Showcasing the very best of Royal Museums Greenwich’s collection of First and Second World War art, “War Artists at Sea” is a programme of displays in the Queen’s House includes visually arresting and moving portraits, battle scenes, and depictions of everyday life during conflict, which runs until 2nd August 2015.
It features art by artists including Leslie Cole, Eric Ravilious, Richard Eurich, Norman Wilkinson, Stephen Bone, William Dring, John Worsley, Gladys E Reed, John Kingsley Cook and Charles Wheeler.
For Eagle comic fans, John Worlsey‘s name will be immediately familiar, as the artist on the comic’s “PC 49” strip. During World War Two he was appointed an official war artist.
Three of his works are on display, sharing space over two rooms with the art of William Dring, Gladys E Reed and John Kingsley Cook. Their sketches, pastels and watercolours all tell a personal story of war.
William Dring was a portraitist and an official war artist to the Admiralty and Air Ministry; his works predominantly in pastel captured the faces of distinguished war heroes and young naval servicemen with the same psychological intensity.
The highly talented but as yet unknown Gladys E Reed provides a contrast to the well-documented Dring, and her intimate sketches, made throughout her service as a Wren on her ‘off-watch’ time reveal what life was like for women working during the war.
Works by Worsley and John Kingsley Cook represent their shared but very different experiences of life in prisoner-of-war camps and on-board ships. John Worsley was the youngest official war artist in the Royal Navy, but his confidence shines through the vivid watercolours and illustrations of his time spent in captivity in a naval officers’ prisoner-of-war camp in Germany – Marlag “O” near Bremen.
While there he created “Albert RN”, the dummy that was used to fool the Germans for several days while one of the fellow inmates made his escape. He was recaptured, but that’s another story.
John Kingsley Cook was not an official war artist, but his championing of the merchant navy is depicted through on-the-spot sketches, contemporary to the events he experienced, as well as retrospective drawings made from memory.
All three paintings by Worlsey are related to Marlag “O”, two of fellow prisoners, Lieutenant (Basil Charles) Godfrey Place VC and Lieutenant Commander Stephen Holden Beattie VC; and the third is of the Officers’ Mess at Marlag “O“. (The preceding links will take you to the BBC’s “Your Paintings” pages relating to all three paintings; and you can view all the paintings by Worlsey digitised by the BBC here)
In 1942, as a 22-year-old Royal Naval lieutenant, Place, one of the men painted by Worsley at Marlag “O”, commanded the midget submarine X7 which, with three others, was towed by submarine from Scotland to make an attack on the German battleship ‘Tirpitz’, in Kaa Fjord, northern Norway. This involved travelling at least 1,000 miles from base and negotiating such hazards as a minefield, nets, gun defences and enemy listening posts and only three reached the ‘Tirpitz’.
Of these, notes the BBC Your Paintings web site, X5 was spotted and sunk. Only X7 and X6 managed to lay their charges under the enemy’s hull before both had to be scuttled and abandoned, during which two more men were drowned. The remainder, including Place, were captured and were on ‘Tirpitz’ an hour later when their charges exploded, damaging her severely and putting her out of action for months. Place was later transferred to Marlag-O, the German prison camp for naval officers at Westertimke, near Bremen, and in 1944 was awarded the VC for the action.
• War Artists at Sea, Queen’s House, Greenwich London SE10 9NF | How to get here | Floor plans | Runs until 2nd August 2015 | Admission free | Opening times: 10.00–17.00. Last admission 16.30 | Further information: www.rmg.co.uk/whats-on/events/war-artists-at-sea
Thanks to David Britton for alerting me to this exhibition