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Portraits Like Bombs: Eric Kennington and the Second World War

Last updated: 28 April 2016

Recorded on 19 January 2012

Dr Jonathan Black, Senior Research Fellow in History of Art at Kingston University, discusses the life and work of Eric Kennington. The lecture focuses on Kennington's Second World War images of infantry soldiers, tankmen, home guardsmen and generals.


Dr Jonathan Black:

Well, good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Thank you very much for turning out in such cheering numbers on this rather sort of dreich afternoon here in Chelsea.

So I’m talking about Eric Kennington, and particularly the work that he did during the Second World War, logically enough, considering that we’re in the National Army Museum, about the... concerning the British Army.

It’s entitled ‘Portraits Like Bombs’ and this was a quote and the title was applied in September 1943 by an art critic to many of the series of portraits of men that Kennington had drawn in the Home Guard, but who were also Great War veterans.

Now I’m just showing an image of the man himself, our hero for the hour, this is Eric Kennington aged about 30, drawn in 1918, so it gives you an idea of what the man looked like.

But the epithet ‘Portraits Like Bombs’, which I mention in my title, was applied by a contemporary critic in September 1943 to one of these home guardsmen who was also a Great War veteran. And this is the fearsome-looking ex-Gordon Highlander, Sergeant Moir, of the 3rd Battalion, the Aberdeen Home Guard, which I am showing on the screen at the moment.

Moir was interpreted by many of the critics reviewing this exhibition as ‘both thoroughly modern and yet also somehow timeless’, a type oft-celebrated earlier on in the history of art by artists such as Leonardo da Vinci. So if you look at Sergeant Moir from 1943 and then compare with the equally forbidding warrior... ‘Portrait of a Warrior’ by Leonardo da Vinci from about 1475.

And critics in this... in responding to Kennington’s exhibition at the Leicester Galleries in September 1943, where he showed this series of Home Guard portraits, also compared portraits such as Moir favourably to works by that sort of 16th-century master of portraiture working at the court of Henry VIII, Hans Holbein the Younger. This is his portrait of Sir John Godsalve from 1532.

Now, a little bit of information about the man himself, a little bit of biographical detail. Kennington was born in Fulham into a sort of solidly professional and middle-class late-Victorian household. His father, Thomas Benjamin, was vice-president of the Royal Institute of Painters in Oils from 1906 to 1916. He was also a founder member of the New English Art Club.

Kennington was educated at St Paul’s School, and the Lambeth School of Art, and just prior to the outbreak of the First World War he was beginning to gain recognition for a series of paintings and drawings depicting costermongers.

And I’m showing you on the screen here, this is his ‘The Costardmongers’ which was exhibited at the International Society in April 1914, and it was one of the works that helped to bring him to public attention, and the work itself was actually bought by the then very famous society portraitist William Nicholson.

Anyway, on 6 August 1914, Kennington volunteered to serve as a private in the 13th Battalion, The London Regiment, Princess Louise’s Own Kensingtons. I think mainly because the recruiting office for this unit was just around the corner from Kennington’s studio, which was off Kensington High Street.

He undertook basic training near Abbots Langley between August to November 1914, and then he was sent... or went to France. He was in the front line in north-eastern France until he was wounded in the left foot in mid-January 1915. He... his middle toe on his left foot was amputated and he almost lost the entire foot to infection.

And recovering in hospital, first in London and then in Liverpool, and then he was released from the Army with an honourable medical discharge in June 1915. And then the rest of that year, of 1915, he devoted to painting in oils and gold and silver paint in reverse on glass - a sort of icon-like, jewel-like work, ‘The Kensingtons at Laventie, Winter 1914', which immortalised his comrades in Number 7 Platoon, C Company of The Kensingtons.

And you can just see this is Kennington, who has included himself in... he’s in the top left-hand corner wearing the balaclava. So he’s amongst the members of his old platoon.

Certainly you can say that Kennington knew what war at the sharp end in the trenches was like. He had seen men shot through the head by snipers, riddled with machine-gun bullets as well as blown to pieces by high explosive shells. In fact during the time he was with the Battalion in France, the Kensingtons suffered 127 causalities, about 20 per cent of the unit’s strength when it arrived in France in mid-November 1914.

Now this work, ‘The Kensingtons at Laventie’, touched on an episode after he’d... Kennington and his platoon had spent four days and nights in the firing line with the temperature at 20 degrees below zero. The battalion had just made its way down a mile of communication trenches, frozen mud up to their waists, sometimes up to four feet deep, to the relative safety of the much-shelled village of Laventie, which was still coming under intermittent shellfire.

