Eric Henri Kennington, Part 2 – the Second World War Artist

Eric Kennington (1926)
Eric Kennington (1926)

At the end of Part 1 of this blog about Eric Henri Kennington we had reached a point in his life when he had travelled to Arabia to prepare sketches which would later be used in his friend, T. E. Lawrence’s 1922 book entitled Seven Pillars of Wisdom.

In 1922, Eric Kennington first met Edith Cecil when he received a commission to paint a portrait of her husband, William Charles Frederick Hanbury-Tracy, 5th Baron Sudeley, whom she married in August 1905.  They had no children.  Kennington and Edith fell in love and in 1922 she and her husband divorced and in September 1922 she married Eric Kennington.  The couple went on to have a son, Christopher, in March 1925 and a daughter, Catherine in February 1927.  It is said that both Eric and Edith remained on friendly terms with Edith’s ex-husband.

The 1922 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence
The 1922 book Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T E Lawrence

Eric Henri Kennington, as well as having been a war artist during the Great War, was also a revered portrait painter.   During his time in Arabia sketching and working on paintings for T E Lawrence’s autobiographical book, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, he met Field Marshal Allenby.  Allenby, at that time, was the High Commissioner for Egypt and was based in Cairo.

Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby, 1st Viscount Allenby by Eric Kennington (1926)
Edmund Henry Hynman Allenby, 1st Viscount Allenby by Eric Kennington (1926)

In March 1921 Kennington met Allenby at the Semiramis Hotel in Cairo and produced a pastel portrait of Allenby.   It is remarkable to think that this pastel work was completed by Kennington in less than an hour.

Effigy of T.E. Lawrence - 'Lawrence of Arabia' in St. Martin's Church, Dorset by eric Kennington (1926)
Effigy of T.E. Lawrence – ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in St. Martin’s Church, Dorset by eric Kennington (1926)

Kennington and T.E.Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) had an enduring friendship up until the day Lawrence was killed in a motorcycle accident in May 1935.  After his friend’s death, Kennington spent years completing a full-length reclining stone effigy of his friend dressed as an Arab sheikh.  This beautiful tomb effigy which was completed in 1939, and can now be found in the church of St Martin’s in Wareham in Dorset

Head of T. E. Lawrence by Eric Kennington (1926)
Head of T. E. Lawrence by Eric Kennington (1926)

Kennington also completed a bronze sculpture of the head of T.E.Lawrence in 1926 and the intrepid British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat was delighted with the work.  He said:

“…Magnificent; there is no other word for it. It represents not me but my top moments, those few seconds when I succeed in thinking myself right out of things…”

At the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 the War Artists Advisory Committee was formed as part of the Ministry of Information.  The chairman of the new committee was Sir Kenneth Clark.  Clark who had been a fine art curator at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum,  had, in 1933 at age 30, become the director of the National Gallery and as such was, and still is, the youngest person ever to hold the post.   One of the artists he chose was Eric Kennington, as by this time, he had built up a reputation as a leading portrait artist.    Kennington became a war artist for the second time in December 1939.   His contract with the War Artists Advisory Committee was to produce pastel or charcoal portraits and for each one he would be paid 25 guineas.  Kennington agreed but said he would need a minimum of three hours per sitter.

General Sir Edmund Ironside, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Home Forces, May-July, 1940. by Eric Kennington (1940)
General Sir Edmund Ironside, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, Home Forces, May-July, 1940. by Eric Kennington (1940)

One of his first sitters was the Chief of the Imperial Staff, General Sir Edmund Ironside.  He completed the portrait in January 1940

Portrait of Stoker A.Martin of HMS Exeter by Eric Kennington
Portrait of Stoker A.Martin of HMS Exeter by Eric Kennington

In 1940 Kennington was sent to Plymouth to sketch portraits some of the seaman who had served in the great 1939 sea battle of the River Plate.  One such portrait, which he completed in the April of that year, was of Andrew Martin, a senior stoker aboard HMS Exeter during the River Plate battle.  Kennington wrote a small piece to accompany the portrait.  He wrote:

“…Man of Action: instantaneous: 100 per cent reliable: expert technician. Much humour under thorough camouflage. Very gentle, sensitive, and great physical strength…”

The painting found favour with the art critic, Herbert Granville-Fell who wrote:

“…Kennington’s harsh iron technique has a force admirably suited to conveying unflinching and dauntless resolution in the faces of his seamen and soldiers. I know of no other artist who can so convincingly depict the salt of the earth, and evoke palpably, in a portrait, the very essence and savour of courage…”

Kennington, as was the case during the First World War,  soon clashing with his “employer” the War Artists Advisory Committee principally because of his personal dislike of Colin Coote, a journalist, who was the War Office representative on the committee.  In May 1940 the Home Guard, the Local Defence Volunteers was formed and Kennington decided to leave his role as a war artist for the War Artists Advisory Committee and join the Home Guard.

