Second World War POW cartoons on display for first time in new exhibition

The Cartoon Museum is hosting an online exhibition of prisoner of war cartoons to commemorate the 75th anniversary this month of the Victory over Japan, and which ended the Second World War.

Drawing on soldier holding a bomb.
“Looting be damned! — I’ve just caught it!” © The Estate of Basil Parry Akhurst, image scanned from the original albums and is © The Jack Wood Collection 2020.

Laughter of our own making: Cartoons from the secret artists of Changi Prison Camp 1942–1945 celebrates the power of the arts in adversity through a selection of archival treasures from the collection of Jack Wood, a POW in Singapore in the Second World War.

The exhibition reveals never-before-exhibited cartoons and other works of art created at POW camps. As well as items from Jack Wood’s collection, the exhibition also presents artwork from the families of Bill Norways and Des Bettany.

During the Second World War over 190,000 British and Commonwealth military personnel were taken prisoner in East Asia by the Japanese. They were incarcerated in harsh conditions and subjected to starvation, disease, forced labour and punishment. There have been many historical accounts of the great suffering and tragedy endured during this period, but archives also reveal stories of hope, joy and human connection in the camps.

The exhibition focuses on the collection of Jack Wood, a First Royal Army Medical Corps medic from Yorkshire, who was imprisoned in Changi Prison Camp, a POW camp in Singapore, from 1942 until 1945.

In his confinement, Wood amassed a collection of cartoons, illustrations, scripts, musical scores, theatre programmes, set and costume designs, Christmas cards and magazines created by himself and his fellow prisoners. Keeping records, including artwork, was forbidden at camp, and it is unknown how he managed to keep this collection concealed and transport it back to Yorkshire.

“This extraordinary exhibition reveals how, in brief moments amongst hard labour and extreme hardship, many POW sought comfort and distraction in the arts — creating music, drawings, concerts, theatrical productions and magazines. In these works we find humour, creativity, intellect, imagination, colour, joy, reflection, emotion, memory, beauty, friendship and humanity,” says Joe Sullivan, director of The Cartoon Museum which is based in Wells Street, Fitzrovia.

“Together, they tell a story of the resilience of the human spirit and the power of the arts in the face of adversity.

“The exhibition is very timely in 2020, as many people emerge from strict lockdown conditions having discovered, and re-discovered, the joys of the arts. I want to thank the families of Jack Wood, Bill Norways and Des Bettany for making their collections available to exhibit. It is remarkable that the collection exists in the first place, and it is an honour to share this story,” says Sullivan.

Exhibition: Laughter of our own making: Cartoons from the secret artists of Changi Prison Camp 1942–1945. The exhibition is digital-only, and will be hosted on the museum’s website until 30 November 2020. Free to view, with a suggested donation of £8.50.