Eric Kennington

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Eric Kennington
An Infantryman Resting Art.IWMART1038.jpg
An Infantryman Resting (1916)
Born (1888-03-12)12 March 1888
Chelsea, London
Died 13 April 1960(1960-04-13) (aged 72)
Reading, Berkshire
Nationality British
Education Lambeth School of Art
Known for Painting, sculpture

Eric Henri Kennington RA (12 March 1888 – 13 April 1960) was an English sculptor, artist and illustrator, and an official war artist in both World Wars.[1]

As a war artist, Kennington specialised in depictions of the daily hardships endured by soldiers and airmen. In the inter-war years he worked mostly on portraits and a number of book illustrations. The most notable of his book illustrations were for T. E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Kennington was also a gifted sculptor, best known for his 1926 monument, in Battersea Park, to the 24th Division, for his work on the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon and for the tomb effigy of Lawrence at Wareham in Dorset.[2]


Early life[edit]

Kennington was born in Chelsea, London, the second son of the well-known genre and portrait painter, Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856–1916), a founder member of the New English Art Club. He was educated at St Paul's School and the Lambeth School of Art.[1] Kennington first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1908. At the International Society in April 1914 Kennington exhibited a series of paintings and drawings of costermongers which sold well and allowed him to set up a studio off Kensington High Street in London.[3]

First World War[edit]

The Kensingtons at Laventie (1915) (Art.IWM ART 15661)
The Conquerors; originally titled The Victims it was renamed after objections from Lieutenant-Colonel Cyrus Wesley Peck, the commanding officer of 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish), CEF
War Memorial of the 24th Division, Battersea Park

At the start of World War I, Kennington enlisted with the 13th (Kensington) Battalion London Regiment on 6 August 1914,.[4] He fought on the Western Front, but was wounded in January 1915 and evacuated back to England. Kennington lost one toe and was fortunate not to lose a foot due to infection. He spent four months in hospital before being discharged as unfit in June 1915.[3] During his subsequent convalescence, he spent six months painting The Kensingtons at Laventie, 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.[5][6] 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".[7]

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. Kennington was commissioned to spend a month on the Western Front but he applied for numerious extensions and eventually spent seven and a half months in France. Kennington spent most of his time painting portraits, which he was happy to do, but became increasingly concerned about his lack of access to the front line and that the official censor was removing the names of his portrait subjects. Although Kennington was among the first of the official war artists Britain sent to France, he was not afforded anything like the status and facilities that the others, in particular William Orpen and Muirhead Bone enjoyed.[8] Whereas Kennington was working for neither salary nor expenses and had no official car or staff, Orpen was given the rank of major, had his own military aide, a car and driver, plus, at his own expense, a batman and assistant to accompany him.[7]

In 1917 Kennington produced six lithographs under the title Making Soldiers for the Ministry of Information's Britain's Efforts and Ideals portfolio of images which were exhibited in Britain and abroad and were also sold as prints to raise money for the war effort.[9] During his time in France, Kennington produced 170 charcoal, pastel and watercolours before returning to London in March 1918.[10] Whilst in France in 1918, Kennington was admitted to a Casualty Clearing Station at Tincourt-Boucly to be treated for trench fever. There he made a number of sketches and drawings of men injured during the bombardment that preceded the German 1918 Spring Offensive. Some of these drawings became the basis of the completed painting Gassed and Wounded.[11]

Throughout June and July 1918 an exhibition of Kennington's work was held in London and received great reviews and some public acclaim. Despite this, Kennington was unhappy in his dealings with Department of Information, mainly concerning the censoring of his paintings, and he resigned his war artist commission with the British. In November 1918 Kennington was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Scheme to depict Canadian troops in Europe. That month he returned to France as a temporary first lieutenant attached to the 16th Battalion (Canadian Scottish), CEF. The eight months Kennington spent in Germany, Belgium and France, working for the Canadians, resulted in some seventy drawings.[3][10]


At an exhibition of his war art in London, Kennington met T. E. Lawrence who became a great influence on him. Kennington spent the first half of 1921 travelling through Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine drawing portraits of Arab subjects. These were displayed at an exhibition in October 1921 and some of the 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 Lawrence's 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. These included the original dust jacket design for George Bernard Shaw's book The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism.[10]

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.


Throughout the late 1920s and the 1930s, Kennington produced a number of notable public sculptures,

Second World War[edit]

At the start of the Second World War, 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.[12][13] 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.[14] 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".

Post-war career[edit]

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.[10] 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.[10] 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.

Kennington is buried in the churchyard in Checkendon, Oxfordshire, where he was churchwarden, and is commemorated on a memorial in Brompton Cemetery, London.

Further reading[edit]

  • Jonathan Black. The Sculpture of Eric Kennington (Henry Moore Foundation/Lund Humphries, November 2002) ISBN 0 85331 823 9


  1. ^ a b Tate. "Artist biography: Eric Kennington". Tate Britain. Retrieved 11 November 2013. 
  2. ^ Ian Chilvers (2004). The Oxford Dictionary of Art. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0 19 860476 9. 
  3. ^ a b c Jonathan Black (19 January 2012). "Portraits like Bombs:Eric Kennington and the Second World War". National Army Museum. Retrieved 21 July 2015. 
  4. ^ 'The Kensingtons at Levantie', 'Kensington Express' 16 June 1916, P.4
  5. ^ Imperial War Museum. "The Kensingtons at Laventie". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 24 January 2014. 
  6. ^ Richard Slocombe (Senior art curator IWM) (30 August 2013). "Art of war:The Kensingtons at Laventie". The Telegraph. Retrieved 11 November 2013. 
  7. ^ a b Paul Gough (2010). A Terrible Beauty: British Artists in the First World War. Sansom and Company. ISBN 978-1-906593-00-1. 
  8. ^ Imperial War Museum (2014). "Kennington, Eric 1917-1918". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 10 November 2015. 
  9. ^ Mari Gordon (Series Editor) (2014). The Great War:Britain's Efforts and Ideals. National Museum of Wales. ISBN 9780720006278. 
  10. ^ a b c d e Jonathan Black (2011). The Face of Courage Eric Kennington, Portraiture and the Second World War. Philip Wilson Publishers. ISBN 978-0-85667-705-2. 
  11. ^ Imperial War Museum. "Search the Collection, Gassed and Wounded". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 27 January 2014. 
  12. ^ Brain Foss (2007). War paint: Art, War, State and Identity in Britain, 1939-1945. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10890-3. 
  13. ^ Imperial War Museum. "War artists archive - Eric Kennington Part 1". Imperial War Museum. Retrieved 11 November 2013. 
  14. ^ Richard Moss (13 July 2011). "Eric Kennington's Portraits of the British at War at the RAF Museum, London". Culture24. Retrieved 11 November 2013. 

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