In July 1940, shortly after Kennington left the War Artists Advisory Committee the Committee held an exhibition of official war art at the National Gallery.  The art critics and public were both pleased with what they saw and in particular the works of Eric Kennington which were said to have been the most popular.  In particular his works depicting the generals and the sailors received the most praise.

Eric Kennington in his Home Gurad uniform
Eric Kennington in his Home Gurad uniform

Kennington rose in its ranks and in July 1940 he was put in charge of a section of six countrymen in the south Oxfordshire countryside, defending an observation post he had set up to the north of his home in Ipsden.   We are so use to thinking of the Home Guard as the people we see on the very popular TV comedy series, Dad’s Army or maybe we have a romantic view of the brave men who protected our homes.  Apparently Kennington did not view the Home Guard or his fellow Home Guardsmen in such an idealised and romantic manner.  Kennington was very vociferous in his criticism of the equipment they were given and was also critical with regards the senior officers, of whom he said were tied up in bureaucracy.   He wrote to his older brother William:

“…The men, if not suitably motivated, did not report for duty in the evenings, but sloped off after roll call to go poaching, fishing, or playing cards in the pub…”

Sergeant Bluett, Cornwall Home Guard by Eric Kennington
Sergeant Bluett, Cornwall Home Guard by Eric Kennington

For all his criticism of some of his fellow volunteers he completed some wonderful portraits of them, such as Sergeant Bluett of the Cornwall Home Guard which he completed in 1943.

Corporal Robertson, City of Edinburgh Home Guard by Eric Kennington (1943)
Corporal Robertson, City of Edinburgh Home Guard by Eric Kennington (1943)

….and Corporal Robertson of the City of Edinburgh Home Guard which he also completed in 1943.  Both these paintings are housed in the Imperial War Museum.

The War Artists Advisory Committee in August 1940 not wanting to have lost such a great artist approached Kennington and asked him to return to the fold as a war artist.  The War committee was delighted that Kennington agreed to return.  The secretary of the Committee, Edmund Montgomery O’Rourke Dickey, wrote to Kenneth Clark about how Kennington’s work instilled hope in those who saw his portraits.  He wrote:

“…The best of this artist’s [Kennington] portraits of sailors in the exhibition at the National Gallery have, in the eyes of the public, a nobility not shared by any other work that’s on display at the National Gallery. These portraits typify the fighting man who’s going to win the war for us…”

Pilot Officer M J Herrick, DFC, by Eric Kennington (1941)
Pilot Officer M J Herrick, DFC, by Eric Kennington (1941)

Kennington agreed to return as a war artist and the Committee offered him a commission to draw portraits of RAF personnel at a time when the Battle of Britain was at its fiercest and these men were often referred to as “fighting aces”.

Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Watt Coleman, DFC, by Eric Kennington (1940)
Flight Lieutenant Lloyd Watt Coleman, DFC, by Eric Kennington (1940)

The pastel portraits were sensitive depictions of the air force heroes and many were used as illustrations in Kennington’s 1942 book Drawing the RAF.  There is a simplicity about these portraits but the underlying thought that these were some of the men who would fight for and save our country, was unmistakeable.

Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Frederick Algernon Portal DSO & Bar by Eric Kenningtonn(1941)
Air Chief Marshall Sir Charles Frederick Algernon Portal DSO & Barn by Eric Kennington (1941)

One must remember that the War Arts Committee would give Kennington a list of people who were to appear in his portraits.  This caused a rift between Kennington and the Committee as Kennington believed that all the Committee wanted was portraits of senior officers and Kennington wanted to highlight some of the fighting men from the lower ranks.  Once again Kennington threatened to walk away from his position as a war artist but he was such a great portraitist that he was talked out of his impending resignation by none other than the Chief of the Air Staff, Sir Charles Portal.

