Friday, 5 November 2010

War Artists Remembered: Eric Ravilious, Thomas Hennell, Albert Richards

In June 1940 Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, suggested to Churchill that the nation's art treasures be moved to Canada. 'No,' the new PM replied, 'Bury them in caves and cel­lars. None must go.'

So the collection was hidden away in a Welsh quarry, while the National became a showcase for the work of artists commissioned by the government to record the progress of the war. Has there been another period in the gallery's history when its walls have been hung, almost exclusively, with the work of living artists?

From June 1940 there was an almost continuous, rolling exhibition of war art. That the British government employed artists is in good measure thanks to Clark, who believed that a nation's artistic heritage included not only its Grand Masters but also its living, working artists. By 1945 the War Artist's Advisory Committee, chaired by Clark, had employed over 300 artists and acquired over 5000 works, making the war period something of a golden age for state sponsorship of the Arts.

In this, as in his career generally, Clark was successful. Of the 300 artists employed, only three died on active service, and this in spite of the fact that artists travelled all over the world and were often close to the action.

Edward Bawden, for example, was evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk, then sent to the Middle East. After travelling by camel around Sudan and Ethiopia he was shipwrecked off Lagos and spent five days in a lifeboat before being picked up by a Vichy French warship and taken to a POW camp in Morocco. Eventually he was rescued by American forces and returned to Britain, but too late to see his friend Eric Ravilious again.

Like Bawden, Ravilious had been among the first artists appointed by the WAAC in late 1939. Earlier he had thought about joining the Artists Rifles but had been advised by his friend John Nash - one of the fine soldier-artists of the Great War - not to do anything hasty. Not that it was physical danger Nash was concerned about, but the tedium of soldiering and the waste of talents that might be better used elsewhere.

As it was, John Nash and Ravilious were both appointed to serve with the Admiralty, though Nash found the experience very different from that of the previous conflict and soon abandoned art for a job in naval intelligence. Though rather too insouciant in matters of uniform and appearance for his superiors, Ravilious thrived in a role for which he had been prepared by years of work as a commercial artist.
His most striking work, or so Kenneth Clark thought, was the series of paintings he made during the Allied invasion of Norway in May/June 1940. Inspired by the light of the far north in summer, Ravilious painted exquisite watercolours of the ill-fated aircraft carrier HMS Glorious and of HMS Ark Royal. The fact that his ship, HMS Highlander, was constantly under attack by enemy aircraft and U-boats, seems not to have concerned him.

When the opportunity came to return to the Arctic, this time on a posting to the RAF in Iceland, he seized it. It was the late summer of 1942 and he had spent the previous months perfecting a new technique of sketching from a plane in flight. On arrival at the base he immediately volunteered to accompany an air-sea rescue mission - presumably intending to sketch the rescue - but his Hudson aircraft disappeared soon after take off and was never recovered.

Ravilious, who was 39, was mourned by his widow Tirzah and three young children, and by numerous friends and colleagues. One of these was Thomas Hennell, a watercolourist, poet and lay preacher who had turned up one day in the kitchen of Brick House, the Essex home shared by the Bawdens and Raviliouses in the mid 1930s. With a mutual interest in the countryside they became friends, and Ravilious produced four engravings for Hennell's 'Poems' of 1936.

At the outbreak of war, Hennell wrote to the WAAC, offering his services as an artist, but it wasn't until 1943 that he received his appointment and his first posting - to replace Ravilious in Iceland.

For this sensitive clergyman's son, who had earlier spent time in mental hospital recovering from a nervous breakdown, the posting must have been a challenge. But Hennell prospered in his new role, painting fluent, breezy sketches of Reykjavik and the surrounding area before leaving to join the Allied invasion force on D-day.

A year later he was sent further afield, to record the war effort in India and Burma, which he did with success until the official cessation of hostilities. He survived the war but was not to survive the peace, being captured by terrorists in Batavia, Indonesia in November 1945 and subsequently reported missing, presumed killed.

Both he and Ravilious were artists adopted by the military machine, but Albert Richards was a trained soldier whose rank of Captain was more than honorary. Born in 1919, he was awarded a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Art in 1939, only to be called up three months later. He joined the Royal Engineers, then moved on to the Parachute Regiment, and from 1941 onwards he regularly sent paintings of his own volition to the WAAC.

Despite the Committee's best efforts to recruit him in an official capacity, Richards maintained his independence until the end of 1943, when he accepted a six-month commission. Sketching with watercolour in the midst or immediate aftermath of action, he produced a substantial body of work that conveys the violence and chaos of D-day and the subsequent battle for Europe. He was killed when he drove into a minefield, only a month before the German surrender.

It is to the great credit of Kenneth Clark and the wartime government first that these and other artists were commissioned to record the progress of the war and, second, that their work was so carefully preserved. Seventy or so years on, as we see Arts funding slashed, it's worth remembering that a government facing invasion by a foreign power viewed visual artists as a national resource to be nurtured and protected.

The record they left, which you can see for yourself in the Imperial War Museum Collections, is comprehensive and extraordinary. It is not necessarily better than the vast photographic record of the conflict, but it is significantly different.

As John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate, put it in 1943, ‘During both the last and the present wars artists had been sent to make records in the theatres of war at home and abroad, each artist being entirely free to respond to his experience in accordance with the laws of his own nature…'

This, he suggested, gives 'a record not only of events but of the many-sided outlook of the people engaged.'

The sinking of HMS Glorious in June 1940 is an interesting case in point. Shortly after the carrier was shelled to destruction by the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, the Nazi propaganda ministry released a harrowing film of the battle, showing their giant guns blasting the ship to pieces.

A month later, visitors to the National Gallery saw a very different picture: the Ravilious watercolour of planes circling Glorious as they prepare to land following the successful evacuation of Norway. Painted only hours before the carrier's destruction, it is a brilliantly lit, defiant and optimistic painting, an expression of freedom at war, not war on freedom.


  1. Fascinating. I went to see the (wonderful) Ravilious exhibition, and was curious to know more about how the government came to appoint war artists - so thank you for this!

  2. Thanks Sue - it was a fascinating business.