In Britain, government-sponsored schemes engaged artists on a contractual basis to document both the First and Second World Wars. Official war artists were mainly appointed for propaganda purposes but the recording of the war in visual terms was also undertaken to preserve its memory. Leslie Cole was sent to Malta in April 1943 to document ‘the extraordinary dramatic and historic scenes’ present on the island as official correspondence had clarified that ‘photographs don’t really do it adequately.’
The Official Colours of War, with over 120 drawings, paintings and documents, examines Cole’s six-month sojourn on the island and explores the pictorial suggestions made to the visiting war artist by Governor Gort and his deputy, David Callender-Campbell. Cole recorded Malta’s civilian contribution to the war effort but significantly refrained from painting scenes which displayed the full extent of architectural destruction on the island. The war artist travelled to Pantelleria, Lampedusa and Sicily from Malta and his private correspondence contextualises the challenging role of an official artist operating on the frontline to record unfolding history.