And the scene that Kennington depicts in the work, his platoon’s about to begin a five-mile march to reserve billets, which were out of range of the German artillery. And in fact by the time that Kennington had completed the painting towards the end of 1915, 90 per cent of the 700-strong battalion which he had arrived with in France early in November 1914, had become causalities - many during the battles of Neuve-Chapelle in March 1915, and particularly Aubers Ridge in May 1915.

Now this... the painting, ‘The Kensingtons at Laventie’, created a sensation when it was exhibited in a charity exhibition at the Goupil Gallery on Regent Street during April to July 1916. And Kennington was hailed by a number of leading critics as ‘the painter who knew how to properly portray the stoically enduring British Tommy’. For example, The Times declared: ‘He [Kennington] has painted the real war for us in all its squalor and glory.’

And the following year, the celebrated portraitist Sir John Lavery wrote in support of Kennington, as Kennington’s application to become an official war artist working with the Department of Information, and I quote: ‘Mr Kennington, in my opinion, has painted in “The Kensingtons”, the only picture of the Great War that I have seen so far that will actually live.’

So Kennington was appointed an official war artist attached to the Department of Information in the spring of 1917, and he was sent off to France in August 1917, and he spent about seven months out in France.

So after... and it’s interesting that additionally he was only supposed to spend a month out in France in August 1917, but after the first month had expired, he simply refused to come home and kept sending pleading letters to his employers at the Department of Information asking that he be allowed to stay much longer to, as he said, ‘learn the war’.

And I’m just going to quickly show you a selection of the drawings that he produced between...these marvellous drawings, often drawn in less than three-quarters of an hour in, or near, the front line during this period of August 1917 to March 1918.

So this is a Royal Engineer laying a field telephone wire from September 1917. In red chalk on a white background.

A particular favourite of mine, a portrait of a 19-year-old trench raider from the Lancashire Fusiliers that he drew in October 1917.

The ‘Raider with a Cosh’ - a man from the 3rd Battalion, the Rifle Brigade, that he drew preparing for a trench raid in February 1918, which is in the Tate Gallery’s collection.

Also he didn’t just do portraits, he also did some quite sensitive drawings and also watercolours and pastels of the sort of camps in which resting soldiers were living, such as this rest camp from 1918.

He also did some drawings of some of the wounded. He had to be admitted to a casualty clearing station himself suffering from trench fever - this was a malady caused by infected lice bites. And so while he was recovering from a bout of trench fever in a casualty clearing station, he drew a series of very sensitive drawings of some of his fellow sufferers, some of the other patients in the casualty clearing station.

So this is a man who’s being treated for the effects of mustard gas, which had been introduced for the first time on the Western Front by the Germans in July 1917.

And here’s another sufferer from mustard gas effects drawn in 1918.

So eventually Kennington was persuaded to come back to England in March 1918, and in June-July 1918 a selection from the over 170 drawings in pastel and charcoal and watercolours were exhibited in an exhibition at the Leicester Galleries, backed by the Ministry of Information.

The exhibits were widely hailed as masterpieces, and Kennington was identified as a portraitist to rival such great figures from the past as Albrecht Dürer, Ingres, Holbein the Younger, as well as contemporaries such as Augustus John, William Nicholson, William Orpen, and the American John Singer-Sargent.

For example, in The New Statesmen, the poet Laurence Binyon, an art critic, wrote of Kennington’s exhibits, and I quote: ‘Mr Kennington has a genius for reality. He has not only the gift of exact and faithful record, but the power of giving expression to the latent vehemence, energy and passion that make up the controlled strength of a man. If a foreigner wished to see the British soldier, he could not do better than see him with Mr Kennington’s eyes.’

Kennington, however, was not happy with the Ministry of Information, and was still suffering from the lingering effects of trench fever, and in effect he resigned from the Ministry as a war artist in September 1918. However, two months later, in November 1918, he signed up with the Canadian War Memorial Scheme which was the brainchild of Lord Beaverbrook the newspaper magnate, and late in November 1918 was sent out to France as a temporary first lieutenant attached to the Canadian Army and attached himself to the 16th Battalion Highlanders of Canada, part of the 3rd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Canadian Division.

And while in France between November 1918 and March 1919, he made a series of over 40 studies of individual soldiers from the battalion who fought their last major battle of the war in October 1918.

And then early in 1920 he painted a large tribute in oils to the formidable-looking men of the much-decorated unit entitled ‘The Conquerors’. And this was exhibited in Ottawa during the summer of 1920, and then in October-November of the same year Kennington held a solo show at the Alpine Club gallery in London.

And on the basis of this painting, this oil ‘The Conquerors’, the art critic of The Sunday Times, Frank Rutter, wrote that ‘Kennington is...’, and I quote, ‘ of our foremost portrait painters’.

It’s interesting that one visitor to the exhibition just before it closed was the celebrated leader of our irregular troops, TE Lawrence, who bought two of Kennington’s drawings of soldiers.

