Join the Creative Collective in discussion with Rob from Paradigm Arts.
Untitled, c.1940, Eileen Agar, Gouache on board
Eileen Agar was born in 1899 in Argentina to an American mother and a Scottish father. Agar moved with her family to London when she was around twelve years old, having travelled to England every two years prior to the move. Though Agar moved frequently throughout her life, England always acted as her home base to which she felt attached. In 1914 during the onset of World War I Agar was sent away from her London home to live in Kent. During this time, she was exposed to art in a place where “art was a valued part of daily life” and became familiar with Paul Nash’s early works.
Agar is mainly associated with the British Surrealist movement, and is famous for her use of collaging. In particular, Agar was known for assemblage pieces created from objects she found on the beach while beachcombing; she spent her summers on the British coast, often taking up residence with other artists in the South. Agar became one of the only women to exhibit along with the Surrealists in England and abroad during the 1930s. The most notable exhibition Agar participated in was the ground-breaking ‘International Surrealist Exhibition’ in London in 1936.
The outbreak of the Second World War unfortunately put a halt to Agar’s artistic activity; by day she was working in a canteen and by night she served as a fire watcher, leaving little room for artistic expression. Furthermore, Agar felt uninspired and understandably disheartened by the state of the world at the time, exclaiming in her words “How does one communicate with any subtlety when the world is deafened by explosions?” One of the limited works Agar created during this time was the Untitled (c.1940) gouache painting she created at the start of the war. The painting is an incredibly personal reaction to the loss, violence and destruction which occurred during the Battle of Britain. It acts as an expression of her horror at the devastation and disturbance to her much beloved homeland. The wavy shapes Agar uses to frame the painting, reminiscent of cartoon noise bubbles, embody the deafening noise she was experiencing as a result of the ensuing destruction. More obviously, the shapes represent the waves on the British coastline, the scene on which the Battle of Britain took place. On the bottom of the painting we see a sea of red, a more graphic allusion to the bloodshed and loss resulting from the conflict.
Agar used the technique of collaging throughout her work; in this painting, Agar utilised it to mirror the chaos of the air assaults. The chaotic composition on the canvas means a closer look is necessary to read the surreal painting. The eerie symbol of the skeleton of the mammoth is the most eye-catching fragment of the painting. This extinct creature may seem far-fetched from the events at the time; however, Agar could be alluding to her own internal fear she was facing at the time. Perhaps Agar was portraying her fear and anticipation that this relentless violence will one day lead to the extinction of her beloved coastal summers; Agar’s beachcombing excursions began to feel like a distant, tainted memory. Scattered around the painting, we see tangled masts and remains of ships and boats destroyed by the bombings on the coastline interweaved with the debris from the planes responsible for the destruction. There is a sense of irony to this juxtaposition– the onlooker may begin to imagine the scene at hand prior to the destruction; the peaceful boats floating along the coast and the planes, impaling the skies, both laying side-by-side, motionless on the beach.
Gwynne-Jones was an English painter, who initially trained as a solicitor, but became inspired by art and pursued watercolours. He only practiced for a few years before being commissioned into the First World War, where he was injured. After this, he taught at an art school, gaining renown for his paintings of flowers and his portraiture.
In 1944, Gwynne-Jones was commissioned by the RAF to paint two portraits of the two members of the RAF who had won the Victoria Cross. However, he quickly found that the airmen simply did not have the time to sit for the oils. Instead he made drawings of a number of Air Force personnel, largely members of the Australian Air Force, at two airbases in Lincolnshire. Sixty-three drawings were purchased by the War Artists Advisory Committee; 44 of these are in the Imperial War Museum, 12 in the Usher Art Gallery, Lincoln, 2 in the Graves Art Gallery. Gwynne-Jones’ work has a real tangible and honest feel to it, and I feel like I am drawn to his work because of these qualities.
