Flights of fancy
Pilot artists give us a taste of what it’s like to be up, up and away
Does anyone still read the ‘Biggles’ books by Capt W. e. Johns? If remembered at all, they are assumed to be all ‘chocks away!’ and gung-ho Boy’s Own-ish fantasies rather than being grounded in real experience. Before becoming a writer, William earl Johns (1893–1968) was a machine gunner in Gallipoli and Macedonia and then served with the RAF. The books were sadly bowdlerised by his publisher, who removed mentions of alcohol, and his forthright political opinions found no place. However, he expressed them in the widely read magazines Flying and Popular Flying, which he edited until sacked under governmental pressure.
Johns denounced the authorities for squandering the lives of hundreds of thousands of ‘trusting lads, who now lie between Calais and Kut… I helped to shovel 1,800 of them into pits (without the blankets for which their next of kin were probably charged) including 67 of my own machine gun squadron of 75 in front of Horseshoe Hill in Macedonia.’
In the 1930s, he was strongly against appeasement of Hitler and warned of the threat from Japan. In 1937, his reaction to the bombing of shanghai was scathing: ‘What have these poor devils of Chinese done, whose mangled remains I saw being forked into carts like so much manure? It is a pity the Japanese bomber pilots cannot be shown what they did, but that, I fancy, is the last thing the Japanese government would permit. Nor, for that matter, would our own government allow our bomber pilots to see it.’
Before the First World War, Johns had attended art evening classes and even before his six weeks of flying bombing raids and being shot down and captured as the war ended, he was painting fighter planes and dog fights. one of six water and bodycolour examples sold by sworders of stansted Mountfitchet recently was dated 1916, before he is known to have had flying experience.
The others, often of Camels and Fokker triplanes, could have dated from 1917 or 1918, but, equally, may have been painted later in connection with the first ‘Biggles’ books. They are not high art, but like the books, give the spirit of early aerial combat.
on sheets measuring an average of 9½in by 131 ⁄3in, they sold for between £1,138 and £3,792, the latter for Close Work (Fig 2), showing Bristol fighters and Fokker ‘Tripehounds’, one of which appears to represent the Red Baron’s triplane.
The sworder sale was headed by a very different type of painting, a distressed late-14th-century Tuscan school gold-ground panel of Christ on the Cross with the Three Marys (Fig 3), which was plausibly attributed to simone
di Filippo Benvenuti, known as Simone dei Crocifissi, a Bolognese painter (about 1330–90). Measuring 17¾in by 81∕8in and estimated to £3,000, bidders evidently felt that it could be restored, as it reached £44,240.
I wonder what Johns would have, or indeed might have, made of the ‘Glider Paintings’ of Peter Lanyon (1918–64). Although his metaphor is different, I think that any flier would understand Lanyon’s defence of his semiabstract landscape painting in the time when pure abstraction was rampant.
‘I believe that landscape, the outside world of things and events larger than ourselves is the proper place to find our deepest meanings… I want to make the point that landscape painting is not a provincial activity as it is thought by many to be in the United States, but a true ambition like the mountaineer who cannot see the clouds without feeling the lift inside them. These things take us in to places where our trial with forces greater than ourselves, where skill and training and courage combine to make us transcend our ordinary lives.’
Lanyon took up gliding in 1958 and, in the wake of the wonderful exhibition of glider paintings at the Courtauld two years ago, his 48in by 72in Fly Away of 1961 (Fig 1) made £332,750 at Sotheby’s on June 29. It helps to remember that these works often feature all-over compositions, encouraging a viewer’s eye to rove freely across the canvas.
The artist was a proud Cornishman and, when he was elected a Bard of the Gorseth Kernow, he was given the appropriate bardic name of Marghak an Gwyns or ‘Rider of the Winds’.
Two of Lanyon’s older contemporaries who swung, to greater or lesser degrees, between abstraction and realism, also featured in this sale. Five of Graham Sutherland’s 1924–29 Samuel Palmer-like etchings sold for £12,500, his abstract-surreal 1936 Red Tree painting for £332,750, and, between them, at £22,500, was the 18½in by 31½in watercolour-and-ink Landscape with Low Cliffs and Woods of 1938 (Fig 4). That was a Welsh landscape, as was John Piper’s 21in by 26in watercolour version (Fig 5) of his Slopes of the Glyders, an oil painting of about 1943 that is in the Government Art Collection and is currently hanging in Downing Street. The watercolour was painted about five years later and belonged to Kenneth Clark. It sold for £18,750.
Next week Turner and lions
Fig 1: Peter Lanyon’s Fly Away of 1961 is one of his abstract ‘Glider Paintings’. £332,750
Fig 2: Close Work by Capt W. E. Johns depicts Bristol fighters in combat with Fokkers. £3,792
Fig 5: Watercolour version of a Piper Welsh landscape. £18,750
Fig 3: Christ on the Cross with the Three Marys. £44,240
Fig 4: Sutherland’s Landscape with Low Cliffs. £22,500