Now Kennington may have thought that he was finished with the British military, but Lawrence persuaded Kennington to come out to the Middle East to draw personalities who appeared in his account of the war with the Ottoman Turks that he was writing at the time, which was eventually published as ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’.

And so Kennington was persuaded by Lawrence to go out to the Middle East to draw some of the characters, or some of the personalities who appeared in The Seven Pillars, including... this is a portrait he did of Lawrence from when he was in... he met Lawrence in Cairo in March 1921.

Lawrence, in the end, wouldn’t allow this work to be reproduced in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’s luxury subscribers edition, because he said that it was ‘too obviously the spider in a web of its own spinning’. He thought it was just too revelatory of this, you know, incredibly enigmatic and rather sort of tricky personality.

But somebody else that he drew at the time was Field Marshal Allenby who was then the Commissioner... the High Commissioner for Egypt in Cairo, and this was drawn in less than an hour in March 1921 in the Semiramis Hotel. And just to show you how Kennington could catch a likeness, this is him, a photograph of him taken the year before, and then this is the man himself drawn by Kennington.

Kennington remained friendly with Lawrence until Lawrence was killed in his tragic accident in May 1935. Now for the next sort of four years, Kennington devoted himself to carving a remarkable tribute in stone to his friend, a recumbent Lawrence in the guise of an Arab sheikh wearing Arab dress in the form of a recumbent tomb effigy which is now in the small Anglo Saxon church of St Martin’s, Wareham in Dorset.

So this is sort of showing you an image here of the head of the tomb effigy that Kennington carved, and more-or-less was just finishing, putting the finishing touches to, as the Second World War broke out.

But he also did some other military figures just before the war broke out, as he kept contacts with the military thanks to Lawrence’s continuing connections with the RAF and also with the Tank Corps. And this is Kennington’s portrait of ‘the father of the tank’, and the Oxford military historian, Major General Sir Ernest Swinton that was drawn in 1938.

The sitter was amused that Kennington had made him look like, and I quote, ‘Attila the Hun, the wrath of God’. But he was amused - he rather liked being portrayed in such a formidable light did Sir Ernest. So this is at the Tank Museum in Bovington.

Now, late in November 1939, the War Artists Advisory Committee was created as part of the Ministry of Information, chaired by the then Director of the National Gallery, Sir Kenneth Clark. And one of the first of the 30 artists or so that Clark considered for employment was Kennington, specifically as identified as the portraitist... or likely to be an excellent portraitist of, and I quote, ‘the fighting man’.

So Kennington was appointed as an official war artist in December 1939, with a remit to, or a brief, to draw in pastel or charcoal, portraits at 25 guineas a time. And the artist estimated that he would need at least three hours per sitter.

And Kennington promptly asked to draw the fearsome chief of the Imperial General Staff, the 6-foot-4-tall general Sir Edmund Ironside, which he did in January 1940. And I’m showing you an image... this is Ironside drawn by Kennington in Cairo in 1921, and then he drew him again in January 1940 as an official war artist.

Now I think Kennington was soon having trouble with the War Artists Advisory Committee as he did not get on with the War Office representative on the committee - a newspaper man called Colin Coote. The War Office gave him the distinct impression, according to Kennington, that it was not interested in, and I quote, ‘vulgar publicity’.

Kennington was supposed to go to France to draw the commander of the British Expeditionary Force, Lord Gort, but the trip was repeatedly postponed. And it was only after sort of constantly nagging at the War Office representative on the War Artists Advisory Committee, Coote, that Kennington was... that a series of other portrait sittings were set up with other personalities within the War Office. And in March 1940, he drew this marvellous portrait of Major General RH Dewing who was the Director of Military Operations, in again less than three hours. I love the fact that his moustache looks as though it’s about to leap off and tackle the Germans by itself.

But it’s a bit of a leitmotif in that Dewing was somebody who had been a rising star in the British Army at the time towards the end of the First World War, but the war had ended really before he could actually get his hands on a sort of suitably senior position, and so he was just a little bit too old when the Second World War broke out and had to retire about 18 months after this portrait was drawn.

So I think Kennington always, as a Great War veteran himself, felt a lot of sympathy for those who were in that sort of position, who hadn’t quite made it to the top at the end of the First World War, and therefore were just deemed to be a little too old to shine in the Second World War in a sort of high capacity.

So Kennington eventually persuaded the Admiralty to send him off to Plymouth where he drew a series of portraits of sailors who distinguished themselves, first of all in the Battle of the River Plate in December 1939, such as this marvellous portrait here of Senior Stoker Andrew Martin of HMS Exeter which was drawn in April 1940. But he also drew portraits of heroes of the twin naval victories of Narvik in April 1940, such as Petty Officer Barnes of HMS Eclipse with this sort of lovely evocation of a Norwegian fjord over his shoulder.