The exploration into the dark palette in his painting The Mantelpiece (1939) is very intruiging, and this theme continues in his work A Fair by Night (1938). He could’ve chosen to portray the scene in the bright, fluorescent flashes of the fair, however the black, white and greys create an intoxicating mystery about the subject. You’re made to yearn to peek behind the doors of the tent, and to jump into the painting and get lost in the crowd.
When Gwynne-Jones does use colour, it is sympathetic to the subject, carving out the landscapes and rooftops with light, almost pastel hues. Winter Landscape, Suffolk (date unknown) is a wonderful example, where you can readily imagine yourself in the scene – it’s a winter’s day against a grey but warm sky; the smell of smoke from the chimneys fills your nose and the low sunlight in the sky flickers between the bare branches of the trees. I feel as though I have been inside this painting before.
After listening to a podcast recommended to me, I got thinking about the idea of how somebody’s experience can shape how they react to things and how people’s responses in life can differ so much.
I was initially going to do a recorded piece however thought that it would be a nicer idea to go with a physically drawn/printed reaction for the project. As I have chosen the above Gwynne-Jones’ portraits as my artworks to focus on, I thought about the themes they invoked within me about war and conflict – about how soldiers are normal people with families and intricate stories to tell behind the horrors of war. With so many paying the ultimate price, I wanted to pay my respect and to think about holding a space for the sadness in my own reflection of the Battle of Britain. Their deaths and their sacrifice brought so much sorrow to their families and to society. During this process, I began to draw parallels to my own family – and the fact that everybody has people around them.
I wanted to create my own portraits as a reaction to Gwynne-Jones’ series, and have been contemplating basing them off my own family, or everyday people, to highlight the impact even to myself that each death had.
The following artworks were created using a monoprinting technique in response to Allan Gwynne-Jones’ series of airmen portraits, both inked and sketched by hand. They are figures based on my parents, during moments where we are together as a family.
By Eloise Pryor
Allan Gwynne-Jones and my response in relation to the topic of war and conflict
The subject of war and conflict is one which has many interpretations associated with the words. War and conflict can be represented in many different ways, from museum exhibitions to film, TV and artwork. During the Second World War British artists produced over 6,000 pieces of war art, Men who had made a living from painting now faced the experiences of war, shaping their own perspectives and influencing the way we see war today (1).
The artist I chose, Allan Gwynne Jones, served during World War One before teaching at the Royal College of Art. He was commissioned during WWII to make two portraits of RAF VCs in March 1944 and was also asked by the War Artist Advisory Committee to make portraits of the Australian Air Force. There have been many interpretations of war art from landscapes to portraits, as well as different styles from sketches, watercolour, and abstract paintings. Allan Gwynne Jones’ portraits show a sketch detail in his portraits rather than paint. The level of detail captures their features and the detail of their military uniforms. I have always been interested in portraits in artwork as I feel they capture the essence of the person that is the focus of the artwork and the level of detail and style in Allan Gwynne Jones’ work showcases this. The detail not only from the features of the men but also the creases in their uniform and any other distinguishing features.
The themes around war and conflict are interpreted in many ways through war art, and the reasons for it for some may be clear, as propaganda, but has had an influence on how we understand history. As someone who grew up moving around a lot due to my father being in the RAF and had a relative in Bomber Command, the topic of war and conflict may be quite different to someone else because of our different interpretations and personal connections. The artwork for me creates an emotional response, the use of portraits showing individual characteristics makes me think about these people in different ways.
What was their name?
What were they thinking when this portrait was being drawn?
How do they feel about the war?
Do they have family back home?
All these questions and responses may emerge for different people and their own perspective and possible preconceptions of war. The emotions that emerge from the artwork could stem from Allan Gwynne Jones’ own experiences of serving in World War One. During the First World War the government developed different art schemes to record, document all aspects of war providing propaganda and to keep artists employed and protected (2). Allan Gwynne Jones was commissioned to create these sketches and so suggests that these were for propaganda purposes. I have found it interesting the motives from the artist’s perspective on creating the sketches, how did he feel when creating them? Did he get reminded of his own experiences of war? Did he use his personal experiences to create his artwork?
