Letters from the dead

Here’s an odd thing. Yesterday’s post included, amid the usual consignment of unengaging rubbish, an A4 envelope addressed in an unfamiliar hand.

Curious, I opened it. I was standing at the sideboard in our dining room. Although the house itself was quiet, a few feet away I could see, through the windows, the colourful, cheerfully profane West End multitudes surging by, intent on their lunchtime errands, vital and mundane, oblivious to anything except each other and, perhaps, the mildly surprising warmth of the late summer sunshine.

Inside the envelope was an older envelope. Within that, there was a letter.

And this, at last, I recognised immediately. Those downstrokes, deliberate, looping and inky, said all there was to say. The letter, I learned, had been written in November 1944 by Thomas Hennell — English poet, essayist, illustrator, and painter in watercolours. And Hennell, in turn, had almost certainly died in November 1945 in what used to be Batavia, killed by Indonesian nationalist rebels while observing the conflict there in his role as a British war artist.

I felt strange, standing there, holding a letter from someone both so long dead, but at the same time, someone whose work now occupies such an important place in my thoughts.

Not that Hennell is particularly widely known, or for that matter well understood, even amongst the freakish minority of us who view inter-war British figurative art as anything other than yet another testament to the culpable inability of Britain’s visual arts to get to grips with modernism, at least in its manifestation as an inherently internationalist movement, or for that matter, to do anything other than wallow in its own insular, compulsively romantic, yet resolutely anti-heroic and faintly ‘art’-hating, illustration-loving peculiarity. No, to the extent that Hennell’s achieved fame, even in a short measure, this derives from being one of the three artists on the War Artists’ Scheme to die in action overseas, the others being the similarly obscure Albert Richards and the now relatively well-known Eric Ravilious.

Nevertheless, I recognised his handwriting for two reasons. The first is that we actually own two Hennell watercolours, purchased at the end of last year. On one of these the signature is, in a sense, as mesmerising and compelling a part of the rhythm of the line as everything else in this wholly convincing, strangely tragic landscape. For that, in case you were wondering, was why Hennell’s old letter had been posted to us by an art dealer friend — it relates, somewhat obliquely, to one of the pictures we’d bought, being Hennell’s reply to correspondence from that picture’s earlier owner. The second reason I recognised the handwriting is that, after a few weeks of living with them, proximity to Hennell’s work — Hennell being an artist to whom I’d never previously devoted much thought at all — propelled me towards Thomas Hennell: Countryman, artist and writer, a biography produced with subtlety, intelligence and insight in 1988 by Michael MacLeod, at that time a lecturer in art history at Goldsmiths’ College.

Much of the brilliance of MacLeod’s biography lies in the skill with which he addresses the mental breakdown that Hennell, born in 1903 to a family of prosperous silversmiths and Anglican clergy, experienced between 1932-35. Having achieved modest success first as an art student, then a teacher and illustrator, an unreciprocated infatuation with one of his own teachers — she herself would later go mad — drove him into the sort of thorough-going emotional collapse that might well have happened at some point in any event, given Hennell’s highly personal, nervy, open-hearted relationship with the world around him. In any event, MacLeod manages, without minimising the difficulties Hennell’s mental illness posed to his family and friends, to make those years of visions, voices and confusion sound no more romantic than they were tragic or, as far as that goes, particularly unusual. (For what it’s worth, I remain unconvinced that Hennell’s mental health was vastly more ropey than that of, say, William Blake, or Samuel Palmer after his son’s death, or T. S. Eliot, just to pick a few names which might have mattered to Hennell.)

Rather, MacLeod makes Hennell’s interlude of psychosis — for, remarkably, he eventually managed a more or less full recovery — read as a caution against dismissing Hennell as a neo-romantic artist of the more mystical, silly-spiritual sort, always peering under old stones and around blasted tree-trunks in search of some friendly genius locii, amenable to domestication or, for that matter, dissection. Having grown up in the countryside, Hennell didn’t idealise or sentimentalise it. More to the point, Hennell didn’t need any extra weirdness in his life, nor did his early immersion in unselfconscious Anglican certainty leave him typically desperate in his pursuit of pseudo-religions. Instead, for him, the English countryside was quite simply reality itself — prosaic, the solid unchanging noun in a sea of woozy subjunctives — its facts to be recounted literally, in words and in pictures, as if only in that dutiful act of recounting could Hennell’s somewhat unreliable consciousness secure for itself persuasive reassurances of stability.