Wing Commander Geoffrey William Tuttle OBE DFC by Eric Kennington (September 1941)
Wing Commander Geoffrey William Tuttle OBE DFC by Eric Kennington (September 1941)

As he carried on with his portraiture commissions they were often exhibited at the National Gallery.  Previously they had been lauded as great works of art but occasionally they received some adverse criticism, such as piece written by the art critic of the Sunday Times, Eric Newton, who wrote:

“…Eric Kennington goes on and on with his over-life-size portraits of supermen. They are strident things whose assertiveness almost hurts the eyes.’ But then he did concede: ‘They do look like men who are going to win the war. Some are positively frightening. Dropped as leaflets over enemy country, I can imagine them being as effective as a bomb…”

Cover of Eric Kennington's book Tanks and Tank Folk
Cover of Eric Kennington’s book Tanks and Tank Folk

In November 1941, Eric Kennington was invited to Ripon, Yorkshire by Sir Percy Cleghorn Stanley Hobart, the General Officer Commanding of the 11th Armoured Division to sketch portraits of some of his men.  Whilst there Kennington completed over twenty portraits of the men and also this small (29 x 38cms) oil on board portrait of his host.  Many of the portraits Kennington did whilst at the Ripon barracks appeared in his 1942 book Tanks and Tank Folk and many featured in his solo exhibition held at the Leicester Galleries, London in September 1943

Seeing It Through, by Eric Kennington, (1944)
Seeing It Through, by Eric Kennington, (1944)

My final offering is a painting by Kennington which was used as one of the war posters in the series Seeing it Through.  It was not of  a fighting man or woman, but commemorated everyday heroism of normal people going about job in difficult and dangerous times.  Kennington preferred not to use models for this type of work and in this work he used the woman herself as the model.  It is of a young twenty year old woman, Mrs M.J. Morgan, who was a conductor on one London buses.  She had become one of the first generation of female bus conductors employed by London Transport in November 1940. She’d only just started her job as a “clippie” when the bus she was assigned to was caught in the blitz.  She became an instant heroine when she shielded with her own body two young children, and then helped passengers who’d been injured when the bus was riddled with shrapnel from a bomb exploding nearby.

Kennington remembered her well describing her:

 “…like a Rubens Venus’ and she had a complexion that was ‘edible as a peach…”

Beneath the portrait of the bus conductor was a short verse by the novelist and humorist, Alan Patrick Herbert:

“…How proud upon your quaterdeck you stand

Conductor- Captain  of the mighty bus!

Like some Columbus you survey the Strand

A calm newcomer in a sea of fuss

You may be tired – how cheerfully you clip

Clip in the dark with one eye on the street –

Two decks – one pair of legs – a rolling ship

Much on your mind and fat men on your feet !

The sirens blow, and death is in the air

Still at her post the trusty Captain stands

And counts her change, and scampers up the stair

As brave a sailor as the King commands.

A.P.Herbert

 

Eric Henri Kennington died in April 1960 aged 72.  He is buried in the churchyard in Checkendon, Oxfordshire, where he was once the churchwarden and he is commemorated on a memorial in Brompton Cemetery, London..

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Eric Henri Kennington. Part 1 – World War I and T.E.Lawrence

Photo of Eric Kennington by Howard Coster (1936)
Photo of Eric Kennington by Howard Coster (1936)

In my last blog I looked at the life and some of the paintings of Thomas Benjamin Kennington, the Victorian painter.  Today, in the first of two instalments, I want to look at the life and art of his son Eric Henri Kennington, who was an early twentieth century sculptor and artist.

Eric was born in Fulham in March 1888.  He was the second of two sons. His father was the Victorian artist Thomas Kennington and his mother, Elise Nilla Lindahl Steveni, was of Swedish origin.  His mother died when Eric was just seven years of age.

Eric was born into a middle-class professional household and received the best education possible, attending St Paul’s School, London, one of the original nine British public schools and from there he enrolled at the Lambeth School of Art.  He started exhibiting his works of art at the Royal Academy in 1908 and by the start of the Great War in 1914 he had gained a reputation as a skilful painter.