Portraits have been a common form of artwork throughout history and currently The National Portrait Gallery have used the pandemic as a way to represent a unique perspective of portraits through the National lockdown. The project named Hold Still involved inviting people to submit a photographic portrait through May-June 2020 and focused on three themes: Helpers and Heros, Your New Normal and Acts of Kindness (3). These portraits included those on the front line (doctors, nurses, paramedics, retail workers) and in relation to the concept of war and conflict could be represented as the pandemic being a “war” and those on the frontline were “soldiers” especially as the pandemic also affected current warzones. These portraits shown of doctors, nurses and paramedics show a different side of the pandemic which the public do not see.
(1) Bourke, J. (2018) CNN Style: Arts, paintings, protest, and propaganda: a visual history of warfare https://edition.cnn.com/style/article/depicting-war-through-art/index.html
(2) Podcast: The Imperial War Museum BBC Radio 3 Remembrance Debate 2020 11 November 2020 Arts and Ideas, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p08y3rkn
(3) National Portrait Gallery, Hold Still https://www.npg.org.uk/hold-still/hold-still-gallery/
A Moment in Time with Phyllis Shafto by Ka Ying Fong
A Radio Play that responds to the series of drawings by Phyllis Shafto, a female war artist from Lincolnshire.
In 201X, Ying left home and arrived in England to study design, and is on her way to Lincoln. Her journey starts with a suitcase with a tag named Phyllis Shafto which is blocking her seat. Ying realises that she is a female war artist from the 1940s, who is on her way back to her Boston, Lincolnshire home…
Phyllis Shafto was a female artist from Lincolnshire born in 1904. She moved to London in the early 1930s and worked as street life and watercolour artist until the Second World War. She produced the series of sketches and drawings of St. Paul’s Cathedral after the Blitz in 1943, then returned to her Lincolnshire home after an illness. After returning home, she worked on some local scenes and floral drawings and passed away in 1944.
Phyllis Shafto played by Hannah Peacock
Ying played by Ka Ying Fong
David T. Smith
Phyllis Shafto & Blitz Memories
Phyllis Shafto was born on 18th of March, 1904. Her childhood was spent between Boston and Skegness, but she moved to London in the 1930s where she lived in Hampstead and began producing watercolour artwork. Her work at that time focused mainly on life in London, but she also painted rural scenes during this time. Before the outbreak of the Second World War, Phyllis Shafto exhibited her work at the Royal Society of British Artists and the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolours. When the Second World War began, Shafto was still living in London and working for the BBC. She aspired to be a war artist, as shown in letters from this time, and she continued to paint images of the city. It is during this time that she produced the collection of works entitled St Paul’s After the Blitz (1943).
St Paul’s After the Blitz is a series of drawings and watercolour paintings depicting the damage that the Blitz inflicted upon the landmark’s surroundings. These are observational drawings, and Shafto uses delicate linework to capture the architectural detail of the building and the rubble it rises above. Shafto’s shading is realistic, yet gentle, and it gracefully adds more depth to the scene, creating atmospheric perspective. Her usage of colour is muted, which does well in representing the mournful reality of the scene.
However, Shafto’s artwork offers just a tiny insight into the views that were all too familiar to those living in London during the Blitz.
The Blitz was a bombing campaign led by Nazi Germany which ran from September 1940 to May 1941 and robbed around 43,000 civilians of their lives and destroyed over a million homes. The casualties from the Blitz make up almost half of the civilian deaths recorded in the United Kingdom from the Second World War.
Shafto’s work, though beautiful, scarcely represents the merciless nature of the bombing, and the public’s resilient reaction to the German campaign.
I asked my grandfather who was a child living in London during the Blitz to talk about his experiences and what the situation meant to him. He provided a written account of his memories from the time and I created illustrations to help tell his story.