Keith Burns picks his favourite art from “The Second World War: An Illustrated History” for Britain at War magazine

Here’s a glimpse of a feature from the latest issue of Britain at War magazine, focusing on the stunning artwork of comic artist and illustrator Keith Burns.

Historian James Holland and artist Keith Burns selected their favourite illustrations from among the more than 280 paintings commissioned for their new book, The Second World War: An Illustrated History.

The Second World War: An Illustrated History by James Holland, illustrated by Keith Burns (2023)

From the great cities of Europe to the jungles of Burma, and from the deserts of North Africa to the remote islands of the South Pacific and the freezing waters of the Arctic, the Second World War touched every continent and ocean on the planet. And from the Blitzkrieg to the atom bomb, the fighting fuelled new technological development on land, at sea and in the air at a ferocious pace. Our future was forged by war.

Combining compelling personal stories with a clear and accessible appreciation of the strategic and operational battle for supremacy between the Allies and the Axis powers, bestselling historian James Holland weaves an irresistible narrative in The Second World War: An Illustrated History, his work complemented by some 280 illustrations by acclaimed artist Keith Burns, commissioned specially for this project.

Together, they bring events in The Second World War: An Illustrated History to life with stunning drama and dynamism.

Over five years in the making, their groundbreaking collaboration has produced a unique and unforgettable account of the most extraordinary events the world has ever seen.

An RAF speed launch prepares to rescue a downed pilot in the English Channel during the Battle of Britain. Image: Keith Burns
An RAF speed launch prepares to rescue a downed pilot in the English Channel during the Battle of Britain. Image: Keith Burns

James Holland is an internationally acclaimed and award-winning historian, writer, and broadcaster. The author of a number of best-selling histories he has presented – and written – a large number of television programmes and series. He has a weekly Second World War podcast, We Have of Making You Talk, with Al Murray, and is Chair of the Chalke Valley History Festival. He is a research fellow at St Andrew’s University.

Speaking recently to Mark Bridge at History First, James explained the origins of this mammoth undertaking.

“I wanted to write a brief, easy-to-digest sweep of the Second World War,” he explained, “covering the main areas and combatant nations and incorporating the latest thinking. One of the key parts of my own thesis on the war is that we’ve been looking at just two of the ways of fighting. The war was fought on three levels — the strategic, operational and tactical. Obviously, strategic was the big overview stuff and tactical was the coalface of war. The operational level is what brings those two other levels together. It’s the nuts and bolts, it’s economics, shipping, supply chains, but it’s much more than that.

“In the narrative of the Second World War, historians have traditionally focused on the strategic — ‘What’s Monty thinking?’ ‘What’s Eisenhower thinking?’ ‘What does Churchill want to achieve?’ And on the tactical — people jumping out of landing crafts or flying a Lancaster bomber. And very, very little effort has been made on that operational level. Once you reinsert the operational level into the narrative, a very different picture emerges.”

Keith Burns stunning “HMS Nightshade” art for the cover of the 2000AD and Treasury of British webshop exclusive edition of Battle Action #1
Keith Burns stunning “HMS Nightshade” art for the cover of the 2000AD and Treasury of British webshop exclusive edition of Battle Action #1, on sale from Wednesday 31st May in all good comic shops

Keith Burns is an award winning aviation artist and commercial illustrator. He has illustrated comics for the past decade, his collaborations with writer Garth Ennis, Johnny Red and Out of the Blue being the most recent, with a new “Johnny Red” tale featuring in Battle Action #1, on sale in comic shops from Wednesday 31st May.

In 2012 he joined the Guild of Aviation Artists. In 2015 he won the Messier Dowty award for best acrylic painting in show, and in 2016 he was made a full member of the Guild, had his first solo exhibition at the RAF Club in London and won Aviation Painting of the Year. He has produced commissions for the RAF, the Army, the Imperial War Museum and Forces Charities, and, over the last few years, supplied art for various stamp collections for Jersey Post.

The Second World War: An Illustrated History by James Holland, illustrated by Keith Burns (2023). Action stations on a U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic. Long periods of boredom were followed by moments of high tension and fear. Image: Keith Burns
Action stations on a U-boat during the Battle of the Atlantic. Long periods of boredom were followed by moments of high tension and fear. Image: Keith Burns
The Second World War: An Illustrated History by James Holland, illustrated by Keith Burns (2023)
RAF 609 Squadron attacking a large formation of German Stukas during the Battle of Britain. Image: Keith Burns

[This] is the biggest project I’ve taken on,” he says of The Second World War: An Illustrated History, speaking to History First. “The biggest one before it was eight issues of a comic that was 24 pages an issue, plus covers. But that was inks. It’s a different thing to paint everything. I had found myself in a strange niche where I specialised in World War Two aviation stories so I could do all the aircraft, no problem, and most of the other hardware. I’d spent about ten years in comics and had figured out how to make things look like they’re moving, trying to capture the physics of flying, the kinetic energy. But it was a leap to suddenly have to paint everything in the world. 

“I had to paint Hitler six times, which was bizarre. I was thinking, ‘God. There can’t be many people sitting painting Hitler this many times’. For things like that, you can only work off photographs, really. And there were all sorts of other interesting scenes I had to illustrate that I’d never done before. It was a massive challenge.”

The Second World War: An Illustrated History by James Holland, illustrated by Keith Burns, is out now | ISBN: 978-0241601327 | Buy it from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)

Pick up the June issue of Britain at War from the Key Publishing store, and tell them what your favourite is! | Students save 10%, details here

As the UK’s best-selling military history title, Britain at War Magazine is dedicated to exploring every aspect of the involvement of Britain and her Commonwealth in conflicts from the turn of the 20th century through to the present day. With at least 116 pages in every issue, Britain at War prides itself on well-researched and eye-catchingly designed historical content, aiming to provide new and fresh perspectives on Britain’s wars.

With thanks to Britain at War contributor Steve Snelling for the heads up on Britain at War

The founder of downthetubes, which he established in 1998. John works as a comics and magazine editor, writer, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. Working in British comics publishing since the 1980s, his credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine, Star Trek Explorer (previously known as Star Trek Magazine) and more. He also edited the comics anthology STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare”. He’s the writer of "Pilgrim: Secrets and Lies" for B7 Comics; “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood.



Categories: Art and Illustration, Books, British Comics, Comics, downthetubes News, Other Worlds

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