When John Rothenstein, Director of the Tate Gallery, published the third volume of his Modern English Painters in 1984, he subtitled it Hennell to Hockney. While – now as then – David Hockney needs no introduction, Thomas Hennell (1903–1945) has somehow slipped off the radar and undoubtedly deserves to be more widely recognized today. At the time of his death, Hennell was widely considered to be one of Britain's most significant watercolourists and notable cultural figures.
He struggled with serious mental illness, was diagnosed as schizophrenic and spent the years from 1932 to 1935 in the Maudsley mental hospital in London. Edward Bawden encouraged him to 'centre and compose' the experience of schizophrenia by writing about it, and Hennell's remarkable illustrated account, The Witness, was published in 1938. Eric Ravilious, too, helped Hennell with his recovery, providing a series of wood engravings as illustrations for The Poems of Thomas Hennell, published in 1936.
At the outbreak of war in 1939 Hennell wrote to War Artists’ Advisory Committee, offering his services as an artist. From 1943 he was a full-time salaried war artist. He served in Europe and the Far East and was in Java when he was captured by Indonesian nationalist fighters in November 1945. He was presumed to have been killed shortly after.
Hennell's paintings and drawings provide an insight into an era: they will appeal to those with a love of the countryside and farming, an interest in the Second World War, and admirers of the now very famous artists who were his friends and regarded him as an equal.
Long-awaited biography of Thomas Hennell, leading watercolourist, poet and war artist - a direct contemporary of Eric Ravilious
Jessica Kilburn is a London-based artist, researcher and writer. She studied English Literature at Merton College, Oxford, followed by History of Art at the University of Glasgow. Her work has appeared in the poetry journal 14 and Illustration magazine. She contributed to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004) and curated a permanent exhibition on Lancelot 'Capability' Brown for his birthplace in Northumberland.