'Calligraphies of time' : the bombsite in the cultural imaginary of post-war Britain

  • Isabelle Nicole Jain

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis (PhD)


On 8 May 1945, Allied forces announced the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, marking the official end of the Second World War and igniting VE Day celebrations across Britain. The atmosphere throughout the country was electrifying; enormous crowds gathered in Piccadilly Circus in London’s city centre, as seen in iconic photographs of a sea of people around the Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain – popularly known as ‘Eros’ – with people scaling lampposts and even London buses. The mood was one of jubilation, relief, and disbelief: a collective sense of having escaped death. Soon, however, the air of celebration wore off. The people of Britain stepped out of their homes, free, but around them they saw destroyed cities – London, Birmingham, Coventry, Hull – landscapes bearing scars and craters left by bombs that had taken homes and lives. Although the war itself was over, life was now marked by the backdrop of the ever-present bombsite – some of which were left uncleared for decades – and anxieties around how to rebuild. This thesis examines the cultural significance of the bombsite in art and visual culture produced between 1945 and 1969 in Britain. Specifically, it considers how artists and practitioners responded to the material conditions of the bombsite, not its representation per se. I distinguish the bombsite from the ruin: ruins were sites to preserve, memorialise, intwined with the histories of the past. Bombsites, on the other hand, were temporally unstable, constantly shifting in their definition. Moving away from the idea that the bombsite was a wasteland, or a space of nothingness, I offer a nuanced, localised account of artistic and communal engagements with these sites. Each of the four chapters in this thesis demonstrates a different response to the bombsite. Some were retrogressive, shoring up traditional art practices in the face of trauma and destruction. Others were more radical, experimental, and politically and socially motivated. What emerges from a chronological development of this material is that the bombsite prompted responses that looked both forwards and backwards in time, producing a longer, more conflicted view of the post-war period. Instead of a linear progression from ruin to reconstruction, the works of art and visual culture I discuss illustrate how processes of decay and rebuilding were deeply entangled.
Date of Award29 Nov 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of St Andrews
SupervisorCatherine Elizabeth Spencer (Supervisor) & Natalie Adamson (Supervisor)


  • British Art
  • Bombsite
  • Post-War
  • Reconstruction

Access Status

  • Full text embargoed until
  • 22 June 2028

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