Matt Brosnan
Monday 18 June 2018

As the Battle of Britain raged in the skies over Britain in the summer of 1940, a range of British artists were quick to record and interpret this vital event. Their work was commissioned or purchased by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), the body that oversaw the British official war art scheme of the Second World War.

Many artists heralded the drama of aerial combat and the heroism of Royal Air Force (RAF) fighter pilots, but others also represented the efforts of crucial support personnel. Some artists - encouraged by the WAAC - also realised the significant propaganda value of Battle of Britain imagery at a time when Britain was defending itself against Nazi Germany alone.

Here is a selection of some of the official war art depicting the Battle of Britain.

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1. Battle of Britain

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1. Battle of Britain

Battle of Britain, 1941, by Paul Nash.

In 1940, Paul Nash was one of Britain's most prominent artists and was acting as an official war artist for the second time, having first done so during the First World War. During the Second World War he developed a fascination with aerial warfare, as well as revulsion for Nazi Germany. Both themes are evident in this painting. The regimented formations of Luftwaffe aircraft in the top right, approaching ominously from the continent, are broken by RAF fighter planes in a huge, free-flowing swirl of contrails. 

An abstracted aerial view of a wide flat landscape including the mouth of a river. Above the sky is full of contrails, and to the upper right aircraft can be seen flying in formation.
Battle of Britain, 1941, by Paul Nash.

The painting attempts to summarise the Battle of Britain as a whole in one ambitious image, giving a view of the aerial combat taking place over London and south-east England, with the English Channel and mainland Europe beyond. Nash depicts these events in epic terms, but also as a British victory. While the skies over Britain are blue and open, clouds are gathered on the horizon over Europe.

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2. An Aerial Battle

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2. An Aerial Battle

An Aerial Battle, 1940, by Francis Dodd.

Like Paul Nash, the artist Francis Dodd was commissioned as an official war artist during both world wars, although his output during the Second World War was on a smaller scale. In contrast to Nash's grandiose depiction of the Battle of Britain, in this painting Dodd presents a far more domestic scene. A black cat sitting on a fence looks up towards the white contrails of a recent aerial dogfight, the aircraft themselves not visible and the outcome unknown. Dodd's painting conveys the closeness and yet simultaneous separation of the Battle of Britain. It was clearly visible in the sky, but at a distance removed from everyday life. While it was taking place directly over British soil, it involved a relative minority of RAF personnel effectively defending the fate of a whole population.

The trails of an aircraft circling in a large expanse of sky, without apparent sight of the aeroplanes themselves. The scene is surveyed from the bottom left corner by a black cat, sitting on a wall.
An Aerial Battle, 1940, by Francis Dodd.
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3. Squadron Leader G L Denholm DFC

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3. Squadron Leader G L Denholm DFC

Squadron Leader G L Denholm DFC, 1940, by Thomas Dugdale.

A range of artists, including the well-known artist Eric Kennington, were commissioned by the WAAC to produce portraits of RAF personnel. Approximately 40 per cent of RAF-themed war art consisted of portraits, a much higher proportion than was the case for Army and Royal Navy war art. This contributed to the perception of individual bravery that tends to be associated with the RAF. Subjects included senior commanders and officers, but also more junior commanders and fighter pilots. 

a half-length, seated portrait of Squadron Leader G L Denholm in uniform wearing a flying jacket and a red and white striped cravat.
Squadron Leader G L Denholm DFC, 1940, by Thomas Dugdale.

Thomas Dugdale's portrait of Squadron Leader George Denholm is typical of the kind of imagery associated with fighter pilots of the Battle of Britain. Denholm flew with and then commanded 603 Squadron of the Royal Auxiliary Air Force, being awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in October 1940. He is depicted wearing a leather flying jacket and raffish striped cravat, looking every bit the fighter 'ace'.

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4. Squadron Leader J A Leathart DSO, No 54 Squadron

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4. Squadron Leader J A Leathart DSO, No 54 Squadron

Squadron Leader J A Leathart DSO, No 54 Squadron, 1940, by John Mansbridge.