And indeed Hennell’s career — what there was of it, for as with Ravilious’, it’s hard to avoid feeling that it should, somehow, have lasted so much longer — charts a course from those halting early drawings and watercolours, in which the examples of Girtin, Cozens and so forth supplied a less a nostalgia-inflected idiom than a fully-formed living language, to the impressively confident mark-making and clear-eyed immediacy of his later works, in which his own mature voice was both increasingly audible and, for me anyway, exciting.

The progress, of course, is purely relative. Hennell was never the most fluid or facile of draughtsmen. His pictures lack the apparently effortlessness clarity of Ravilious, just as they lack the matter-of-fact graphic competence of Bawden. Even at its best, Hennell’s art often looks like hard work — all those pen-marks, all the anxious surges and blotches of pigment, that sense of dogged, intensive seriousness! At its worst it can verge on feeling laboured, messy, confusing. Yet — and this, oddly, is as true of the least successful pictures as of the best ones — the hard-won quality is what gives his work, all of it, its peculiar, distinctive, almost talismanic force. Set next to something by Hennell, quite a lot of art not only looks dishonest, but — odder still, if only because all art is, in essence, dishonest — becomes somehow crude, shoddy and obvious in its dishonesty.

This, I suppose, is the main thing one learns from living with Hennell’s work. Even the smaller, more derivative works manage, in a subtle and un-flashy way, to radiate a sort of compelling moral gravity. And this, in turn, is a larger achievement than some critics might suppose, blinded perhaps by the facts that Hennell ‘only’ worked in pen and watercolour, that he sometimes illustrated books for money, and that he’s still left out of pretty much every account of mainstream twentieth century British art. After the Second World War, artists like Sutherland and Bacon went to great lengths to discover whether there was, after all, any human order, any sanity, to be extracted from a world that was surely malign, if not, strictly speaking, entirely chaotic. And while Sutherland’s optimism scratched out a positive answer where Bacon’s dandyish egotism was quite happy to settle on a negative one, it’s worth reflecting that Hennell had, in the lonely ambit of his own skull, in some respects addressed himself to this question already, and had therein arrived at a strategy of response which, more than five decades on, feels far less dated and far more fresh than most alternatives.

Back, though, for a moment to the issue of Hennell’s subject-matter. ‘Unspoilt’, unpeopled, disorganised nature interested him hardly at all. Even in scenes that don’t include actual human activity, a countryman’s eye projected the sense of human activity going on nearby. How men and women lived on the land, the day-to-day mechanics of agricultural life, the buildings and practices that grew out of its necessities — these, in contrast, mattered enormously. Again, the pathetic fallacy is probably more fun when you can be sure it’s just literary play-acting, that the hills aren’t really alive, that the wind echoing through a cleft in the stones isn’t actually conveying information both intelligible and urgent. He seemed to prefer the human actions that conferred an order upon inchoate, unreasonable wildness. He admired craftsmanship, whether this underpinned the making of ladders, sails, wheels, carts, ships, paintings or competent poetry. He loved the small differences between broadly similar things. He also loved things that had been done the same way for a very long time.

These, anyway, were the qualities of affinity and aptitude that he brought both to the works he illustrated — H. J. Massingham’s Country Relics, for instance — and to those he wrote himself, such as Change in the Farm or The Countryman at Work. Paradoxically, these are also the qualities that made him such a successful war artist. A heartfelt belief in trying to depict things as they were, in all their occasional ungainliness or compexity, meant that he took as much care over a Mulberry harbour as he would over an ancient tithe barn, or looked as closely at a gun emplacement as he would have done at a scene of sowing or reaping. As far as I can see, he seems to have enjoyed his war work, and indeed, by going on to Java in 1945 to observe the growing nationalist rebellion there, for which he appears to have had more than a degree of sympathy, certainly carried on with it far longer than anyone required him to do.

He also wrote well, both when he wrote about his madness in The Witnesses, and also when he wrote about sane things. Hennell’s poetry is, alas, quite hard to find these days. Much of it only appeared in absolutely tiny editions. MacLeod, however, does reproduce some of his poems, together with rather Blakean pages of handwritten text, illuminated and ornamented. These give a clearer sense than any description could of the way in which the verbal and visual intersected for Hennell. And they also, incidentally, show off his handwriting, which brings us back to the reason I saw immediately, opening that envelope in the dining room, with the crowds milling past in the street outside, that the sheets I held had been written and folded and placed in the inner envelope by this extraordinary, long-dead, half-forgotten artist, Hennell himself.

