David Rowlands – The Artist who captures what the camera cannot interpret

David Rowlands belongs to a select group of artists, those that portray war, not from the comfort of their studios but from the actual war zone.

David Rowlands

He has won many commissions from the British Army and there are few war zones involving the British Army he has not covered since his first commission in 1985, when he was chosen by the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers to paint a scene in South Armagh, Northern Ireland, during “the Troubles”.

Before that he had received several commissions to paint famous battles: The Royal Fusiliers also asked David to paint the battle of Mons, which took place early in World War I. Since his first commission David has won accolades for his in-depth research, his interviews with veterans or other experts to get every detail right in uniforms, equipment and the landscape, often travelling to the actual battlefields.

It really started at school. ‘ I drew sketches of famous battles, especially from the Napoleonic Wars, in my exercise books and knew early on what I wanted to do,’ says David in his studio in Bristol. After having left university David joined the staff of the Reading Room at the National Army Museum. He began working as a fulltime professional artist in 1977.

06-011-DAVID ROWLANDS-019Artists have depicted the horrors of war, since time began. Yet, it is only in the last hundred years that war artists have been invited by regiments or the government to depict the war or famous battles. During the First World War it was part of the propaganda battle; the role of the appointed war artists was to inspire those at home of the valiant fight of the soldiers on the front. The first to be commissioned was Muirhead Bone, who left for France in May 1916. Others followed soon after. Among those were the famous artist Paul Nash, one of the artists featured in the present exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. He later complained about the interference from the government. ‘I am an artist who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on.’

00054In the Second World War things changed and Kenneth Clark, the then Director of the National Gallery saw it as the remit of the official war artists to record ‘what the camera cannot interpret.’ That is just what David Rowlands does. “I’ve been out with the foot patrols, in uniform, in many theatres of war and this is vital in order to feel first hand the atmosphere and tension I want to capture of these events.’ In 1991 David was the only professional artist who was in the theatre of war in the Gulf at the invitation of the British Army. Since then he has worked in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and now also Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan he was stationed in Camp Bastion, where he accompanied frontline soldiers in Chinook helicopters to different battle zones in the Helmand valley. Wherever David went he was taking endless photographs and making quick sketches, which were later used for preliminary drawings before he took to his paint. By now David has produced more than 200 oil paintings and many of his paintings can be seen in regimental messes. A couple of paintings are also in the Royal Collection.

Clear the way. RE widening Route TRIANGLE.

Clear the way. RE widening Route TRIANGLE.

The Queen first sat for David in 1987, a commission from one of the Highland regiments. Some more portraits of the Royal Family have followed. And in 2002 one of his paintings was given to the Queen, in his presence, on the occasion of her Golden Jubilee.

David is not only a painter, he also has had his war diary from Bosnia dramatised for BBC Radio 4 under the title A Desolate Bravery. Few outsiders have seen war at such close quarters and in so many places as David Rowlands. As part of the InSight Lecture Series David will talk about his own career in the context of war artists’ practice over the last 300 years. ‘I am looking forward to my visit to Dulwich and to see the exhibition A Crisis of Brilliance, which features the most famous artists of the First World War era like Paul Nash and David Bomberg’.

An InSight Lecture Series of three

Series of three £25,£20 Friends
Single Lecture £10, £8 Friends
Coffee afterwards
10.30 –11.30 Linbury Room
Dulwich Picture Gallery

Rex Whistler, Artist and Tank Commander
Wednesday 5 June
Jenny Spencer-Smith, Collections Content Manager,
National Army Museum

David Rowlands – a contemporary war artist
Wednesday 19 June

Goya and War
Wednesday 3 July
Xavier Bray, Chief Curator, Dulwich Picture Gallery

A Crisis of Brilliance 1908 – 1922
Nash, Nevinson,Spencer, Gertler, Carrington Bomberg
Exhibition 12 June – 22 September

Booking details

Online: dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk
Phone: 020 8299 8750 Mon – Fri 10am- 4pm
In person: Friends Desk in the Gallery
Booking enquiries: friendsticketing@dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk

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