This autumn, a special exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow – arguably the city’s grandest museum – focuses on the real-life experiences of soldiers in the trenches of World War 1. It has been 100 years since this horrible war that held the whole world in its grips, came to an end, but the exhibition is more than a memorial to this significant moment in history. Brushes with War allows us to look beyond the written facts of history books, and get a glimpse of what the war was like for those who lived and fought through it. Here is everything you need to know about the special exhibition and other World War 1 displays at Kelvingrove Museum.

This post is sponsored by Glasgow Museums. All opinions are my own.

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Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.

I have to admit, that I never really thought much about World War 1. In high school, we focussed a lot on medieval history and the time around the French Revolution. Learning and talking about World War 2 and its consequences took up a lot of time too. Of course, we heard about World War 1, but it was centred around which nations were involved on which side, why they got involved, what triggered the war and what the consequences were. We also learnt how the outcome of this war fostered the kind of environment that brought about the next big war. We did not go into great detail, however, in terms of how people actually experienced the war or what the political implications were beyond our own limited, national context. Somehow in school, it was very easy to focus on memorising dates, names and specific battles, but just as easy to forget about the role these things played in the grand scheme of things.

Yet, in recent years I engaged a lot more with the history of World War 1. Conversations with a friend who graduated from a War Studies programme at Glasgow Uni made me realise quite how remarkable World War 1  was in terms of the development of new battle strategies and modern weaponry. Not that either is particularly pleasant to think about, but it did make me more aware of the real-life implications of such a war. World War 1 stopped being just a historical event to me and became more about human suffering and experience.

Now, I grew up in Austria and I could imagine that my history education looked quite different from history classes here in Scotland, or wherever you are from – the US, France, Scandinavia? I’d love to hear your experience and opinion on this if you’d like to share in the comments!

Brushes with War: Art from the Front Line 14-18, the current special exhibition at Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow took me by surprise. While I am interested in social history, I don’t necessarily consider myself a history buff. I was almost sceptical – how much detail would be too much for me? But to my pleasant surprise, the exhibition really hit the spot – not too overwhelming, but adding a new layer to the way I understand and think of World War 1.


Brushes with War exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.

Brushes with War: Art from the Front Line 14-18

Brushes with War runs from 21 September 2018 to 6 January 2019. It commemorates the centenary of World War 1 and draws our attention to an otherwise underrepresented aspect of war documentation. Unlike official war paintings or other forms of popular propaganda, the artwork featured in this exhibition is independent of censorship or nationalist embellishments. The drawings and paintings in oils or watercolours share the soldier’s personal experiences and capture their very own insights moods and motifs for participating in the war.

The well over 200 drawings and paintings are part of the private collection of Joel Parkinson, owner and director of the World War History & Art Museum in Alliance, Ohio, USA. He grew up listening to his granddad’s war stories and admiring a painting of him riding a horse and leading a machine gun squad through barbed wire at night. He kept his fascination for personal experiences of the Great War and purchased several other paintings by soldiers. Over the years, this grew into the collection he eventually lent to the Kelvingrove Museum. The painting of his grandfather, by Lieutenant John H. Geiszel, is of course also part of the exhibition!

Joel Parkinson at Kelvingrove Museum.
Joel Parkinson at Kelvingrove Museum.

An additional 16 works in the special exhibition stem from the Glasgow Museums collection, and even after Brushes with War is over, you will be able to access these at the Glasgow Museums Resource Centre – among many other objects and artworks from the World War 1 period.

The exhibition is structured chronologically as well as thematically. It begins almost enthusiastically with drawings of soldiers in their uniforms and early depictions of life at the front. When the ar broke out in July 1914, most people thought it would be over by Christmas – and you can feel that optimism in the works at the beginning of the exhibition. As time passed and the war became more cruel, the paintings started to reflect that – images became darker and situations depicted more hopeless. Many of them show the monotony of life on the frontline, but there are also battle scenes and images portraying the inner battles the soldiers had to fight. World War 1 was the first time that the mental effects on soldiers were recognised – today, we call that PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

One piece stood out in particular: a painting entitled Rats. In it, even the rats run away from the front line, while soldiers in gas masks keep walking towards it.

