The art of war

Royal Armouries presents an exhibition of First World War paintings on loan from Preston Park Museum and Grounds at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, 11 November 2017 – 29 April 2018. Entry to the museum and exhibition is free.


The exhibition focuses on a unique set of watercolours painted by Colonel G.O. Spence, Commander of the 5th Durham Light Infantry, during the First World War.

Spence made a great impact as an industrialist, an army officer and mayor. He was also a passionate artist and through a series of unique watercolours, he captured his men at rest and in combat. From leading his battalion he had an exceptional perspective of the First World War. He was a man who had great enthusiasm for capturing the history of warfare and militaria, using his wealth, even during the campaign, to indulge in his collection.


Born Gilbert Ormerod Spence in Stockton 1879, he became a shipbuilder like his father before him. Lieutenant Colonel G.O. Spence also had an illustrious career in the military leading the 5th Battalion Durham Light Infantry (5th DLI). In the year following the war he was promoted to Colonel Commandant. Spence, also a Mayor of Thornaby, worked to recruit during the war and help his fellow soldiers on their return home.

The 5th Battalion Durham Light Infantry evolved from the Durham Rifle Volunteer Corps into a Territorial Battalion and it received its colours from King Edward VII in 1909. As a Volunteer Corps it had distinguished service in the Boer War. As a Territorial Battalion it would go on to achieve further battle honours.


Seven original watercolours, painted by Spence during the battles of the Somme and Arras, are featured in the exhibition, but because of environmental limitations, 36 paintings are represented as prints. The images below can be viewed in a carousel with captions; and where possible, map links to locations associated with the paintings are included.

Thanks go to the following for their support with this project


The Heritage Lottery Fund
Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Research Grant from the Art Fund
Stockton Borough Council

Exhibition Design and Construction

JANVS Design


Gallagher and Turner

PR and Marketing

Gardiner Richardson

The staff and volunteers at Preston Park Museum & Grounds

Special thanks go to the following organisations for their contribution

Durham County Record Office
The National Archives
The Rifles Durham Office
Royal Armouries
Conservation Advisory Network (CAN)

Additional thanks must also go to the many individuals and organisations, regionally and nationally, for their continued advice and support on this project.