Thomas Barclay Hennell, RWS NEAC (1903-1945) Thomas Hennell expressed his love of landscape and rural life in words and images that were at once accurate and intense. Late in his short career, he became an Official War Artist, and presented aspects of the international conflict through his unique vision, from Iceland to Java, where he is presumed to have been killed. Thomas Hennell was born in Ridley, Kent on 16 April 1903. He grew up in his father’s rectory at Ridley, and was educated at Bradfield College, Berkshire. Moving to London to study art at the Regent Street Polytechnic (1921-25), he became influenced by the work and personality of A S Hartrick. He was also greatly inspired by Marion Richardson who taught him in a final pedagogical year at the London Day Training School (1925-26).
Qualifying as an art teacher, he worked at Bruton School, Somerset and Kingswood School, Bath (1928-32). During this time, he began to make drawings of country crafts and farm implements and, from 1932, painted full time. A friend of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, he visited them and their families at Great Bardfield in Essex from 1931 while preparing the first book that he both wrote and illustrated, Change in the Farm (1934). Despite his apparently successful development as an artist, he suffered a nervous breakdown, following the rejection by Marion Richardson of his proposal of marriage. He was confined to Claybury Mental Hospital for three years (1932-35) and, while there, drew his fellow patients and wrote poetry. Following his release, he returned to Kent and published a volume of Poems (1936).
For the next seven years, Hennell painted local rural scenes, and wrote and illustrated books. He collaborated with H C Massingham on four books, including Country Relics (1939), and with C H Warren on two: The Land is Yours (1943) and Miles from Anywhere (1944). The most astonishing of his own prose works is The Witnesses (1938), an account of his experiences in hospital. He also published an essay, ‘In Praise of Watercolour’, in the Old Water-Colour Society Club Journal (1943). For in this period, he exhibited his watercolours regularly and was elected to the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours (ARWS 1938; RWS 1943) and the New English Art Club (1943).
Hennell produced images of South-East Engand for Recording Britain, and in 1941-42 was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to record aspects of toolmaking and landwork in wartime. When Eric Ravilious died in 1942, Hennell replaced him as Official War Artist in Iceland (1943), the work he produced there being exhibited at the National Gallery (1944). He was later sent to Holland and France (1944-45, attached to Royal Navy) and India and Burma (1945, attached to RAF). In 1945, he was captured by Indonesian terrorists in Java and is presumed to have been killed. His Countryman at Work appeared in 1947, with a memoir by H C Massingham. Memorial shows were mounted at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery (1955) and the Imperial War Museum (1956).
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including Bethlem Royal Hospital, the Government Art Collection, Imperial College, the Imperial War Museum, the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Air Force Museum, Tate and the V&A; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, Ferens Art Gallery (Hull), Graves Gallery (Sheffield), Laing Art Gallery (Newcastle upon Tyne), Manchester Art Gallery and Southampton Art Gallery; and National Museum Wales (Cardiff).
Further reading Michael Macleod, Thomas Hennell. Countryman, Artist, Writer, Cambridge University Press, 1988