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Watercolour - Waltham Abbey; Recording Britain Collection
  • Waltham Abbey
    Du Plessis, H. E., born 1894 - died 1978
  • Enlarge image

Waltham Abbey; Recording Britain Collection

  • Object:


  • Place of origin:

    Waltham, United Kingdom (painted)

  • Date:

    ca. 1940 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Du Plessis, H. E., born 1894 - died 1978 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Watercolour and bodycolour on paper

  • Credit Line:

    Given by the Pilgrim Trust

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level F, case RB, shelf 10

Waltham Abbey has long been an iconic historical site. Harold, the last king of Saxon England, was buried there after his defeat and death in the Battle of Hastings in 1066; later, the abbey became the focus of pilgrimages for thanks to its miraculous Holy Rood. Waltham, located on the edge of Epping Forest, has never entirely been absorbed by London, but when Du Plessis painted this scene most of it had already been modernised. The abbey and its immediate surroundings are the only part of Waltham to retain their medieval features.

Physical description

A watercolour drawing of Waltham Abbey seen from the road, with a tall tree in the foreground. Signed.

Place of Origin

Waltham, United Kingdom (painted)


ca. 1940 (painted)


Du Plessis, H. E., born 1894 - died 1978 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Watercolour and bodycolour on paper

Marks and inscriptions

'du Plessis'


Height: 10.875 in, Width: 15.625 in

Object history note

This work is from the 'Recording Britain' collection of topographical watercolours and drawings made in the early 1940s during the Second World War. In 1940 the Committee for the Employment of Artists in Wartime, part of the Ministry of Labour and National Service, launched a scheme to employ artists to record the home front in Britain, funded by a grant from the Pilgrim Trust. It ran until 1943 and some of the country's finest watercolour painters, such as John Piper, Sir William Russell Flint and Rowland Hilder, were commissioned to make paintings and drawings of buildings, scenes, and places which captured a sense of national identity. Their subjects were typically English: market towns and villages, churches and country estates, rural landscapes and industries, rivers and wild places, monuments and ruins. Northern Ireland was not covered, only four Welsh counties were included, and a separate scheme ran in Scotland.

The scheme was known as 'Recording the changing face of Britain' and was established by Sir Kenneth Clark, then the director of the National Gallery. It ran alongside the official War Artists' Scheme, which he also initiated. Clark was inspired by several motives: at the outbreak of war in 1939, there was a concern to document the British landscape in the face of the imminent threat of bomb damage, invasion, and loss caused by the operations of war. This was allied to an anxiety about changes to the landscape already underway, such as the rapid growth of cities, road building and housing developments, the decline of rural ways of life and industries, and new agricultural practices, which together contributed to the idea of a 'vanishing Britain'. Clark also wanted to help artists, and the traditional forms of British art such as watercolour painting, to survive during the uncertain conditions of wartime. He in turn was inspired by America's Federal Arts Project which was designed to give artists employment during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

Over 1500 works were eventually produced by 97 artists, of whom 63 were specially commissioned. At the time the collection had a propaganda role, intended to boost national morale by celebrating Britain's landscapes and heritage. Three exhibitions were held during the war at the National Gallery, and pictures from the collection were sent on touring exhibitions and to galleries all around the country. After the war, the whole collection was given to the V&A by the Pilgrim Trust in 1949, and it was documented in a four volume catalogue published between 1946 and 1949. For many years the majority of the collection was on loan to councils and record offices in each county, until recalled by the V&A around 1990. The pictures now form a memorial to the war effort, and a unique record of their time.

Historical context note

By the time Du Plessis painted this scene, Waltham was no longer a rural town on the border of Epping Forest. Although it has not been absorbed by London, much of the town now resembles a typical outer suburb, with the exception of the few remaining medieval streets around the abbey.

Waltham Abbey is the burial place of Harold, the last king of Saxon England, who was killed at the Battle of Hastings. The abbey was a popular place of pilgrimage for the miracles performed there; the Holy Rood, the instrument of the miracles, vanished during the Reformation.

Descriptive line

Watercolour, 'Waltham Abbey', by H. E. Du Plessis; from the 'Recording Britain' Collection (Essex); England, ca. 1940.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Catalogue of Drawings in the 'Recording Britain' Collection given by the Pilgrim Trust to the Victoria and Albert Museum published by the Victoria and Albert Museum, Prints, Drawings and Paintings Department, 1951.
The full text of the entry is as follows:



Waltham Abbey.
Signed in pencil du Plessis
Water and body colour (10 7/8 x 15 5/8)

Palmer, Arnold, ed. Recording Britain. London: Oxford University Press, 1946-49. Vol 2: Essex, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, Northhamptonshire and Rutlandshire, Norfolk, Yorkshire. p.1.
'In 1940 Essex seemed in more urgent need of recording than any other county except Kent. Apart from being an easy target for air-raiders and a convenient dumping-ground for bombs from machines which had failed to reach objectives farther inland, it was also a likely area for invasion, and consequently sure of priority in the attentions of the War Office. Records of Essex, then, were wanted, and quickly, before the county was occupied by the British, or the German, Army.'
Bettley, James and Nikolaus Pevsner. The Buildings of England: Essex. New Haven and London: Yale, 2007. pp.804-811.


Paper; Watercolour; Bodycolour


Watercolour drawing

Subjects depicted

Topographical views; Abbeys; Waltham Abbey


Recording Britain Collection

Collection code


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