Costermongers (La Cuisine ambulante) by Eric Kennington (1914)
Costermongers (La Cuisine ambulante) by Eric Kennington (1914)

One of his pre-War paintings was entitled Costermongers (La cuisine ambulante) which was exhibited at the International Society in April 1914, and the work itself was actually bought by the then very famous society portraitist William Nicholson.  It is now owned by the Centre Pompidou, Musée national d’art moderne, Paris.  It is the depiction of street life in London and is a fascinating capture of the individual characters.  The art critic of the Daily Mail wrote in the August 24th 1914 edition of the newspaper describing the scene as:

 “…‘huge staring groups of life-size people, represented in a brutal airless way, though with a great deal of technical cleverness…”

 and went on to acknowledge that they were protests against the “namby-pambiness’ of the usual group compositions..”

 With the sale of the painting Kennington was able to set himself up in a studio in Kensington High Street.

The Great War broke out in Europe in July 1914 and in the next month, Kennington took himself down to the recruiting office which was close to his studio, off Kensington High Street, and enlisted with the 13th Battalion, The London Regiment, Princess Louise’s Own Kensingtons.    He was sent to the Hertfordshire village of Abbot’s Langley where he did his three months of basic training before being sent to France in November 1914.  His days fighting on the front line were numbered as in mid-January 1915 he suffered a wound to his left foot which resulted in the amputation of his middle toe and he was extremely lucky not to have lost the whole of his left foot through infection.  He was discharged from the army as being unfit for duty.

The Kensingtons at Laventie by Eric Kennington (1915)
The Kensingtons at Laventie by Eric Kennington (1915)

It was during his time convalescing throughout the latter part of 1915, firstly in London, then Liverpool, that he painted one of his most famous works of art.  It was a portrait of some infantrymen entitled The Kensingtons at Laventie, Winter 1914, which is now housed in the Imperial War Museum, London.  The painting is extremely large measuring 140 x 152cms.  The picture is a complex reverse painting on glass, where exterior layers of paint are applied first, giving the oils a particular clarity.

In the painting, Kennington depicts part of his platoon standing around in a deserted street in Laventie, a small French village in the Pas-de-Calais region, close to the Belgium border.  The village had been almost destroyed by shell fire.  It is set in the winter of 1914 with snow on the ground.  The soldiers in this painting were comrades from his unit, Platoon no. 7, C Company of the Kensingtons, and he has even included a portrait of himself in the scene.  He is in the top left-hand corner wearing the balaclava.  The men have arrived at the village after a long and tiring four days and four sleepless nights of duty in the trenches having had to endure continuous snowfall and temperatures at night which fell to twenty below freezing.  It is a loose grouping of men, all but one standing.  What is strange about their depiction is that no two men look in the same direction.  The men seem disorientated and are awaiting their corporal to find out their next orders.  Soon they were going to have to set off and endure a five-mile march to reserve billets, which were out of range of the German artillery.

 The painting was first exhibited at the Goupil Gallery in 1916 and caused a sensation.  The exhibition was in aid of the Star and Garter Building Fund charity.  Kennington’s accompanying notes detailed the individual soldiers and their experiences. The notes about  “Who is who” stated:

“…The portraits are of Private A. ‘Sweeney’ Todd (foreground) and (left to right) Private H Bristol in the red scarf, Private A. McCafferty carrying two rifles, the artist in balaclava, Private W Harvey, Private P A Guy, known as ‘Good Little Guy’, Lance-Corporal H Wilson in balaclava, Private M Slade resting both hands on his rifle and Corporal J Kealey…”  . 

Kennington did not complete the painting until December 1915 and sadly by this time, ninety per cent of the once 700-strong battalion, which he had arrived with in France twelve months earlier, had become causalities.  Many had died or had been severely wounded  during the battles of Neuve-Chapelle in March 1915, and particularly Aubers Ridge in May 1915..

The painting, when exhibited at the Goupil Gallery between April and June 1916, received glowing revues.  Kennington was described by The Times art critic: :

 “…the painter who knew how to properly portray the stoically enduring British Tommy’. For example,………: ‘He [Kennington] has painted the real war for us in all its squalor and glory…”

So impressed with the unemotional depiction of the hardships and endurance of the British soldiers whilst fighting on the Front, the War Propaganda Bureau, in June 1917, offered Kennington the chance to become an official war artist.   He was sent off to France in August 1917, where he spent about seven months.  In fact he was only supposed to be visiting the battlefields for one month  but after the first month had expired, he didn’t want to return to England and simply refused to come back home.  He would continually write to his employers stating that he needed to be on the battlefield so that he could “learn the war

Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington (1917)
Gassed and Wounded by Eric Kennington (1917)

One of his first paintings as an official War artist was entitled  Gassed and Wounded which he completed in 1918 and can now also be found in the Imperial War Museum.  The setting is the interior of a field hospital.  Eric Kennington made many sketches when he was at Casualty Clearing Station at Tincourt, a village in the Picardy region, some thirty miles east of Amiens.  This point in time when Kennington made these sketches was at the time the German air force was bombarding the English lines, prior to their last big offensive.  In the painting we see wounded soldiers, who have been gassed, lying on stretchers.  Look at the way Kennington has depicted the agony of the man in the foreground.  He lies on the stretcher.  His head is bound with bandages.  His eyes which have been damaged by the gas are covered.  His face is contorted and his mouth is open as he cries out in pain.

Eventually Kennington was persuaded to return to England in March 1918 Four months later a large selection of his pastel and charcoal drawings and watercolours were exhibited in an exhibition at the Leicester Galleries.  The art critics and public alike were astounded by the quality of his work

The art critic and poet, Laurence Binyon wrote in the New Statesman:

“…Mr Kennington has a genius for reality. He has not only the gift of exact and faithful record, but the power of giving expression to the latent vehemence, energy and passion that make up the controlled strength of a man. If a foreigner wished to see the British soldier, he could not do better than see him with Mr Kennington’s eyes…”

Kennington, had his differences with the Ministry of Information and parted company in September 1918.  He was not unemployed for long as in November 1918, he signed up with the Canadian War Memorial Scheme.  This scheme was established by the newspaper magnate Lord Beaverbrook in 1916.  His aim was to commission official war artists to paint the Canadian war effort. The official war art programme would eventually employ close to 120 artists, most of them British or Canadian, who created nearly 1,000 works of art. Eric Kennington went back to France in November 1918 as a temporary first lieutenant attached to the Canadian Army and he attached himself to the 16th Battalion Highlanders of Canada, part of the 3rd Infantry Brigade of the 1st Canadian Division.

The Conquerors by Eric Kennington (1918) (Originally known as "The Victims")
The Conquerors by Eric Kennington (1918)
(Originally known as “The Victims”)

Kennington remained in France between November 1918 and March 1919, during which time he made a series of over 40 studies of individual soldiers from the battalion who fought their last major battle of the war in October 1918.  The next painting I am showing you is one entitled The Conquerors and featured men from the battalion of soldiers Kennington was assigned to as a war artist.  This was not the original title of the work as when the painting was shown in an exhibition in Canada, it was entitled The Victims but there was an objection to that title from the battalion’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Cy Peck, Kennington who wanted it to be changed and be renamed The Conquerors.   Cyrus Wesley Peck objected to the title “The Victims” as it was a somewhat defeatist title for the work of art and so it was changed to a more acceptable title, The Conquerors. The painting depicts kilted Canadians of the 16th Battalion, marching through a battlefield littered with debris and informal graves.  Look at the faces of the soldiers.  Some have normal skin tones whilst others look much paler and these may represent the deceased.  The painting is housed in the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.

The Conquerors was exhibited in Ottawa during the summer of 1920 and it was later returned to London where, in October and November of that year, it appeared at Kennington’s solo exhibition at the Alpine Club gallery in London.  Whilst Kennington was present at the exhibition he met and was befriended by T.E.Lawrence the British archaeologist, military officer, and diplomat.  Lawrence bought two of Kennington’s sketches depicting soldiers.  The intrepid Lawrence was a great influence on Kennington’s art and he even persuaded Kennington to come out to the Middle East to draw personalities who appeared in his account of the war with the Ottoman Turks that he was writing at the time, and which was eventually published as The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.  The book was the autobiographical account of the experiences T.E. Lawrence  had, while serving as a liaison officer with rebel forces during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks which lasted two years from 1916 to 1918.  T E Lawrence soon became known as Lawrence of Arabia.

