Tag Archives: Thomas Hennell

Land girls in Lymington: war art fights back

Evelyn Dunbar, 'Picking Sprouts - Monmouthshire' (Manchester City Art Galleries)

Evelyn Dunbar, 'Picking Sprouts - Monmouthshire' (Manchester Art Gallery)

On reflection, the venue for The Women’s Land Army – A Portrait was nothing short of inspired. The St Barbe Museum and Art Gallery, located just off the High Street in Lymington, a modestly pretty market town and port just south of the New Forest, is in essence that very necessary and worthwhile thing, a local history collection — augmented, in this case, with two large rooms turned over to temporary art exhibitions. What more suitable context, then, for this compact yet compelling exhibition, doomed by its subject-matter to operate in the dangerous no man’s land dividing ‘history’ from ‘art’?

The history of the Women’s Land Army is recounted clearly and succinctly, both in the exhibition itself, and in the excellent accompanying catalogue. Other than commending this achievement, however, I don’t propose to say much more here about history per se.

For what clearly fascinated the exhibition organisers is the way in which the work of the Women’s Land Army was portrayed, notably during the course of the Second World War, under the auspices of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee. Meanwhile, what fascinates me is the present-day predicament of British war art — particularly of official British war art — which, for all its sometimes astonishingly high level of quality, is so rarely and grudgingly regarded as ‘proper’ art at all. Continue reading

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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.

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