So he was still sort of a little in bad odour with the War Artists Advisory Committee for being one of the artists who proved to be the sort of most troublesome, or, you know, members of the awkward squad, because Kennington was always asking to be sent to... be given more sitters than he was being allotted.

So actually Kennington jumped before he could be pushed, and actually when, with the creation of the Home Guard, the Local Defence Volunteers, in mid-May 1940, he jumped at the chance to join that, and he left the War Artists Advisory Committee as an official war artist in mid-May 1940. And he resigned, convinced he was doing far more for the war effort by joining the Home Guard, and by early July 1940 he was in charge of a section of six countrymen in the south Oxfordshire countryside, defending an observation post he’d set up to the north of his home in Ipsden.

And at the time, in letters that he wrote to his older brother William, it’s clear that Kennington did not at all romanticise the Home Guard, or over idealise its personnel. Their equipment was pitiful, weapons were non-existent, senior officers displayed little drive and initiative and impotently buried themselves in red tape and paperwork. And he noted to his older brother: ‘The men, if not suitably motivated, did not report for duty in the evenings, but sloped off after roll call to go poaching, fishing, or playing cards in the pub.’

So just keep that in mind when you look at some of these amazing portraits that he later drew of home guardsmen, and that he actually did know the reality of... he wasn’t sort of starry-eyed about the organisation.

So, as I said, Kennington had left the War Artists Advisory Committee as a war artist in mid-May 1940, but it quickly became clear when the War Artists Advisory Committee held an exhibition of official war art that it had commissioned, at the National Gallery in July 1940, that Kennington was by far the most popular artist on display, and he was the star portraitist.

His portraits of generals and sailors were singled out for particular praise, and certainly after defeat in France in May-June 1940, the country needed urgent reassurance that it actually still had the men who could, and I quote, ‘win the war’.

Art critic H Granville-Fell expressed a sentiment felt by many visitors, and I quote: ‘Kennington’s harsh iron technique...’

I’m just showing you a few images looking suitably debonair in his Home Guard uniform from 1940.

But just go back to Stoker Martin. Talking about this particular work, H Granville-Fell wrote: ‘Kennington’s harsh iron technique has a force admirably suited to conveying unflinching and dauntless resolution in the faces of his seamen and soldiers. I know of no other artist who can so convincingly depict the salt of the earth, and evoke palpably, in a portrait, the very essence and savour of courage.’

So the War Artists Advisory Committee in August 1940 rather had to eat a little humble pie, asking Kennington if he would return to work for it to draw portraits this time of RAF personnel.

And the committee’s secretary, who rejoiced in the marvellous sobriquet of E Montgomery O’Rourke Dickey - there’s a name to conjure with - wrote to Sir Kenneth Clark that month, and I quote: ‘The best of this artist’s portraits [ie Kennington] of sailors in the exhibition at the National Gallery have, in the eyes of the public, a nobility not shared by any other work that’s on display at the National Gallery. These portraits typify the fighting man who’s going to win the war for us.’

So Kennington started working for the War Artists Advisory Committee again as an official war artist in September 1940 as the Battle of Britain was reaching a crescendo, and by the end of the year he’d completed over a dozen portraits of Battle of Britain fighter aces, such as this lovely portrait of Flight Lieutenant Albert Gerald ‘Zulu’ Lewis, who was a South African, drawn in October 1940, and also Pilot Officer James ‘Ginger’ Lacey who, not surprisingly from his sobriquet, had red hair, drawn again in October 1940.

So Kennington worked as an official artist attached to the RAF throughout 1940-41. But typically with Kennington it meant, being a member of the God’s awkward squad, he was soon falling out with the Royal Air Force representative on the War Artists Advisory Committee, a man called Air Commodore Harald Peake. And twice in May 1941 Kennington threatened to resign because Peake wanted him to draw too many, as he put it, ‘knobs’... too many senior officers. But he was talked out of this action by no less than Air Marshal Sir Charles Portal, chief of the Air Staff, who you'd think probably had more other things to do in the middle of 1941 than to talk him out of resigning.

However, so Kennington stayed with the RAF as a war artist, and meanwhile, at the same time, works by him were still being exhibited at the National Gallery, but some criticism of the work was beginning to creep into the press. For example, Eric Newton, who was the art critic of The Sunday Times, wrote, and I quote: ‘Eric Kennington goes on and on with his over-life-size portraits of supermen. They are strident things whose assertiveness almost hurts the eyes.’ But then he did concede: ‘They do look like men who are going to win the war. Some are positively frightening. Dropped as leaflets over enemy country, I can imagine them being as effective as a bomb.’

