from 1940 onwards. All the works show a fascination with the components and machinery of the shipyards, and with the skill of the people manipulating them, and combine these elements into a vision of co-ordinated teamwork.

Spencer worked at Lithgows Shipyard in Port Glasgow, on the Clyde. His involvement with the scheme was immediate - 'I hardly know how to tear myself away', he wrote after his first visit - as was demonstrated by his inclusion of his self-portrait in the canvas.

In 'Welders', the second of the panels to be commissioned, the men are occupied with arc welding, using electricity rather than gas. This process was significantly less labour intensive than a job such as riveting, for example, and here each man is shown working alone. The task also required less physical strength than other jobs, allowing women to replace men recruited for the armed forces, but although Spencer made studies of women workers they were not included in the final canvas.

Detail showing two welders working together
Detail highlighting teamwork of the workforce ©
Spencer’s shipyard has no hint of conflict, the labour force exudes contentment and satisfaction. In fact one could ask, in what sense is this a war painting at all?

Spencer describes an egalitarian working environment (his workers are fictitiously dressed in identical Harris tweed), built around technology but driven by co-operation and co-ordination that seems to be challenging the social order. Foremen are excluded all together. This was a pattern repeated in the political changes that emerged during the war, expressed in the Labour’s landslide victory in the 1945 election, and is perhaps expressed in this work showing the artist's vision of a new society.

Shipping lifeline
Spencer's record of the building of merchant shipping was made for the Ministry of Information. The industry was suffering terrible losses at the time (four million tons of shipping was lost during the war), and the supply of essential materials from America to Britain was severely threatened. The commission was to support the efforts made by the factories and workers who were building replacement ships.
The artist
Stanley Spencer lived from 1891 to 1959. His reputation was established in the 1920s with his paintings of the village of Cookham, in Berkshire, and the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burghclere, but he was in severe financial difficulties at the start of World War Two, and his domestic arrangements were complicated. The commission was suggested by his dealer, and readily taken on by the War Artists Advisory Committee.

In Port Glasgow, Spencer found a community that accepted him in a way that he compared to his experience in his home community in Cookham - although his personal circumstances had led him to become partially estranged from there by the time of the Glasgow commission. The vision he brought to the ship-building series was correspondingly large.

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