Flights of fancy

Pi­lot artists give us a taste of what it’s like to be up, up and away

Country Life Every Week - - Art Market -

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

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