A drawing exhibited at the Brushes with War exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.
Rats (1916), F.J. Mears, British; (c) Joel R. Parkinson, World War History & Art Museum

The exhibition makes great use of the small rooms leading off from the main spaces, by filling them with thematic collections of images, touching on issues such as nursing and common injuries, war experiences at sea and in the air, and humorous caricatures. One particularly striking display was a large board with a world map, making a point about the global expansion of this war.

My favourite element of the exhibition is the fact, that drawings and paintings are not separated by nationality – on the contrary, the curators grouped similar images together to emphasise that soldiers from all nations had similar experiences throughout the war. The trenches they hid in, looked the same for German, British, French or Russian soldiers. The misery they experienced, the moments of hope – they all captured similar moments on the little scraps of paper they had access to. If that is not a powerful statement about the futility of war, then I don’t know what is.

A drawing exhibited at the Brushes with War exhibition at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.

Brushes with War is located in the special exhibition space on the lower floor of Kelvingrove Museum. Of you visit Glasgow in the coming weeks, don’t miss it!

Tickets cost £7 per adult/ £5 per concession, children under 16 free.

Other World War 1 displays at Kelvingrove Museum

Since it is the centenary of World War 1, Brushes of War is not the only display at Kelvingrove Museum that deals with his moment in history. There are two more displays which are both part of the general exhibition space at Kelvingrove and thus free to enter.

Frank Brangwyn in World War I: Art in Aid of Blind Soldiers and Sailors

The first display is a collection of five lithographic prints illustrating the experience of a soldier in World War 1. They were created by artist Frank Brangwyn in 1915 and sold to sold to raise money for St Dunstan’s Hostel for Blind Soldiers and Sailors in London.

The prints show five scenes of a soldier’s life – as he went to war, was blinded on the battlefield, hospitalised and subsequently supported to learn a new trade. Head injuries were among the most common injuries soldiers suffered during World War 1, particularly due do scraps hitting them after explosions. Many soldiers eyesight was affected by this and thus, it is not surprising that there was particular support for wounded soldiers who had lost their eyesight or were visually impaired as a cause of the injuries.

In an effort to make disability for equal in the museum and ensure equal access for all, Kelvingrove Museum has worked with Scottish War Blinded to make this display more accessible to the visually impaired community. There is a Braille description of the texts supporting the lithographs, audiovisual material, tactile elements such as a 3D representation of one of the prints on the wall. Furthermore, the light bulbs in the exhibition space are not as bright and the display texts are yellow on black background, which makes them easier to read.

Frank Brangwyn's lithographs entitled "Art in Aid of Blind Soldiers and Sailors" at Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.


Frank Brangwyn in World War I: Art in Aid of Blind Soldiers and Sailors is located in the Fragile Art gallery on the first floor of Kelvingrove Museum.

I Say Nothing by Christine Borland

The second WW1 display is Christine Borland’s installation I Say Nothing. The piece was co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, and is the result of Borland’s year-long residency with Glasgow Museums. Throughout this time, the artist engaged intensively with the World War 1 collection held at the Resource Centre and reflected on the clash between institutional care and brutality during World War 1. The centrepiece of her installation is an invalid feeder cup which was used to nurse wounded soldiers during World War 1 and to force-feed hunger-striking suffragettes in the years running up to 1914.

At first glance, I found it difficult to understand the connection between the two sculptures displayed at Kelvingrove Museum and the shattered feeder-cup contained in a glass box between them. But once I learned more about how this piece was created, I realised how fascinating it was.

