Issue 230
March/April 2024

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Apr 15, 2024

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Painter of war and peace

Thomas Hennell, less well known than '30s colleagues Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden, is receiving long overdue recognition in a recent biography, plus an exhibition

Thomas Hennell: Beech Avenue, Lasham, from the Recording Britain Collection. c1941. Courtesy Victoria and Albert Museum.

I'M READING Jessica Kilburn's book Thomas Hennell, The Land and the Mind, published in 2021. It's fascinating, insightful, carefully researched, beautifully produced and illustrated. Matilda Bevan's exhibition 'Vein' at Berwick's Granary Gallery, inspired by Hennell, includes four of his works and some memorabilia.

The constellations were in particularly creative alignment in 1903, when three remarkable English artists were born: Edward Bawden on March 10, Thomas Hennell on April 16, and Eric Ravilious on July 22.

Fate brought them together again twenty-eight years later, in 1931, at the Brick House in Great Bardfield, Essex, where Bawden and Ravilious were already ensconced as lodgers. Hennell was cycling round the country recording traditional farming practices, sleeping under hedges or in barns, researching for his book Change in the Farm. That evening he fancied a bath and proper bed. The three met over breakfast and hit it off immediately.

Their paths continued to cross for more than a decade. It was a difficult time for Hennell, who suffered a severe nervous breakdown in 1932, and spent the next three years in a succession of institutions. A big man, with tremendous energy and stamina, the coming of war released an extraordinarily productive period as an official war artist.

When his friend Ravilious was lost flying off Iceland in 1942 Hennell took his place, before being posted to Indonesia to record the Japanese surrender. He never came home, losing his life to nationalist forces in Java in 1945.

Hennell's star has not shone as brightly as those of his two friends in recent years, although he was recognised as outstanding in his lifetime by both National Gallery Director Kenneth Clark, and Tate Director John Rothenstein. Perhaps because he was never one to seek the limelight, although illness and a relatively short creative life will have played a part. Most of his work was undertaken in twelve active years. Also, I think, because his style was not innovative, or ground-breaking, or obviously modern.

He was simply a very good painter, of English country life and then of a nation at war, writing, in 1943, that "Life is more urgent, more realistic in times of austere need as at present".

Lucky for him, and his contemporary, David Jones, that they both studied with A S Hartrick at Camberwell School of Art. He taught them economy with colour and paint, describing Jones as "leaving out everything but the magic."

Often, looking at Hennell's paintings of rural life, humans are so much part of the landscape that, immersed in their work, they are scarcely separate beings, and sometimes hardly seen at all. Painting sheep shearing at Stinsford Farm near Dorchester in 1940, known to Thomas Hardy, he perfectly describes his words from Far From the Madding Crowd - "the barn was natural to the shearers, and the shearers were in harmony with the barn".

Physicists and mystics agree that at subatomic level there is no separation, only energy. Perhaps that is why Hennell's contemporary Carel Weight wrote that he went "deeper into his subject than any artist I have ever known". His paintings can have a wraith-like, ghostly quality, reminding us that he had been overwhelmed by "the other", seeing the unseen, imagining the unimaginable; and could be again. Shades of William Blake, his favourite poet and seer. Hennell's work is delicate, complex, layered, diaphanous.

You need time to absorb, be immersed; then feel the energy, movement, and excitement! Take 'Rathcoursey House from Mad Dog Wood', painted in 1940 at his happy place, his friend John Smyth's estate overlooking Cork Harbour in Ireland. Chaotic, effulgent, the high summer greenery in the foreground feels as if it will fall out of the frame and overwhelm, entangle, trip, trap even. Escape is hinted at, taunting, tantalising, teasing with a glimpse of a yacht at anchor in the bay top left, and part of the big house top right.



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