It has been said that a nation goes to war with the weapons it has. The same can be said for its personnel and the non-martial skills they bring to the effort. Historically, civilian artists have joined the fight using their pens, brushes, and cameras to engage and inspire troops and to attack the enemy’s propaganda machine. Some of those artists were not satisfied to observe from a distance but deliberately put themselves in the middle of the hell they sought to depict.
McClelland Barclay was such an artist.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., in 1891, his first “brush” with the Navy came in 1917 when he was awarded the Navy Poster Prize by the Committee on National Preparedness for his poster “Fill the Breach.”
Before joining the Naval Reserve in 1938, he was a successful painter, illustrator, sculptor, and jewelry designer. His fine arts bona-fides included some of the best schools and professional organizations in America, and his client list, some of the most celebrated companies of the era.
At the Saint Louis School and Museum of Fine Arts, Barclay studied design with the institution’s founder, Halsey Cooley Ives. At the Art Students League in New York, he studied figure drawing with the great George B. Bridgman. He also attended the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Art Institute of Chicago.
While expanding his reach into the rarified atmosphere of Madison Avenue, he joined the Chicago Art Club, the Society of Illustrators, the Association of Arts and Industries, and the Artists Guild. His paintings appeared on the covers of the Ladies’ Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, and Cosmopolitan. He illustrated ads for Whitman’s Chocolates, Texaco Oil, R.J. Reynolds, and Liggett & Myers. His renderings of stylish socialites, which graced the General Motors’ “Body by Fisher” advertising campaign, propelled him into the national spotlight and a judge’s berth in the 1935 Miss America Pageant.
Clearly, Barclay was well on his way to a remarkable career when Germany began her march toward infamy in the late 1930s. He did not regard the approach of war as an interuption of his personal ambitions, but rather as an opportunity to use his talents in the defense of his country.
In June 1938, Barclay was appointed assistant naval constructor with the rank of lieutenant, USNR.
Not content to remain stateside, in 1941 he volunteered to become a front-line combat artist but was rejected in spite of his obvious artistic qualifications. Instead, he was retained by the New York Recruiting Office to produce poster art there. He remained determined, however, to be deployed to the front lines where the subjects and inspiration for his work could be found. As he told the San Francisco Examiner in March 1943:
“A camera cannot catch the human element of a fight, the sweat and blood and courage our boys expend every time they face the enemy. That’s what I’m going back out there now to do.”
Barclay would ultimately achieve his goal in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. He would serve on USS Arkansas (BB33), USS Pennsylvania (BB38), USS Honolulu (CL48), and USS Maryland (BB46), sketching and photographing subject matter for his paintings, much of which would tragically never see publication.
On 18 July 1943, Barclay was aboard LST-342 (right) when it was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine RO-106.
He had been aboard since the first of the month, sketching and taking photographs, while the ship had been carrying ammunition and supplies to Rendova, New Georgia, in the Solomon Islands. The torpedo struck the ship aft, where Barlay was berthed. Barclay, along with most of the crew, perished. The bow of the LST remained afloat and was towed to a beach on the island of Gavutu.
Remains of the ship are still rusting there today. Barclay was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart, and entitled to the American Defense Service Medal, Fleet Clasp; the Asiatic-Pacific Area Campaign Medal; the American Area Campaign Medal; and the World War II Victory Medal.
In 1944, McClelland Barclay was also posthumously awarded the Art Directors Club Medal. In 1995 the Society of Illustrators inducted Barclay into their Hall of Fame.
One can only guess at the creative impact Barclay would have had had he survived the war. As it is, the images of our fighting men and women that he painted were, and continue to be, a tribute to their character and courage. Those heroic canvasses would also provide testament to the patriotism of this combat artist who, without weapons or concern for his personal safety, brought a brush to a gunfight.