As well as offering commissions, the WAAC also purchased artworks independently submitted by artists. John Mansbridge had offered his services to the Committee in December 1939, and while he was not offered a commission, he was given permission by the Air Ministry to complete portraits. Ultimately, three of his portraits were purchased, with this one depicting Squadron Leader James Leathart, a decorated commander of a squadron of Spitfires. Nicknamed 'The Prof' due to his university education in engineering, Leathart had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order for rescuing a fellow officer who had been stranded near Calais in May 1940. 

half-length portrait of Squadron Leader J A Leathart in uniform, pictured sitting in the open cockpit of a Spitfire.
Squadron Leader J A Leathart DSO, No 54 Squadron, 1940, by John Mansbridge.

Leathart led 54 Squadron through the majority of the Battle of Britain, becoming a fighter 'ace' in the process. Mansbridge portrays him in the cockpit of his Spitfire, emphasising the impression of a heroic man of action.

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5. Group Headquarters, Uxbridge: radiolocation plotters

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5. Group Headquarters, Uxbridge: radiolocation plotters

Group Headquarters, Uxbridge: radiolocation plotters, by Roland Pitchforth.

Roland Pitchforth was employed as a war artist by the WAAC for most of the Second World War, including a period working on Air Ministry subjects. As this watercolour of the headquarters of No. 11 Group RAF at Uxbridge shows, the Battle of Britain was not just about the individual bravery of pilots. 

a view looking down on a busy control room where uniformed women stand around a large map. They are moving markers around the map with poles. They are observed by men on the telephone in an enclosed gallery in the upper left.
Group Headquarters, Uxbridge: radiolocation plotters, by Roland Pitchforth.

Fighting the battle also relied on effective communications, organisation and leadership and an array of support crew on the ground. No. 11 Group RAF was one of the key Fighter Command formations in the Battle of Britain. Commanded by Air Vice Marshal Keith Park, its aircraft defended London and south-east England and so took the brunt of the Luftwaffe's efforts to gain superiority over Britain's airspace. Pitchforth's watercolour highlights the important role of members of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in plotting the information received by radio of aircraft movements and losses, helping senior commanders oversee the progress of the fighting.

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6. Corporal J. D. M. Pearson GC, WAAF

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6. Corporal J. D. M. Pearson GC, WAAF

Corporal J. D. M. Pearson GC, WAAF, 1940, by Laura Knight.

In 1940, Laura Knight was the most prominent female artist in Britain. She was commissioned by the WAAC to produce a series of specific works periodically throughout the war. One of her earliest commissions was this portrait of Daphne Pearson, who became a heroine of the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) during the early part of the Battle of Britain. On 31 May 1940, Pearson helped to rescue an RAF pilot who had crashed near Detling in Kent. As she was doing so, one of the aircraft's 120lb bombs exploded. Pearson threw herself on top of the pilot to protect him from the blast. She returned to the burning wreckage to look for another crew member, but found him dead. For her bravery Pearson was ultimately awarded the George Cross - the highest gallantry award for civil actions. Knight's depiction of Pearson shows her on duty with her eyes looking skywards, emphasising her readiness to act.

A portrait of Pearson on duty, looking up at the sky and holding a respirator.
Corporal J. D. M. Pearson GC, WAAF, 1940, by Laura Knight.
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7. Battle of Britain Anniversary, 1943: RAF Parade at Buckingham Palace

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7. Battle of Britain Anniversary, 1943: RAF Parade at Buckingham Palace

Battle of Britain Anniversary, 1943: RAF Parade at Buckingham Palace, 1943, by Charles Cundall.

A Royal Air Force anniversary parade taking place directly outside Buckingham Palace. Columns of RAF personnel in blue uniform march from left to right. They are watched by fellow RAF personnel and British soldiers in the foreground and by a mixture of civilians and military personnel standing in front of the palace gates.
Battle of Britain Anniversary, 1943: RAF Parade at Buckingham Palace, 1943, by Charles Cundall.

Charles Cundall was first commissioned by the WAAC in 1940 and continued to work as an official war artist for most of the war. This painting demonstrates his style as an artist who tended to specialise in large set piece compositions, with one of his best known works a depiction of the Dunkirk evacuation. This work also highlights that even as the Second World War continued, the Battle of Britain was celebrated as a decisive victory. RAF personnel, resplendent in blue that echoes the tone of the sky above, march in columns in front of Buckingham Palace to mark the third anniversary of the battle. Success in the Battle of Britain had been vital in reducing the likelihood of German invasion and, through imagery like this, it had also been a British propaganda victory. From the fighter pilots in the air to the members of the WAAF supporting on the ground, it had been a monumental effort.

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