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St. Bartholomew's Church from the South-West, Orford, Suffolk; Recording Britain

  • Object:

    Watercolour

  • Place of origin:

    Orford, United Kingdom (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1940 (Painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Airy (painter (artist))

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Watercolour painting on paper

  • Credit Line:

    Given by the Pilgrim Trust

  • Museum number:

    E.2105-1949

  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level F, case RB, shelf 27, box C

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Jack L. Airy appears, on the evidence of his schematic, naive style and the dearth of available biographical information, to have been a talented amateur. This view of St Bartholomew's Church in Orford is one of the best of the eight Suffolk pictures he contributed to the Recording Britain project. Though the perspective is unconvincing and the colours flat, it is nevertheless an accurate and evocative record of its subject.

Airy's snowy, mid-winter view of the ruined tower (which had collapsed partially in 1829) complements Louisa Puller's more conventional view of the church taken from the fields in high summer. Such duplication was rare in the Recording Britain collection, but in this case was felt to be justified because the two pictures differed so sharply in conception and in character.

Physical description

A watercolour drawing in sharply focused close-up of the ruined church tower from an unusual angle. Schematic and highly coloured, it has the charms of a naive and unpretentious style. Though the perspective is unconvincing and the colours flat, it is nevertheless an evocative record of the subject in a mid-winter setting.

Place of Origin

Orford, United Kingdom (made)

Date

ca. 1940 (Painted)

Artist/maker

Airy (painter (artist))

Materials and Techniques

Watercolour painting on paper

Marks and inscriptions

'J. L. AIRY'

Dimensions

Height: 13.75 in, Width: 12.25 in

Object history note

This snowy, midwinter view of the ruined tower (which had partially collapsed in 1829) complements Louisa Puller's more conventional view of the church taken from the fields in high summer (E.2140-1949). Such duplication was uncommon in the Recording Britain project, but was considered justified in this case because the two pictures differed so much in conception and in character.

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 significance: Jack L. Airy appears to have been a talented amateur, on the evidence of his schematic, naive style and the dearth of available biographical information. He contributed eight pictures of sites in Suffolk to the Recording Britain project.

Descriptive line

Watercolour of St Bartholomew's Church, Orford, by Jack L. Airy (Recording Britain, Suffolk).

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

Mellor, D., G. Saunders, P. Wright. Recording Britain: A Pictorial Domesday of Pre-War Britain. 1990. p. 140.
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:
'SUFFOLK

AIRY, Jack L.

[...]
St.Bartholomew’s Church, Orford, from
the South West.
Signed J.L.Airy.
Water-colour (13 ¾ x 12 1/4)

E.2105-1949'
Palmer, Arnold, ed. Recording Britain. London: Oxford University Press, 1946-49. Vol 2: Essex, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, Northhamptonshire and Rutlandshire, Norfolk, Yorkshire. Introduction to Suffolk, p.49.
‘Of the first group of artists to be commissioned, eighteen in number, sixteen went to work between Weymouth and Ipswich. Such was the arrangement, eloquent of the state of affairs in the month of April 1940. Before the month was out a batch of four drawings from Suffolk started the collection; on the other hand, three of the artists, unable to begin work immediately, were too late and found their objectives, when they reached them, guarded by sentries and hung about with minatory notices. After two years, when the pattern of military control had become clearer and was about to be extended, further recording was done in East Suffolk; but at the time it was thought wiser and kinder to remove the three artists from an area in which, hanging about with their sketch-books and paint-boxes, they were hourly the objects of darker suspicions, and send them to fulfil their commission in Devon and Glamorgan.
The lot of the artists was not then an altogether enviable one, especially on the east coast. Tact, perseverance, and courage were needed as well as a permit from one Ministry and a guarantee of bona fides from another. One artist, sick of sour looks and grudging concessions, marshalled all the influence that he, his friends, and his friends’ friends could bring to bear and obtained a coloured pass of immense power and rarity. In fact, it seems to have been unique, and at the end of a fortnight he was thankful to surrender it and to recover his old and ordinary permit. Never having seen the like of his pink card, the police and military were convinced it was a clumsy forgery from Berlin.
Yet police and military came in time to be regarded by the artists less as a barrier to progress than as a defence against the common enemy, the General Public. The painters were so often reported, and the men in blue and the men in khaki so often roused, that an almost affectionate alliance grew up between them, co-victims of busybodies who, if possibly well-meaning, were fond of results during the lunch hour.’

Exhibition History

Recording Britain: A Pictorial Domesday of Pre-War Britain (Victoria and Albert Museum 01/08/1990-18/11/1990)

Materials

Paper; Watercolour

Techniques

Watercolour drawing; Painting

Subjects depicted

Topographical views; Churches; Ruins; Suffolk; Orford; Winter Scenes

Categories

Recording Britain Collection

Collection code

PDP

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Qr_O17776
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