Muttar il Hamoud min Beni Hassan by Eric Kennington (1920)
Muttar il Hamoud min Beni Hassan by Eric Kennington (1920)

One such portrait was completed by Kennington in 1920 entitled Muttar il Hamoud min Beni Hassan who was one of Lawrence’s s chosen bodyguards.  This pastel on brown paper was painted by Kennington whilst he was at a war camp in Western Arabia.  Lawrence had wanted Kennington to go out to Arabia and come back with some portraits which could be used as illustrations for his autobiography but strangely he would not let Kennington read the book before he set off on his Arabian journey.  On returning back to London Kennington gave Lawrence his sketches and paintings.  Lawrence was delighted saying:

“…I first saw one and then another of the men whom I had known and at once I learned to know them better. This may point indirectly to the power of the drawings and it points without contest to their literary completeness. There is quite admirable character here…”

Abd-el Rahman by Eric Kennington (1921)
Abd-el Rahman by Eric Kennington (1921)

Another portrait by Kennington used in Lawrence’s autobiography was Abd-el-Rahman, a pastel on green-toned paper, which he completed in 1921.   Abd-el-Rahman was mentioned in Chapter LXXI of the book as Lawrence recalls:

“…I enrolled Showakh and Salem, two Sherari camel-herds, and Abd el Rahman, a runaway slave from Riadh, now freedman of Mohammed el Dheilan, the Toweihi…”

On Kennington’s return home he exhibited the sketches and paintings from his Arabian trip at the Leicester Galleries in London and the portraits of Arabs became known as the ‘Kennington Arabs’.   The illustrations which Kennington worked on for Lawrence did not appear in the first edition of the book published in 1922 but four years later in 1926, in the next edition of the autobiography Kennington’s illustrations appeared along with those done by other well-known artists of the time such as Augustus John, Paul Nash and John Singer Sargent

Head of T.E. Lawrence by Eric Kennington (1926)
Head of T.E. Lawrence by Eric Kennington (1926)

Kennington also produced a bust of Lawrence  in 1926.  It was modelled partly from life and partly from drawings he made in December 1926.  It was also chosen by Lawrence’s mother and brother for the Crypt of St Paul’s. Kennington made three further casts of this head in bronze or brass, one of which can be found in the music room at Lawrence’s cottage, Clouds Hill, Moreton, Dorset.  Clouds Hill is an isolated cottage near Wareham, Dorset which Lawrence initially rented in 1923 but then bought it in 1925.  Lawrence himself loved the bust saying that it was:

“…magnificent; there is no other word for it. It represents not me but my top moments, those few seconds when I succeed in thinking myself right out of things…”

Sir William Rothenstein, an English painter, printmaker, draughtsman and writer on art. who was best known for his work as a war artist in both world wars and as a portrait artist wrote about Kennington’s relationship with T E Lawrence.  He wrote:

“…‘Kennington was devoting himself to Lawrence’s glorification – for him Lawrence was the perfect man who could do no wrong…”

Battersea Park Memorial. by Eric Kennington
Battersea Park Memorial.
by Eric Kennington

In 1924, Eric Kennington designed the War Memorial which can be seen in Battersea Park to commemorate the 24th London Division.

In the second part of my story of Eric Kennington I will look at his life between the world wars and also the paintings he completed as a war artist during the Second World War.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington

In my next two blogs I am going to look at the lives and works of two English painters, the father, Thomas Benjamin Kennington and his son, Eric.   Today I am going to concentrate and examine some of the works of the father and tomorrow, switch to look at the art of his son.

The Pinch of Poverty by Thomas Kennington (1891)
The Pinch of Poverty by Thomas Kennington (1891)

Often when we watch a tear-jerker type film or read a heartbreaking fictional novel, we tend to be critical of the sugary-sweet, heart-tugging subject.  My featured artist today produced many paintings which, although of the realism genre, also wanted us to be emotionally moved by what we saw before us.  His paintings were often studies of the problems which beset the poor in Victorian England.  Today let me introduce you to the Victorian social realism painter and master of portraiture, Thomas Benjamin Kennington.