Now Kennington had a habit of accepting commissions, or just generally drawing portraits of people he admired, when Air Commodore Peake, the RAF representative, thought he should really be focusing entirely on men of the RAF. So for example in September 1941, Kennington drew a compelling portrait of an exhausted Field Marshal Sir Archibald Percival Wavell, to whom Kennington had been first introduced initially in the early 1920s by none other than TE Lawrence.

Now Kennington drew Wavell in September 1941 when he was briefly passing through London before assuming command of the British forces in the Far East. Wavell had inflicted a spectacular defeat on the Italians in Libya in late 1940 - early 1941, before in turn suffering a drubbing at the hands of Rommel in the spring of 1941, culminating in the failure of the Battleaxe offensive of June 1941 which Wavell had launched, against his better judgment, at the urging of Prime Minister Churchill.

And I think it’s interesting that in this portrait, Kennington does not try to disguise the fact that Wavell had lost an eye on the Western Front in the First World War, and the field marshal was rather self-conscious concerning this disfigurement. A man of few, if no words, famously taciturn, according to his son Wavell could relax with Kennington because he was an old friend of their mutual friend Lawrence.

Wavell thought that this portrait was all too revealing of his state of mind in the wake of the Battleaxe fiasco and his abrupt removal from command of the British forces in the Middle East, having lost the confidence of a certainly more eloquent and more voluble Churchill.

So two months after drawing Wavell, Kennington secured two months’ leave from the War Artists Advisory Committee to visit the 11th Armoured Division, which was based near Ripon in North Yorkshire. And he’d been invited to draw men of this division by its new commander, the maverick theorist of tank warfare, Major General Percy Hobart, who just happened to have been a friend of Kennington’s since about 1919.

Now Hobart had joined the Tank Corps in 1923, rising to command the Army’s sole armoured brigade in 1935-36. Rather like Kennington, he had a positive gift for putting the noses out of joint of his seniors over him, and he’d actually been sacked as commander of the 7th Armoured Brigade in Egypt at the beginning of the Second World War. However in 1941 Churchill was horrified and amazed to discover that Hobart was no longer on the active list, but actually was serving as a sergeant in his local Home Guard, and the prime minister insisted that Hobart be given a new armoured division to command, train and inspire.

I’ll just sort of show you an image of Wavell. So there’s Hobart that Kennington drew during this stint at the 11th Armoured Division late 1941 - early 1942.

And while with the division, he... oh, there’s just an image of Hobart as he was in 1942, and this is Kennington’s portrait of him on the top of his command tank in January 1942.

And the idea was that he would draw a series of works, or a series of people within the division, and then these would be reproduced in a sort of illustrated booklet, which was eventually published in December 1942 as ‘Tanks and Tank Folk’, and there’s the front cover of that.

But while he was with the division, typically enough Kennington seized the opportunity to drive a Crusader tank himself, and this is a portrait drawn of his instructor, Sergeant Birch, who told the artist: ‘You’ll find it bumpy, noisy, smelly, rather cramped.’ And then continuing: ‘“Push the levers right home, now take these two banks, four feet down across the road, five feet up, don’t stop on the top, keep her going, rev up, push this tree over.” That was a revelation. The tree made obeisance gently, and cast its branches, which hopped and leapt in smithereens, but not a crackle came through to us. Our own noise of the tank filled the world. Outer happenings were as unreal as a silent musicless film. It made clear how, apart from the brutality of their makeup, the Germans could crush civilian crowds. They could not hear the screams or see the gory havoc.’

He drew on top of tanks, and inside tanks - this is one of Gunner Aspinall. As Kennington later remarked about this drawing: ‘He was all shut in, and there was no room for a drawing board. Even to scribble notes was the act of a contortionist. Every time you touch something you get a little bit more grease on you.’

Also, other individuals caught his eye for one reason or another, such as this ‘Sentry’ from 1941. Seen by another officer from this division, and I quote: ‘Look at the “Sentry”. He was not sure himself whether he was a soldier, or a civilian muffled up in too many clothes. He very nearly looked it too. However, EK [Kennington] gaily strengthened him, and the artist successfully places the accent on watchfulness, but the picture is still incredibly like the man, and a sentry into the bargain.’

He also drew the formidable Trooper Lewis, who Kennington described as: ‘ khaki denim, leaning against the door of a nissen hut. Blue-eyed. Anglo-Saxon. A bit ferocious.’

And then also Corporal Hardy: ‘ black overalls, tough, not always as grim as this. It is most difficult to portray gaiety, and easiest to paint people serious or solemn. They’re apt to become either, or both, when they sit still for their portrait - a job especially irksome to a naturally active man like Hardy, who was ex-Royal Tank Regiment, and experienced. He does not drive a little toy of a tank like that in my picture.’

