Kennington was born in Chelsea, London, the second son of the well-known genre and portrait painter, Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856–1916), an active member of the New English Art Club. He was educated at St Paul's School and the Lambeth School of Art. Kennington first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1908.
World War One
At the start of World War I, Kennington enlisted with the 13th (Kensington) Battalion London Regiment. He fought on the Western Front, but was wounded and spent four months in hospital before being discharged as unfit in June 1915. During his convalescence, he produced The Kensingtons at Laventie, Winter 1914, a group portrait of his own infantry platoon, Platoon No 7, C Company. Kennington himself is the figure third from the left, wearing a balaclava. When exhibited in the spring of 1916, its portrayal of exhausted soldiers caused a sensation. Painted in reverse on glass, the painting is now in the Imperial War Museum and was widely praised for its technical virtuosity, iconic colour scheme, and its ‘stately presentation of human endurance, of the quiet heroism of the rank and file’. Kennington visited the Somme in December 1916 as a semi-official artist visitor before accepting an official war artist commission from the Department of Information in May 1917. He was to spend seven and a half months in France during which time he produced 170 charcoal, pastel and watercolours before returning to London in March 1918. Whilst in France in 1918, Kennington made a number of sketches and drawings at a Casualty Clearing Station at Tincourt-Boucly during the bombardment that preceded the German 1918 Spring Offensive. These drawings became the basis of the completed painting Gassed and Wounded. In November 1918 Kennington was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Scheme to depict Canadian troops in Europe. The eight months Kennington spent in Germany, Belgium and France resulted in some seventy drawings.
At an exhibition of his war art, Kennington met T. E. Lawrence who became a great influence on him. Kennington spent the first half of 1920 drawing portraits of Arab subjects throughout the Middle East. Some of these drawings were used as illustrations for Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, for which Kennington worked as the art editor. Years later, in 1935, Kennington was to serve as one of the six pallbearers at Lawrences funeral. In 1922 Kennington began to experiment with stone carving and soon undertook his first public commission, the War Memorial to the 24th Division in Battersea Park which was unveiled in October 1924. The same month he held his first exhibition which focused on sculpture rather than his paintings and drawings, although he continued to accept portrait commissions and other work.
Throughout the late 1920s and the 1930s, Kennington produced a number of notable public sculptures,
- September 1926; a bronze bust of T. E. Lawrence which in 1936 was unveiled in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral
- July 1929; three nine foot high stone figures of British soldiers for the Imperial War Graves Commission Memorial to the Missing, the Soissons Memorial
- September 1931; allegorical reliefs on the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford on Avon
- December 1936; the Comet Inn pillar, Hatfield, Hertfordshire
- 1937-1939; a life-sized tomb effigy, in Portland stone, of T. E. Lawrence for St Martin's Church, Wareham, Dorset.
World War Two
At the start of World War II, Kennington produced a number of pastel portraits for the War Artists' Advisory Committee on short-term contracts before the Committee gave him a full-time salaried contract to work for the Air Ministry. He travelled around Britain to produce hundreds of portraits of Allied flight crew and other service personnel until September 1942 when he resigned his commission because he felt that WAAC were failing to capitalise on the propaganda value of his work in their publications and posters. Some of Kennington's RAF portraits were published in a 1942 book, Drawing the RAF, which was followed in 1943 with Tanks and Tank Folk. In 1945 Kennington supplied the illustrations for Britain's Home Guard by John Brophy. Darracott and Loftus describe how in both wars "his drawings and letters show him to be an admirer of the heroism of ordinary men and women", an admiration which is particularly notable in the poster series "Seeing it Through".
By the time the war ended over forty of the RAF pilots and aircrew whose portraits Kennington had painted had been killed in action. Kennington resolved to create a suitable memorial for them and over the next ten years, whilst also working on sculpture and portrait commissions, he patiently carved 1940, a column with the head of an RAF pilot topped by the Archangel Michael with a lance slaying a dragon. In 1946 Kennington was appointed as the official portrait painter to the Worshipful Company of Skinners. Over the next five years he produced nine pastel portraits for the company, which were highly praised when shown at the Royal Academy. In 1951 Kennington became an associate member of the Academy and was elected a full academician in 1959. His last work, which was completed on his death by his assistant Eric Stanford, was a stone relief panel that decorates the James Watt South Building in the University of Glasgow.
In 1922, he married Edith Cecil, with whom he had a son and a daughter. Edith, who was already married, fell in love with Kennington while he was painting her husband's picture. They both remained good friends with Edith's ex-husband.
- Paintings by Eric Kennington at the BBC Your Paintings site
- Jonathan Black. The Sculpture of Eric Kennington (Henry Moore Foundation/Lund Humphries, November 2002) ISBN 0 85331 823 9
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Eric Kennington.|
- Tate. "Artist biography: Eric Kennington". Tate Britain. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
- Imperial War Museum. "The Kensingtons at Laventie". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 24 January 2014.
- Richard Slocombe (Senior art curator IWM) (30 August 2013). "Art of war:The Kensingtons at Laventie". The Telegraph. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
- Paul Gough (2010) ‘A Terrible Beauty’: British Artists in the First World War (Sansom and Company) p.20.
- Jonathan Black (2011). The Face of Courage Eric Kennington, Portraiture and the Second World War. Philip Wilson Publishers. ISBN 978-0-85667-705-2.
- Imperial War Museum. "Search the Collection, Gassed and Wounded". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 27 January 2014.
- Brain Foss (2007). War paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10890-3.
- Imperial War Museum. "War artists archive - Eric Kennington Part 1". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
- Richard Moss (13 July 2011). "Eric Kennington's Portraits of the British at War at the RAF Museum, London". Culture24. Retrieved 11 November 2013.