Kennington was born in the Lincolnshire fishing port of Grimsby in April 1856.  As a young man he studied painting at the Liverpool School of Art, where he won a gold medal, and the Royal College of Art in London.  He also went to Paris where he enrolled at the Académie Julian and studied under William-Adolphe Bougereau and Tony Robert-Fleury.  Thomas Kennington lived at a time when there were a large number of families living on the “bread line”; a term used denoting the poorest condition in which it is acceptable to live, with some even dying of starvation on the city streets.  The population of Great Britain increased three-fold during the nineteenth century due to many factors, such as an influx of people from Ireland who were escaping the potato famine, life expectancy had increased and infant mortality had decreased.  Jobs were hard to find in the countryside so folks had flocked to the urbanized areas seeking work.  With such a pool of workers, owners and businessmen could pay low wages, often so low that workers could not afford to feed or house their families.  In the middle of the nineteenth century it was estimated that there were more than thirty thousand homeless children living on the streets of London.  However, many of the well-off folk were less than sympathetic with regards their plight and believed that any money given to the poor was simply squandered on drink and gambling and did not, in any way, solve the underlying social problems at all.

Homeless by Thomas Kennington (1890)
Homeless by Thomas Kennington (1890)

Thomas Kennington was a social activist who was disturbed by the poverty he saw around him and decided that, through his art, he would highlight the plight of the poor. The first painting I am showcasing is entitled Homeless which he completed in 1890, whilst living in London.   In 1892 it was sent to Melbourne for the large Anglo-German exhibition which was held in Melbourne’s exhibition centre and the painting is now housed in the Bendigo Art Gallery in Australia.

The setting for the work is unknown but presumed to be London.   In the background, partly hidden by the smog, we see a gas works and a tall chimney belching out smoke.  This is a scene of urban pollution; a gloomy streetscape.  In the foreground we see a woman dressed in widow’s garb supporting a young boy’s body, partly lifting him up from the wet pavement.   The young lad’s face is white and his head has lolled to the side.  He looks to be in a bad way, possibly close to death.  His eyes vacantly stare out but he seems unaware of his surroundings.  The artist has further depicted the depressing state of affairs by limiting the depiction of nature to a lifeless-looking tree at the right of the painting.  It is leaf-less with one of its lower branches broken off and the whole of it is encased in the concrete pavings which will inhibit its growth.

Critics praised Kennington’s painting when it was first exhibited.  The art critic of the Melbourne Argus described the work:

“…full of pathos … both a poem and a sermon…”

while another Melbourne newspaper, The Age, told its readers to study the face of the child and described the work as:

“…a chef d’œuvre of artistic power and human sympathy … a face … that expresses all the patient suffering of a whole class, amongst whom the inheritance of sorrow and privation is patiently accepted and endured…”

Widowed and Fatherless by Thomas Kennington (1888)
Widowed and Fatherless by Thomas Kennington (1888)

Another work of art which focused on how poverty can affect families was summed up in Kennington’s work entitled Widowed and Fatherless, 1888.  In this depiction we have a mother whose husband has died and she is left with the monumental task of rearing her children.  One child is lying on the bed.  Maybe she is asleep or maybe she is very ill. Her sister kneels at the bedside praying, maybe praying that her sister will recover from her illness.  The mother sits in a chair stitching clothes but she cannot take her eyes off her sick daughter.

Orphans by Thomas Kennington (1885)
Orphans by Thomas Kennington (1885)

A very moving painting depicting the plight of the poor is one Kennington completed in 1885 entitled Orphans.  There is a similarity in this depiction of poverty with the 1650 work by the great Spanish painter, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo in his work The Beggar Boy. (See My Daily Art Display January 25th 2011).  Before us we see two young boys.  They could be brothers.  Their clothes are no more than rags.  The older boy’s head is slumped to the side due to his tiredness.  He can hardly keep his eyes open but they stare down at the head of the younger boy who through circumstances beyond his control, is whom he has to look after.  The younger boy, with his rosy red cheeks, sits on the floor and leans against the older boy for comfort, his head and arm rest on the older boy’s thigh.  He stares out at us in a beseeching way.  What is he asking us?  Is it merely sustenance or does he want our love and our protection from the deprivation he is forced to suffer.  On the floor before the two boys is a plate with a piece of dried bread highlighting their plight. This is a prime example of Kennington’s depictions of the urban poor.  The painting was purchased by Henry Tate, the sugar merchant and philanthropist, who established the Tate Gallery in London.

Daily Bread by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1883)
Daily Bread by Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1883)

A crust of bread appears in another painting by Kennington, entitled Daily Bread which he completed in 1883.  The title probably derives from the words of the Lord’s Prayer, give us our daily bread.   This is a very emotional depiction of poverty and it was hoped that by depicting such dprivation things would change.  Alas, it was not to happen for many years and even now child poverty and child beggars exist in Great Britain.