Hardy had initially told the artist, and I quote: ‘“You must draw my tank as well as me,” referring to “her” by name, but I made a great error, and drew not only somebody else’s tank, but one of a different breed.’

But he also took, apart from the portraits, he did some rather lovely, I think very sort of sensitive landscapes of the sort of environment in which he found himself while staying with the 11th Armoured Division, and this is ‘Nissen Land’ from 1942, from the spring of ’42. And also this image of the ‘Officers’ Mess’, ‘...a nissen hut brightly lit and hot as an oven, and stuffed with hearty youth. Light, warmth and a well-stocked bar are likely to produce good nature, high vitality, and a welcome for the oddest guest.’

And then he also kept in touch, after he’d left the division in the spring of 1942, he kept in touch with the Royal Armoured Corps, and he produced this... a series of a couple of cover designs for this pamphlet about a history of the Armoured Corps in 1943. So this is one version, and another version focusing on the head of a driver.

Now Kennington commented later, in ‘Tanks and Tank Folk’, which I mentioned was published in December 1942, that, and I quote: ‘Tanks were male monsters. The jolly feminine names chalked or painted on them won’t fit. I imagine the embodiment of what is left of a man when all his culture is removed, and then add strength and combativeness a thousandfold. The result is the tank.’

Now he returned to work for the RAF in the spring of 1942, but I think he missed his time at the 11th Armoured Division, and I think more generally he missed his time with the Army. The visit had reawakened memories of his time in the Kensingtons and on the Western Front in the First World War as a war artist. Moreover, the War Office’s Head of Public Relations, Major General JH Beith, was keen actually to poach Kennington from the War Artists Advisory Committee.

Beith was not happy at all with the calibre of portraitists that the War Artists Advisory Committee had been sending him, artists such as Anthony Devis, Henry Carr, Henry Lamb, and I’m showing you an example here of the work of William Coldstream.

Coldstream was a particular sore point, he was held in very high regard by Sir Kenneth Clark, but the portraits that he produced of soldiers in North Africa, and later in Italy, such as this example here of Gurkha officer Havildar Kulbir Thapa VC, were deeply disliked by their sitters and by the commanding officers of the units to which they belonged. Their features, Beith complained, were hard to make out. They looked as if they’d been caught in a heavy rain shower, and they were not easy to reproduce. And when they were, they did not at all resemble heroes.

So Beith was also keen to initiate a campaign to raise the profile of the Army, to promote its heroes at a time when it had recently suffered a string of defeats in France and Norway in 1940, in Greece and North Africa in 1941, and then in Malaya and Burma during the first half of 1942.

So Kennington resigned as an official war artist with the War Artists Advisory Committee and for the RAF in September 1942, and he went to work for the War Office under Major General Beith. And he drew a series of portraits of heroic soldiers that could be translated into portraits.

Kennington drew the men who’d been preselected for him, who’d displayed great bravery, for example, under fire during the retreat to Dunkirk in May-June 1940, such as Regimental Sergeant Major Christopher Roby, DCM of the Royal Green Jackets, and also Regimental Sergeant Major Sutton, who’s in the National Army Museum’s art collection - he was of the Essex Regiment, drawn late 1942. And also Private... I think probably one of the most sensitive ones of a private who’d won the military medal in Eritrea and then wounded again... had been wounded during the first battle of El Alamein in June 1942.

Kennington also drew a haunting portrait of one of the few British officers to distinguish himself during the disastrous Malayan campaign of 1941-42. This is Lieutenant Colonel Ian Stewart, DSO, MC of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. And I think this man looks as if he is still, in his own mind, back in Malaya in a desperate battle for survival against the apparently unstoppable Japanese.

And some of these portraits, including that of Colonel Stewart here, were reproduced in articles written by the Scottish writer Eric Linklater, for publication in the Illustrated London News, Picture Post, and also Military Illustrated.

Now Major General Beith, the Head of PR at the War Office, backed by the acerbic Secretary of State for War, Sir Percy James Grigg, were also keen to portray, and raise the profile, and improve the image of the much-mocked Home Guard in 1943. And in fact its reputation had received a drubbing in recent films such as ‘Went the Day Well’, released in December 1942, and probably even more notoriously in ‘The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp’, which was released in April 1943.

So in the spring of 1943, Beith commissioned Kennington to produce a series of portraits of home guardsmen from across the United Kingdom, in their workplaces, in uniform or in their civilian garb, with uniform and equipment ready to hand, and these would be reproduced in magazines such as The Illustrated London News, The Studio, and Country Life.

Oh, just an image here of one of his more interesting ventures into the symbolic realm. This was his tribute to the 8th Army entitled ‘The Eighth’, drawn after the surrender of German forces in North Africa at Tunis.

