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The Royal Navy in Action: Art from Dreadnought to Vengeance

10 Mar 23

What joy! It was a pleasure to receive this book which provides an excellent record of the period indicated by the title. I went recently to the Cezanne exhibition at Tate Modern; the collection in this book of 20th century naval art, would be a worthy successor, while the book itself would be an excellent exhibition catalogue.

The art of action in the Royal Navy poses several difficulties; only serendipity can ensure an artist is present to witness events and, in the aftermath, there may be nobody left to tell the tale.  And, of course, there is no landscape to form the authentic background. Seascapes are notoriously difficult to depict and the quality of a marine artist can often be determined more by the way they paint water than their drawing of the more solid ships.  This book shows the sea in many of its moods. Wyllie, as one would expect does it well:  the grey waters about to engulf the sinking Scharnhorst off the Falkland Islands in December 1914 are particularly well shown as is the pellucid water on which survivors from the Lusitania float awaiting rescue.  John Hamilton, a distinguished soldier who was obsessed with the paucity of depictions of the Royal Navy in action during the Second World War, did much to remedy this by painting over 200 meticulously researched canvases. Just five appear in this book but they have the immediacy of authenticity. The painting of HMS Woodpecker depth charging in stormy weather is a masterpiece.

Another positive factor in this book is that an artist can select an event or a ship that he wishes to paint thus paintings of the Battle of Jutland, of which there are several, have to bear comparison with Hamilton’s atmospheric ‘HMS Ledburyrescuing survivors from SS Waimarama’. For pure ‘Boys’ Own’ action Terence Cuneo’s ‘A Battleship under Aerial Attack’ is all rat-a-tat-tat, whizz-bang, kerpow, contrasting well with his dignified record of the launching of HMS Dreadnaught.

For a book about art and war it is fitting that the contribution of that great marine artist, Norman Wilkinson, is given due space. Not only did Wilkinson produce excellent paintings, but it was he who came up with the idea of the ship camouflage system known as ‘Dazzle’ which gave vessels various zebra-like stripes to confuse U Boat commanders. Six dazzling hulls are in the collection.

Although ships and the sea are the stars of the show, the two paintings of WRNS at work, at the end of the book serve as a reminder of the human element behind the Navy in Action.  Finally, the accompanying text not only covers the essential of the conflicts depicted very well but gives them a slant with which the reader might otherwise be unfamiliar. This is a book which should be hung on gallery walls.