In contrast to the abandoned children we saw depicted in the previous paintings, the next painting, simply entitled The Mother, was Kennington’s idea of what family life should be about and how children should be brought up in a safe and loving environment.  This large work (115 x 168cms), which was completed in 1895, depicts a moment in family life when a mother says goodnight to her children.

The Mother by Thomas Kennington
The Mother by Thomas Kennington

This is a form of narrative painting as from about the seventeenth century, genre painting showed scenes and narratives of everyday life. Later, during the Victorian age, narrative painting of everyday life subjects became very popular and such art was often considered as a category in itself termed Victorian Narrative painting.   This theme of what family life should be about was a recurrent theme in Victorian art.  Domesticity was the order of the day focusing on how children and adults should behave within a family environment.  It was hoped that families could learn by what they saw through the medium of visual art.    This huge painting of The Mother by Kennington depicts her as the foundation stone of the family, the person who underpins the family group. The painting also alludes to another idea regarding Victorian family group.   If you look carefully at the dead centre of the work you will see the wedding ring on the mother’s finger and this could be the way in which the artist want to share his belief that marriage was also very important part of the family structure and family values.

In this painting we see the mother tending two of her young children.  Although the mother is the focal point of the painting she is depicted with her back to us.  We do not see her face clearly.  She is being helped by an older daughter, who is learning about the role of motherhood. The lighting of the painting is interesting.  The darker silhouette of the mother is in contrast with the brighter area around the two sleeping children, which is lit up by the light emanating from the lamp held by the mother and which is hidden from our view.   Of course this view of the family is a romanticised view of life in Victorian days and maybe it was more to do with what Kennington believed family life should be rather than the actuality.  This painting belongs to the Aigantighe’s Gallery in Hobart, Tasmania

Thomas Kennington exhibited his works in the Royal Academy of Arts every year from  1880 until his death in 1916.  His paintings were also regularly on show at the Royal Society of British Artists (RBA) and the popular Grosvenor gallery in London.   Kennington was a founding member and became the first secretary of the New English Art Club which was founded in 1885 and was one of the founders of the Imperial League of Art in 1909.  This society was set up to protect and promote the interests of Artists and to inform, advise and assist Artists, who have enrolled as members, in matters of business connected with the practice of the Arts  Its role was to aid the artists and the protection of their interests.  Kennington exhibited internationally in Paris and Rome and so good was his work that he was chosen to exhibit at the Universal Expositions held in Paris in 1889, where he was awarded a bronze medal.

Portrait of Elise Kennington née Stevani
Portrait of Elise Kennington née Stevani

Besides his genre pieces which highlighted Victorian poverty, Kennington was an accomplished portraitist.  Many of his portraits featured family members.  In 1883, aged twenty-seven, Thomas Benjamin Kennington married twenty-two year old Swedish beauty, Elise Stevani, who was born in Lund a town in Southern Sweden 1881.

Anne as Alice in Wonderland by Thomas Benjamin Kennington
Anne as Alice in Wonderland by Thomas Benjamin Kennington

His daughter Ann also featured in a couple of his works.  One was with her as Alice in Wonderland.

Portrait of the Artist's Daughter Anne in Russian Costume Holding a Balilaika by Thomas Kennington
Portrait of the Artist’s Daughter Anne in Russian Costume Holding a Balilaika by Thomas Kennington

The other, when she was older, was of her, dressed as a Russian lady holding a balalaika.

My last offering is another interesting work by Kennington which he completed in 1882 and entitled The Ace of Hearts.  There is an element of trickery about this depiction.  We see the lady seated before us staring directly at us  But are we who she is looking at?   Look carefully at the mirror on the wall, above and behind her.

The Ace of Hearts by Thomas Kennington
The Ace of Hearts by Thomas Kennington

The image in the mirror indicated that the lady is looking straight through us, and focusing upon a man who can be seen scratching his neck.  He seems perplexed by what the woman is doing with the cards.  Look at the expression on the lady’s face.  It is one of satisfied triumph as she points to the ace of hearts and we can thus deduce that she was performing a card trick for the gentleman.  He is amazed and she is exultant with her trickery.

Thomas Benjamin Kennington died in London in December 1916 aged 60.  His wife Elise died at the young age of 34 in 1895.  Their son Eric was to go on to be a famous artist and in my next blog I will look at some of his work.