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Watercolour - Waltham Abbey
  • Waltham Abbey
    du Plessis, Hercules Enslin, born 1894 - died 1978
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Waltham Abbey

  • Object:

    Watercolour

  • Place of origin:

    Waltham (painted)

  • Date:

    ca. 1940 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    du Plessis, Hercules Enslin, born 1894 - died 1978 (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Watercolour and bodycolour on paper

  • Credit Line:

    Given by the Pilgrim Trust

  • Museum number:

    E.1385-1949

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

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 (painted)

Date

ca. 1940 (painted)

Artist/maker

du Plessis, Hercules Enslin, born 1894 - died 1978 (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Watercolour and bodycolour on paper

Marks and inscriptions

'du Plessis'

Dimensions

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.

Materials

Watercolour; Bodycolour; Paper

Techniques

Watercolour drawing

Subjects depicted

Waltham Abbey; Abbeys; Topographical views

Categories

Recording Britain Collection

Collection

Prints, Drawings & Paintings Collection

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