But starting with the works that he drew as part of his Home Guard series, which was eventually reproduced in a book as ‘Britain’s Home Guard: A Character Study’ in February 1945, he first drew in April 1943 a London home guard, Private Mills, who was serving in a Home Guard heavy anti-aircraft battery on Clapham Common. And in relation to this drawing of Private Mills, he drew this sort of wonderfully evocative image of a Home Guard battery in action on Clapham Common on an evening in April 1943. So, it’s Home Guard anti-aircraft gunners in action.

And in this fine... another sort of fine ‘tache here from Lance Corporal Robertson who was a Great War veteran serving... he was a postman in civilian life, but he was serving in the 11th Battalion of the Edinburgh Home Guard.

You also have the very tough-looking Sergeant Moir, who I showed you at the beginning of the talk, who was a ghillie and a gamekeeper in civilian life, who qualified as a marksman on the Western Front, serving with the Gordon Highlanders in 1917 - a sort of lovely evocation of a sort of Aberdeenshire forest over his shoulder.

And then here, of another Gordon Highlander, another veteran of the Western Front in the First World War, Aberdeen farmer Sergeant McLeod, also of the 3rd Battalion of the Aberdeen Home Guard, with this sort of lovely, almost Van Gogh-like evocation of a sort of summer field, looking through the entrance to his barn.

Now, this is one that he drew of somebody at home. This was a Welsh... a miner from south Wales, Corporal Melvin Jones of the 9th Battalion of the Monmouth Home Guard, with whom Kennington actually spent about two or three days staying in his home in Pontnewydd in south Wales at the eastern end of the valleys.

And this is a... well it’s quite a remarkable image, which is now in Torfaen Museum, of Melvin Jones in his sort of day job as a miner, deep beneath the surface at his punishing day job, hacking at a seam of coal in a tunnel only four feet high.

Then he went off to the south of England and Cambridgeshire, and I think it’s interesting that Kennington was an admirer of Oliver Cromwell, and he drew this intriguing symbolic representation of Cromwell’s bronze statue by Frederick Pomeroy, which was erected in the centre of St Ives where Cromwell had lived in the mid-1630s. And Pomeroy’s statue was unveiled in 1601 [sic - 1901].

And I think, just in passing, to note that Cromwell’s reputation had undergone something of a revival during the Second World War, and the image of his statue outside the House of Commons, for example, was used by the London Passenger Transport Board as the basis for a poster which was issued in 1940.

So that’s the statue by Thornycroft that was the basis for the poster, and in fact the New Model Army that Cromwell was so associated with, was taken in the summer of 1940 as a possible model for the future development of the Home Guard by writers such as Basil Liddell Hart, John Brophy and Tom Wintringham.

And in fact while he was in St Ives, he drew this I think marvellous... marvellous and sort of gritty portrait of 50-year-old farmer, Sergeant John Henry Jack Stokes of the 2nd Battalion of the Huntingdonshire Home Guard, I think primarily because they reminded him, or in his mind’s eye, of one of Cromwell’s Ironsides. So, another Great War veteran.

Similarly with this portrait of a man in Portsmouth, a VC winner, Private James Ockendon, who was then serving with the 18th Portsmouth Dockyard Battalion of the Hampshire Home Guard. He was a crane operator at the time that Kennington drew him. But Ockendon had won the Victoria Cross in October 1917 for single-handedly capturing a German machine-gun post, killing its crew of three, and a further four Germans who attempted to recapture the position. Ockendon had then proceeded to lead his platoon to capture a fortified farmhouse, taking 16 German prisoners.

Then in the autumn of 1943 he moved on to Cumbria, where he drew 48-year-old Company Sergeant Major William Ernest Waters in Barrow-in-Furness town hall, overlooking the town’s important shipyards. In civilian life Waters had been a lead miner, and was a municipal electrician at the time that Kennington drew him. During the First World War, Waters had served for three years on the Western Front with the 4th Kings Own Royal Lancasters, and towards the end of his time in the trenches, Waters qualified as a company sniper and amassed an impressive total of kills. The sitter thought the portrait a faithful likeness, though he apparently complained at the time that Kennington had made his nose a little on the big side.

And during this period while he was in Barrow-in-Furness with the Home Guard there, he drew a series of quite sort of striking evocative scenes of the home guards in action, such as this image of coastal defence searchlights looking out over the Irish Sea at the heavily mined beaches of south-west Barrow.

And then also this is a work called ‘The Toggle Rope’ showing the home guards practising house-to-house fighting.

And then he moved briefly to Leeds where he drew the wonderfully craggy-faced Battery Sergeant Major Dawson, yet another Great War veteran in charge of a battery of anti-aircraft guns. In fact Home Guard anti-aircraft gunners, certainly in the south-east of England, were extensively deployed during the summer of 1943 and ‘44 against the V1 Doodlebug flying bombs.

