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Interior of SS Peter and Paul, Little Saling, Essex; Recording Britain Collection

  • Object:

    Watercolour

  • Place of origin:

    England, Great Britain (painted)

  • Date:

    1940 (painted)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Rowntree, born 1915 - died 1997 (artist)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Watercolour on paper

  • Credit Line:

    Given by the Pilgrim Trust

  • Museum number:

    E.1412-1949

  • Gallery location:

    Prints & Drawings Study Room, level C, case MB2H, shelf DR57

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In 1940 the Ministry of Labour, in association with the Pilgrim Trust, established a project to commission artists to provide a record of the changing face of Britain. This remarkably ambitious scheme was known as 'Recording Britain'. The secretary of the Central Institute of Art and Design recommended in 1939 that 'artists should be appointed to make drawings, paintings and prints at the war fronts, in factories, workshops, shipyards and on the land, and of the changed life of the towns and villages, thus making a permanent record of life during the war which would be a memorial to the national effort, and of particular local value'. The impetus behind the project was the threat of extensive bomb damage throughout the Second World War, particularly in the cities but also in the countryside.

This watercolour was commissioned for the 'Recording Britain' project. Kenneth Rowntree (1915-1997) painted views in several English and Welsh counties. In Essex (where he was then living), his contribution was a series of exteriors and interiors of local churches. He specialised in the art of watercolour, and demonstrates a freshness of colour and brushwork. This church at Little Saling, Essex, dates from the 14th century.

Physical description

Watercolour; signed. View of the interior of the church, showing pews and a section of the carved stone pulpit. As with his exterior view of the church, Rowntree uses a tall, narrow format to reflect the proportions of the 14th-century church. His careful depiction of light and shadow reveals a dilapidated but luminous and ancient interior. He records details such as the white jug left in the pew, the cracks and flaking plaster on the wall, and the red-painted circular motif on the wall, a consecration cross dated to 1380.

Place of Origin

England, Great Britain (painted)

Date

1940 (painted)

Artist/maker

Rowntree, born 1915 - died 1997 (artist)

Materials and Techniques

Watercolour on paper

Marks and inscriptions

'Kenneth Rowntree'

Dimensions

Height: 48.3 cm, Width: 29.7 cm

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 significance: Ravilious and Bawden were largely responsible for reviving the art of watercolour painting in the 1930s, bringing to it a distinctive style with a strong emphasis on pattern and texture. On the evidence of his Recording Britain pictures, Rowntree was very much a part of this tendency.

Historical context note

At the time he painted this watercolour, Rowntree was living in the nearby village of Great Bardfield, which also numbered Eric Ravilious, Michael Rothenstein, and Edward Bawden among its residents. Although their individual styles differed dramatically, all were working on topographical subjects, primarily in watercolour.

Descriptive line

Watercolour by Kenneth Rowntree, 'Interior, Church of SS. Peter and Paul, Little Saling', 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:
'ESSEX.

[…]
ROWNTREE, Kenneth, A.R.W.S.

[…]

Interior, Church of SS.Peter and Paul, Little Saling.
Signed in pencil Kenneth Rowntree.
Water-colour (19 x 11 11/16)

E.1412-1949'
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.'
Mellor, David, Gill Saunders and Patrick Wright. Recording Britain: A Pictorial Domesday of Pre-War Britain. Newton Abbot and London: David & Charles in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1990. pp.17, 70-71.

Exhibition History

Water into Art: British Watercolours from the V&A 1750-1950 (Shenhzen Museum, China 9 August 2012-11 November 2012)

Materials

Paper; Watercolour

Techniques

Painting

Subjects depicted

Churches; Essex; Jugs; Interiors (religious); Pews; Little Saling

Categories

Paintings; Recording Britain Collection

Collection code

PDP

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Qr_O75788
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