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Thomas Hennell

Rugby Collection War Art

The War Artists Advisory Committee

Throughout the ages many artists have found war fascinating. Their paintings, drawings, sculptures and photos give an insight into life during war time including what is was like in battle, or at home. During World War II, the government employed over three hundred artists to document what was happening in this country and abroad. These artworks were kept at the Imperial War Museum. Some Official War Artists were commissioned to record life on the battle fields, others the changes to industry and transport. Other artists such as Rupert Shephard submitted their own works to the committee.  In 1947, the Imperial War Museum distributed the artworks from the War Artists Advisory Committee to public art galleries so that people across the country had access to a permanent record and reminder of life during the war. The Rugby Collection has eight of these artworks, including two by Thomas Hennell.

Thomas Hennell RWS NEAC (1903-1945)

Thomas Hennell was born in Kent and studied art at the Regent Street Polytechnic (1921-25) before qualifying as a teacher. He travelled the breadth of Britain working on essays and illustrations of the British countryside. Struggling with his mental health, Hennell suffered a nervous breakdown in 1932, which led to him being detained at a psychiatric Hospital for three years. Edward Bawden later encouraged him to write ‘The Witnesses’, an account of his experience of coping with mental illness and time in hospital which was illustrated by the drawings he made whilst interned.

In 1939 at the outbreak of war, Hennell wrote to the War Artists' Advisory Committee (WAAC) offering his services. He produced images of South-East England for Recording Britain and was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to produce watercolours of rural efforts in agriculture such as toolmaking and land work. His first commission as an Official War Artist was in Iceland where he replaced the recently deceased Eric Ravilious in 1943. This would have been an incredibly disturbing experience as Ravilious was a close friend who had donated a series of wood engravings as illustrations for a book of Hennell’s poems. In May 1944 Hennell went to Portsmouth to record and take part in the preparations for D-Day.

Official posts saw the artist travel extensively through northern France, painting German prisoners of war before transferring to a Royal Navy unit recording the Allied journey into Belgium and Holland (1944-45). In June 1945 Hennell journeyed to Burma with the RAF recording the Japanese retreat and then from Burma to Calcutta by train where he set sail to Colombo the capital of Sri Lanka. Here he joined HMS Hunter on its voyage to Penang in Malaysia and following the surrender of Singapore, to Indonesia where he was captured by Indonesian terrorists and killed. He was the third war artist to die in active service.

At the time of his death, Hennell was considered to be one of Britain's most significant watercolourists. He was a member of The Royal Watercolour Society and exhibited in the New English Art Club. He was a visionary poet and the author and illustrator of a number of important books about English rural life. His work is represented in numerous public collections,:the Government Art Collection, the Imperial War Museum, National Museum Wales, Tate and the V&A; as well as regional galleries across the country.  

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 Thomas Hennell  Dieppe Harbour, Rainy Morning c. 1944  Watercolour on paper  Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, Rugby Borough Council, Presented by the War Artists' Advisory Committee (1947)

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Thomas Hennell   Landing Craft, Troops, Tanks and Bulldozer  c.1944      Watercolour on paper  Rugby Art Gallery and Museum, Rugby Borough Council, Presented by the War Artists' Advisory Committee (1947)