Dunkirk in Art

In this post I look at the artworks of events at Dunkirk in 1940. Some would have been sketched or observed on the day, others were painted with eye-witness reports and photographs. Many were finished in a studio in the weeks and months after.

On 10 May 1940, Germany invaded France and the Low Countries, pushing the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), along with French and Belgian troops, back to the French port of Dunkirk. A huge rescue, Operation ‘Dynamo’, was organised by the Royal Navy to get the troops off the beaches and back to Britain. 

‘Dynamo’ began on 26 May. Strong defences were established around Dunkirk, and the Royal Air Force sent all available aircraft to protect the evacuation. Over 800 naval vessels of all shapes and sizes helped to transport troops across the English Channel. The last British troops were evacuated on 3 June, with French forces covering their escape. Churchill and his advisers had expected that it would be possible to rescue only 20,000 to 30,000 men, but in all 338,000 troops, a third of them French, were rescued. Ninety thousand remained to be taken prisoner and the BEF left behind the bulk of its tanks and heavy guns. All resistance in Dunkirk ended at 9.30am on 4 June.

When I saw the Richard Eurich picture below, the sea was so well painted it looked like glass. It was at an exhibition in the Queens House, Greenwich. It is a fantastic picture that viewed in a book or on the internet doesn’t comprehend. It was also used by the Navy as its Christmas card for 1940.


 Richard Eurich – Withdrawal from Dunkirk, 1940


 Charles Cundall – The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, 1940


 John Spencer-Churchill – Dunkirk from the Bray Dunes, 1940

Below is a painting by Wilkinson who to my eye is the master of painting seascapes. He has a wonderful repertoire of boats and the lighting in this painting is a marvel. Though beautiful, it also shows the hellish chaos of the day.


 Norman Wilkinson – The Little Ships at Dunkirk, 1940

The Little Ships at Dunkirk: June 1940, by Norman Wilkinson. The gently shelving beaches meant that large warships could only pick up soldiers from the town’s East Mole, a sea wall which extended into deep water, or send their boats on the beaches to collect them. To speed up the process, the British Admiralty appealed to the owners of small boats for help. These became known as the ‘little ships’.


 Newspaper with the small announcement under ‘War Artists’.

On Thursday, 7th March, 1940, three days before his 37th birthday, it was announced in the British papers that Edward Bawden and Barnett Freeman were to become Official War Artists on behalf of the British War Office.

In the first days of April, Ardizzone (Edward) and Bawden took rooms for a while in the hotel Commerce in Arras, fussed over by a shared batman. They enjoyed the local wine and hospitality, before being billeted separately. Arras was dour, small and grey, It was also the GHQ for the British Army in France.

Arras in France is just over fifty miles away on a map, from April to May the retreat to Dunkirk was rapid and not an inspiring start for a war artist. In this short time Bawden said he was passed from regiments and groups rapidly as none of them wanted the alien burden of an artist to deal with, but being on the move a lot may have prepared his sketching style ready for Dunkirk where rapid copy was needed.

On his way to Dunkirk, Bawden has rolled up his paintings in a cylindrical tin which he clutched under his arm.

Approaching the port, he ditched all his equipment except his art materials (what would the Germans have done with them?) Marching into the town, they ran the gauntlet of ragged French soldiers jeering them. It discomforted him, as did the looters sweeping like locusts through abandoned houses.


 Edward Bawden – Dunkirk: Embarkation of Wounded, May 1940


 Edward Bawden – Dunkirk – The New World, 1940


 Edward Bawden – Boys Serving Coffee, Dunkirk, 1940.

He reached the quayside in the company of a Canadian major, and they watched with dismay the frantic self-preservation of a group of British generals on the Dunkirk quayside, the swagger sticks pointing at likely boats bound for England. He turned to the major, with a wry smile. ‘Rats always go first’ he said.


 Edward Bawden – Dunkirk – Embarkation of Wounded, 1940


 Edward Bawden – The Quay at Dunkirk, 1940.

In the watercolour above, notice the fires along the jetty. The men in the foreground descending into a air-raid shelter and the bomb craters on the ground. The air raid shelter is likely to be the same one below, but in the chaos who could tell.


 Edward Bawden – The Entrance to an Air Raid Shelter, Dunkirk, 1940


 Edward Bawden – In an Air Raid Shelter, Dunkirk: Bombs are dropping, 1940

The Sketchbook War by Richard Knott, 2013 978-0752489230
Imperial War Museum – Dunkirk

Edward Bawden – War Artist

This post started looking at the difference between the Dunkirk painting and the print, but I thought it was also a good excuse to talk about the Edward Bawden ‘War Artist’ book. One of the cheaper Bawden books to buy it is full of Edward’s letters home with 38 of his war paintings.


 Edward Bawden – Dunkirk, 1986

Above is the print of the Dunkirk bombings. Below is the original painting, but there is 40 years difference between the pair.

Painted by Edward Bawden during the shelling of Dunkirk in May 1940, the watercolour shows the interior of a bar and the soldiers hiding from shots under the tables. The bar ironically is called Au Nouveau Monde, ‘In The New World’. Paintings of Dunkirk fascinate me as it was such chaos it would have taken real nerve to paint at all.


 Edward Bawden – Dunkirk, 1940

Bawden marched into Dunkirk with the retreating troops through lines of jeering French. The generals had already left by then, as Bawden noted: ‘Well, the rats go first”. Later he said: “By temperament I am a pacifist. War horrifies me, it horrified me then…. I hated the big bangs. No one knew what was happening , and I was just tossed about like a bad penny. Nobody wanted a war artist. Every day I got shoved off to a new unit.”

At Dunkirk he didn’t head for the beach and the rescue boats but to the docks where he holed up for two days making notes of chaotic smoke-filled scenes as thousands of troops tried to get away under constant strafing and shellfire. Eventually a boat came near enough to scramble aboard and he found it full of exhausted men ‘lying in heaps everywhere, some only half dressed.


 Edward Bawden – War Artist prospectus, 1986

In 1989 Bawden released a series of his war letters, edited by Ruari Mclean. Edward Bawden War Artist and His Letters Home 1940-45. The book was due to come out in 1986 in a different format, a wide landscape book, signed and limited edition published by the Hurtwood Press. But the project stalled and ended up being rekindled and published in a landscape format in 1989.

Above is the original prospectus for the 1986 book that was never produced in this format. It would have looked much like a Fleece Press book.

To accompany the 1986 book would have been two new lithographs, but these were released without the book and then used as the front and back covers of the 1989 dust jacket. The Hurtwood Press published Among the Marsh Arabs, and Dunkirk in 1986.


 Edward Bawden – Among the Marsh Arabs, 1986

Below are the front and back views of the 1989 book with the lithographs used as artworks.


 Edward Bawden – War Artist front cover, 1989


 Edward Bawden – War Artist rear cover, 1989