For the historian of Hennell’s career, the chief interest of the letter probably lies in what he wrote about a collection of lecture slides he owned:

As to lecturing, I do a bit of it & have a limited collection of slides of my own, some very good ones of Old Master drawings — e.g. Rembrandt, Watteau, Claude Lorrain — and some good sets of William Blake and of Bewick’s wood-cuts of birds, beasts & north country landscape.

The point here is the confident way in which Hennell brackets canonical great artists from France and the Low Countries with Blake and Bewick, evidence of an attitude towards the peculiar merits of English art far more well-balanced than that of most critics — the confidence of that attitude, coupled with the down-to-earth specificity, so typical of Hennell, of that ‘north country landscape’ reference. Both speak volumes about Hennell and the sources of his vision.

Reading the letter, though, what made me feel oddest was something apparently more prosaic. The main point of the letter was, it seems, to explain to the original recipient, a countryman who lived near Newark, Notts and who already owned at least one of Hennell’s pictures (it now hangs outside our bedroom) that although Hennell hoped to visit and make a sketch of the recipient’s farm, he couldn’t do so right away. Instead, it was necessary to ‘leave it till I have a bit more time’, as ‘my hope is to get my job extended & to go to Greece in the New Year.’

Yet of course we know, as Hennell cannot, that in fact he has less time left than he imagines. By the end of the coming year he would be dead — slaughtered, most probably, this most harmless and unmilitary of men, by nationalist rebels soldiers or perhaps just a nationalist mob somewhere in Batavia, soon to be Indonesia. Where does he lie now? Quite literally, on the other side of the world from his beloved Ridley, Kent. He lies a universe removed from the particular sort of man-made, historically resonant countryside with which his memory has come to be so inextricably intertwined.

Back, though, to the letter. Having read it through once or twice, I took it upstairs and placed it on top of a pile of books at the back of my desk. And there it remains. I can see it now, as I write this. On one level, my inability to file it away where it belongs is witless sentimentality of the most culpable order. Can anyone, however subconsciously, really be stupid enough to believe that Hennell’s lonely death ten thousand miles away will somehow feel less lonely if an unimportant letter he once sent is entertained in a bright, companionable space, rather than entombed a drawer? What malformed involuntary animism makes the plain physicality of this letter seem, as it were, a sort of bridge between life and the death? It’s just a letter, for heaven’s sake.

And yet at the same time, in this week of all weeks, when some of us have had cause to reflect rather urgently, albeit in a worldly and ultimately unimportant context, on how very little indeed we know of the immediate future — what’s fragile, what’s enduring, what matters — perhaps there’s no harm in keeping near to me, here on my desk, this token and sign of Thomas Hennell, this talisman of hard-won sanity in an unstable and deeply flawed world, this strangely resonant and very welcome letter from the dead.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Letters from the dead

  1. Ryan

    Sorry to leave this off-post comment. I was just reading “What’s a nice artwork like you doing on a plinth like this?”, and wanted to make a late comment.

    “Let us, then, stop cavilling over that fourth plinth, and let our petty bureaucrats and functionaries stick up any silly thing they like, until — many years hence — we have, at last, a better candidate. God save Queen Elizabeth II! Here, though, once God has taken her on to a better place, is a token of how that final fourth plinth statue might look. And here, at last, is a subject who, against all the history of that difficult, troubled Square can, surely, hold her own.”

    I’ve got a candidate from Saskatchewan for you, but it’s not Susan Velder: it’s Joe Fafard. I know he’s made a terra cotta sculpture of QEII in the past, and has created a herd of horses over the years as well. He’s your man, for sure…

    Sorry again for the intrusion… I’ll go back to snooping through the archive here. Thanks for sharing.

  2. fugitive ink

    Thanks for the comment, Ryan.

    It’s still far from clear what is going to happen with that pesky plinth — if anything, the election of Boris Johnson has added to the confusion, since Mr Johnson’s views on the matter are constantly, err, evolving.

    It would, however, be marvellous if any statue of Queen Elizabeth II, equestrian or otherwise, were to be the work of a Canadian artist, as (althogether apart from whatever skill the artist might bring to the work) this would complement the already important Commonwealth associations of Trafalgar Square, would underscore the Queen’s very real commitment to the Commonwealth, and of course would remind her more horse-mad subjects of the late Burmese, who (odd choice of name notwithstanding) was, as we all know, a native of Saskatchewan.

    As for the choice of the sculptor, though, I’ll leave that to St James’s Palace!