Sunday 21 September 2014

Picturing England

Another nice Ravilious, eh? Well no actually, though you might easily take it for one Eric Ravilious's lovely High Street series. It's actually by Barbara Jones, as artist I had not been aware of until I happened to catch a programme on Radio 4 Extra about the wartime Recording Britain project. This was the brainchild of Kenneth Clark who, at the height of the Second World War, sent an elite force of watercolour artists out across the land, armed only with paints and brushes, to record whatever caught their eye so that, whatever happened, a picture of England (and it was mostly England) as it was at that point in time should survive for posterity (this must have been undertaken in the hope of an Allied victory - the Nazis could hardly be relied on to keep such a record, created by artists of whom they would by and large have disapproved).
  The principal focus of the radio programme was Thomas Hennell, described by presenter Patrick Wright as 'the nearest thing England had to a Van Gogh'. This is a curious assertion; all the work of Hennell's I have seen online seems firmly in the English watercolour tradition, and rather towards the watery end of it. He was passionately interested in the vanishing scenes of rural crafts and husbandry that he painted - and was a very intense man, whose mental health was frail - but that's about as far as the Van Gogh analogy goes. For all his frailty, though, he went on to be become a serving war artist, being initially sent to Iceland to replace Eric Ravilious, tragically lost in 1942. Hennell took part in D-Day, following the 1st Canadian Army, then a Royal Navy unit in Belgium,  before heading to the Far East towards the end of the war, and on to Java, where it seems he was attacked by a crowd, spurred on by Indonesian nationalists, as he painted. That was the last that was heard of him - a terrible end.
 Barbara Jones, whose style was very different from Hennell's - closer to coloured drawing that wash painting - was fascinated by more urban trades, by details, unexpected scenes and overlooked corners of small towns. The optician's shop above (now an anonymous branch of Vision Express) is in Croydon, where Barbara grew up. In the radio programme, there is much discussion of the painting below - Savage's Yard, King's Lynn - a haunting image of fairground figures in storage, with something about it that looks forward to Paula Rego and back to Goya. It has a strong sense of transience about it, as if these are fragments of a fast vanishing world (the oil drum representing the world to come?). I'm pleased to discover that there's quite a lot of appreciative writing about Barbara Jone on the blogscape. One of a hugely talented Royal College of Art generation along with Piper, Bawden, Ravilious and Ardizzone, she surely deserves to be as well known as them.


  1. Savage's Yard has the whiff of Wilhelm Busch about it, the creator of Max and Moritz, Germany's favourite , children's tales, a mixture of Roald Dahl and Dennis the Menace, with an added dash of creepiness.

  2. Yes indeed Malty - what is it with the Germans and creepy children's tales?

    1. We shall know shortly, Nige. The BBC, that font of all knowledge is launching a series of radio programmes, having decided that, although the Germans admire us, we, to our shame, don't admire them. No doubt the BBC will, as ever, show us the error of our ways.

  3. And I note that one episode is called One Nation, Many Sausages. True...