One of the most challenging subjects for any artist must be the cutaway. Combining artistry with technical accuracy is a challenge that few take up and yet, when they do, the results can be remarkable.
There are two main types of cutaways, the highly technical and normally black and white cutaways of the automotive and aviation industries that are summed up in the Flight magazine style of image showing an aircraft with an entirely transparent fuselage and the partial cutaways which are less technical but more understandable and therefore more populist. This populist style of cutaway has a long history in publishing with its modern proponents, such as Stephen Biesty and Graham Bleathman, owning much to the master of the genre L Ashwell Wood who, while best known for his work in Eagle comic in the 1950s and 1960s, had cutaways published in Modern Boy story paper and Modern Wonder magazine in the 1930s as well as The Sphere news magazine and a selection of Odhams books in the 1940s.
Yet there is another cutaway artist of L Ashwell Wood’s era who was even more prolific and more widely seen than Wood due to being a regular artist for the weekly Illustrated London News (ILN) magazine for forty years, an artist who is all but forgotten today – G H Davis.
George Horace Davis was born in Kensington on 8 May 1881 and was educated at Kensington Park College and the Ealing School of Art. A freelance artist before the First World War, during the conflict he served in the Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force which put his artistic and diagrammatic skills to use for the war effort with the instigation of aerial manoeuvre diagrams for pilot training. He became Officer-in-Charge, Aerial Diagrams and worked in the RFC’s T5 Section in South Kensington. This work was considered to be important enough for Davis to be featured in the 19 May 1919 issue of Flight magazine (now known as Flight International) under the title ‘Flying Lessons In Pictures‘.
Immediately after the war, as well as continuing to paint subjects for The Sphere weekly news magazine, he was commissioned by the Imperial War Museum (IWM) to paint two scenes of aerial combat. The IWM website describes his work on these oil paintings thus, “The difficulty inherent in painting an eye-witness account of an aerial battle, and the emphasis placed on technical details and accuracy by the Air Service sub-sections, (a common feature of IWM commissions), makes Davis’ work more literal and illustrative than that of painters such as Sydney Carline or CRW Nevinson. It is not the thrill of flying or the view of the landscape from the air that interests Davis, but the heroics of the toy-like planes as they chase each other through the skies.”
His long association with the Illustrated London News began with an illustration about radios in small boats in the issue dated 21 July 1923 and the title would become home for his artwork for the next forty years although, as with many other commercial artists of the day including L Ashwell Wood, during the Second World War he worked on illustrations for Edwin J. Embleton’s Ministry of Information publications. This is indicated by the National Archives listing of two pieces of artwork signed by Davis: INF 3/1226 War In Pictures: Infantry following flail tanks and INF 3/1227 War In Pictures: Human torpedoes – the get-away (two-man submarine escaping from harbour).
Davis’ usually black and white painted subjects for the ILN normally covered one or two pages of the news magazine and presented a wide range of subjects both military and civilian, from aircraft to rockets, cars to ocean liners. The ILN referred to him as a diagrammatic artist as his work covered a wide range of explanatory artwork and not just cutaway images. He would often use multiple images, some cutaway, some close-ups, to explain his subjects to the magazine’s readership while at other times, when the work required it, he would use sequential images to show a technical sequence or to tell a story such as the Chinese attacks on the Royal Navy sloop HMS Amethyst on the Yangtse River.
While his Great War service was to do with flying, the sea does seem to be a recurring theme of Davis’ work. In 1917 he wrote and illustrated the short book Ships Of All Sorts published by Geographica, ‘Salving Millions From Ocean’s Bed and ‘The Latest In Lifeboats’ appeared in the 1925 and 1926 editions of DC Thomson’s Adventure Land, the annual of their weekly Adventure boy’s story paper, while books published by Ward Lock in the 1930s such as The Brave Deeds Picture Book and titles in The Wonder Book Of… series included his maritime work. Also in the 1930s Davis illustrated at least one advertising poster for the Holland America Line showing their then latest SS Statendam ocean liner, while ‘The Latest In Lightships’ appeared in DC Thomson’s 1937 Skipper Book For Boys. By 1955 the ILN was crediting him as “our Special Artist G H Davis SMA” indicating that he was by then a member of the Society of Marine Artists (now the Royal Society of Marine Artists).
Magazines other than the Illustrated London News also ran his work including Flight, Modern Wonder, and Chums in the United Kingdom while in the USA his work appeared regularly in Popular Mechanics Magazine. It has to be said that some of these images could have been licensed reprints from the ILN rather than newly commissioned work, but even if they were reprints they served to spread his art, and his distinctive signature, much further than the single title that was his main source of work. He worked consistently for the ILN until his death at the age of 82 on the night of 30 November/1 December 1963 with his obituary in the ILN dated 7 December 1963 stating that “he himself calculated that he had in his first 40 years occupied over 2500 pages” of the magazine.
That ILN obituary concluded with “Everyone who knew him personally deeply liked him.” This single sentence highlights a weakness in the type of article about long dead commercial magazine and comic artists that you are reading now. It is possible to document the facts about these artists, and sometimes speculate to help fill in gaps in the factual knowledge, but without personal knowledge of the subject, or access to the memories of relatives or friends, it is all but impossible to give a flavour of the person. Yet for GH Davis we can with the help of a perhaps surprising source, British author and playwright Michael Fryan.
Fryan’s biographical book My Father’s Fortune, which was shortlisted in the biography section of the Costa Book Awards in 2010, relates Fryan’s childhood in East Ewell, Epsom. In the book he tells readers that living at 17 Hillside Road (coincidentally about two miles walk away from Dan Dare creator Frank Hampson’s Bayford Lodge) was his father’s friend and neighbour George Davis. Davis obviously held a fascination for the young Michael who describes him in the book as “a tall, benevolent, excitable man with a tiny, benevolent, placid wife”. Perhaps part of the reason for that fascination was that Davis would invite the young Michael into his studio at the back of the house, a studio which he describes as “artistic chaos” amongst which Davis used “technical plans” and “three-dimensional models” to help him create his artwork. Some of the military aircraft models were then given to Michael and were “by far the grandest toys that I will ever own” although “their record of survival in my muddling childish hands is considerably worse than that of their life-size counterparts in battle.”
Fryan’s final comment about Davis is about his garden, “I don’t think that I’m doing George Davis an injustice when I recall that from the windows of his studio you look out through a tangle of rambler rose over a small but (to me) entrancing landscape of primeval forest and unmown savannah.” He sums up the state of Davis’ garden with the succinct comment, “Of course – he’s an artist.”
There is a large selection of GH Davis’ work on the Look and Learn website.
GH Davis’ work for the Royal Flying Corps/Royal Air Force during the First World War is described in the issue of Flight magazine dated 19 May 1919.
The Illustrated London News as it is today – www.iln.co.uk