And in civilian life, Dawson was the foreman of a munitions factory. After Kennington drew him, there was a fire in the factory, and Dawson was later rewarded the George Medal for putting the fire out at great personal risk to himself.

And one of his last Home Guard portraits, which was drawn in November 1943, was of the splendidly knobbly-nosed Sergeant Edgar Bluett of the Penzance Home Guard, and appropriately enough he’s depicted here by Kennington standing guard over a section of rugged south Cornish coastline.

Another Great War veteran, Bluett had been a Lewis gunner with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry on the Western Front in 1917-18. And I think looking at this drawing here with this marvellous evocation of the coastline of Cornwall over his shoulder, it’s as if Kennington purposely evokes John O’Gaunt’s famous speech in Act II, Scene I of Shakespeare’s ‘Richard II’, in which John O’Gaunt, the grizzled old soldier, imagines England as, and I quote, ‘...this little world, this precious stone set in the silver sea, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England’. And in fact Kennington quoted this very passage in the catalogue to his September 1943 solo show, at the Leicester Galleries, which included two-thirds of his Home Guard portraits.

Just in the last few minutes of my talk I just want to wrap up on what he did after the Home Guard period, his Home Guard series, and this is just an image of ‘Britain’s Home Guard’ published in February 1945. But he also did a series of works, I think on the basis of the work that he exhibited in September 1943 which was, again, very highly praised, very well received by most of the critics. He received a commission to draw six portraits of employees of London Passenger Transport Board, or London Transport, who distinguished themselves during the great blitz, the big blitz of September 1940 to May 1941, and this was issued as a series of posters throughout the network in April and... or between April and June 1944 as ‘Seeing It Through’.

And I just want to show you here, there’s a couple... three of the sitters were women, proof... and I just wanted to show you proof that he was more than capable of convincingly depicting female subjects, such as here, this is Underground porter Elsie Birrell who was based at Stockwell station whom Kennington drew in February 1944, who displayed great presence of mind when Stockwell station was bombed in November 1940.

Now it’s interesting, this is the original pastel from which the basis for the... from which the lithographic poster was made. When the committee that commissioned these posters first saw them, they... one of the members remarked that he’d made Birrell look as though she’d just been dug up in Tutankhamun’s tomb, not from Stockwell at all, but more like the Valley of the Kings. So it had to be slightly sort of toned down for when it was produced as a poster.

He also drew this wonderful portrait of a 20-year-old bus conductress, one of the first generation of female bus conductors employed by London Transport in November 1940. She’d only been in the job about a fortnight when a bus she was in was caught in the blitz, and she shielded with her own body two young children, and also helped passengers who’d been injured when the bus was riddled with shrapnel from a bomb exploding nearby. She came from Poplar and was based at Athol Street garage.

Kennington said that she had... she was ‘like a Rubens Venus’ and she had a complexion that was ‘edible as a peach’.

So these were drawn early in 1944, and issued in the spring and summer of 1944 over the network. And as the war in Europe was coming to a close, Kennington occasionally accepted commissions from military men he’d met during his work for the War Office in 1942-43, such as... I think it’s a rather striking portrait... unfortunately I don’t have an image of it in colour, but this is 64-year-old ex-Home Guard commander former Major General Sir James Burnett with his boxer... with his dog, Junior.

There’s a rather sad story behind this in that he looks rather sort of melancholic, because he had two sons - one was killed in a traffic accident at the beginning of the war, and this was drawn in June 1945, and six weeks earlier his second surviving son had been killed during the attack on... or advance across the Rhine - Operation VERITY - and serving with his old regiment the Gordon Highlanders.

So it’s his bulldog, Junior, here.

And when... and I think he’s... sorry, just returning to something I said at the beginning of the talk, when Kennington drew him, I think he was conscious that Burnett was a Great War veteran for whom great things had been predicted in 1918 – he’d already been awarded the DSO and Bar, and Burnett in 1918 was one of the British Army’s youngest brigadier generals aged only 36, but he’d never quite fulfilled his potential and had not been given the senior command during World War Two he probably merited on the grounds of age.

So I think we’ll just finish off here with Kennington resting in his den in his garden at Homer House in south Oxfordshire, reading about the end of the war and VE Day in May 1945.

So, thank you for your time.

1 comment

Alan Adair
1 April 2013, 9.28pm

Eric Kennington painted a

Eric Kennington painted a portrait of my Grandfather Tom Adair. It was when he was a shop steward on the Churchill Tank Production line at Vauxhall Motors in 1943. The picture I believe is in Kennington's book Tanks and Tank Folk.

The huge portrait hung in the Vauxhall Directors boardroom until 1967, then presented to Tom on his retirement in 1967. Tom died in 1986 and the portrait has been inherited by my cousin.

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