The sculptures show two scenes from a variety of angles, each represented by a wooden panel – one of them demonstrates a wounded soldier being nursed with the feeder cup, and the other – you guessed it right – shows a hunger-striking suffragette being force-fed with the same cup. To capture the scenes and create the sculptures, Borland built a photo circle which was commonly used in the 19th century. Actors staged the scenes inside the photo circle and cameras placed around them took images of their reenactments. Afterwards, Borland used the outlines of the human figures from each photo to create the wooden panels which formed the sculpture.

It is a thought-provoking artwork, that made me think even more about the greater social context of World War 1 and connected its centenary with another groundbreaking anniversary – in 2018 we are also celebrating 100 years of the right to vote for (some) women.

Christine Borland at Kelvingrove Museum.
Christine Borland at Kelvingrove Museum.
Christine Borland's installation I Say Nothing, Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.
Photograph © Keith Hunter.

I Say Nothing is on display on the south balcony at Kelvingrove Museum and is free to view.

Visiting Kelvingrove Museum

I recommend making a day out of your visit of Brushes with War and the other displays in order to take in all the history, context and detail. Kelvingrove Museum is huge and there are also many different collections on display – there are 22 galleries filled with anything from art to animals, cultural objects and design. The World War 1 displays and exhibitions are really just one part of the museum, so if you can, check out some other parts of the museum as well.

Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum
Argyle St, Glasgow G3 8AG
+44 141 276 9599, Website
Open Monday-Sunday 10am – 5pm
(11am on Fridays and Sundays)

Kelvingrove Museum is free to enter, however, there is an entrance fee for the special exhibition Brushes with War: £7 per adult/ £5 per concession, children under 16 free.

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There is a cafe on the ground floor in the grand hall under the organ and a restaurant next to the special exhibition space on the lower level. There is also a shop and free Wifi throughout the building. Full accessibility information can be found here.

Parking is available, but the easiest way is to arrive by public transport. First busses 2, 3 and 77 all stop right outside the museum; the nearest subway station is Kelvinhall (10-minute walk) and the nearest train station is Exhibition Centre (15-minute walk).

While you are in the area, you might also enjoy a visit to the Hidden Lane (independent artist studios, lovely souvenirs and a gorgeous tearoom serving afternoon tea). If you love learning about history, I also recommend the tours at Glasgow Central Station, which was an important site, particularly during the two World Wars!

Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow.

I never thought I could be so interested in the history of World War 1, but the Brushes with War exhibition and the two displays featuring Brangwyn’s and Borland’s artwork have definitely changed my mind. It’s a lot of information to take in – and very emotional as well – but I promise that if you visit Kelvingrove Museum in the upcoming weeks, you will come out with a much deeper understanding of this moment in history! You won’t regret it!


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5 thoughts on “Brushes with War – Learning about World War 1 at Kelvingrove Museum

  1. scots2travel says:

    I find the Rats piece quietly overwhelming. It just brings on this cloak of sadness, very powerful. WW1 seems so long ago now that I worry people are forgetting. But my very young child touched on war at school for Remembrance Day, and he is consumed with questions, he’s so shocked. Explaining war to a child is tough, but paintings help express things. I’ll maybe show him the Rats image.

  2. Ruth says:

    I am not familiar with Glasgow so it is nice to learn more about the city. I love when museums are practically palaces and you get to enjoy the architecture as well as the exhibitions. I enjoy history and for that reason, I think I would love this museum.

    • Kathi says:

      Oh you would – I don’t think there is anyone who wouldn’t enjoy it! The collections are so diverse! Hope you get to visit one day!

  3. Katherine says:

    I’d never thought about whether there was art involved in war, but of course there is. Art seems to intertwine itself with all of human existence. It broke my heart to read about how optimistic the works were at the beginning of the war, when everyone thought it would be over by Christmas, and then watching it get bleaker and darker as the years wore on. It sounds like an exhibition that’s well worth everyone’s time.

    • Kathi says:

      It was so surprising to me too – the whole idea of learning about war through art was new to me! It was very emotional and sad to see the reflections of the soldiers change so much – but also so interesting. I think everyone should see this exhibition!

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