A Tribute to Thomas Hennell

Polegate Mill

It is strange how I seem to keep encountering the work of the mid 20th Century artist and writer, Thomas Hennell.

His work has provided me with much information, inspiration and encouragement and so it seemed only right to show my appreciation and celebrate his memory.
I find it strange how one’s paths can often cross and re-cross someone else’s. And I find it even more intriguing when the when the person with whom this is happening is someone long departed whom I never knew.

This is very much the case with Thomas Hennell and what makes it even more surprising is that the paths upon which I keep meeting his ghost are many and varied.

Sometimes I look at my ‘portfolio’ of interests and view them as somewhat esoteric and strangely eclectic. They don’t follow one cohesive theme or direction (not an obvious one anyway), so it seems strangely rare to find people who share more than one or at most two of them. Yet, repeatedly, over many years whilst pursuing one line of research or another, I have found myself to be confronted by the elusive trail of this man who has been here or there before me.

Whilst the evidence of his presence is aboundingly clear from the quality, interest and abundance of the work he has left behind, the imprint upon that work of a sense of the man himself has often been so light of touch that even after all these many years of chance encounters with his ghost I still find him an intriguingly elusive figure.

Notwithstanding this, he is to me like a fellow traveller, whose presence even over the gap of time that stands between our voyaging has provided me with much information, inspiration and encouragement for which I am truly grateful.

It seemed only right to show my appreciation and celebrate his memory somehow. The best way I could think to do this was to shine a small light onto his work by way of describing my various encounters with it over the years and the creative inspiration that has come from this quietly inspiring man.

I first came across Hennell’s drawings and enjoyed them, as illustrations to H. J. Massingham’s books on the British countryside, but my real absorption with Hennell’s work started when I stumbled across a copy of his book “The Old Farm” (originally published as ‘Change on the Farm’).

It occurred not long after I had taken on the role as farm manager a the brilliant Chiltern Open Air Museum, where part of the intent of my job was to utilise the reconstructed historic farm buildings there, together with the surrounding fields, to try bring as much as possible about the farm activities of the past to life for the visiting public.

Together with my excellent volunteer team we set about trying to understand and employ farming techniques form the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. Yet very quickly, in every part of this venture we set out on, we were confronted with the immense difficulties of the disconnect between our time and that which we were representing, especially in the matter of detail.

It seemed that just about every technique of old farming from tying sheaves, to rick building and thatching had innumerable small details, very few of which remained in the lexicon of those farming today.

As a result I would spend many an evening poring over books on old farming hoping to glean any little gems of detail I could from them. (This was essentially almost a pre-internet era, even if only 20 years ago!)

The trouble was that very few books ever went into the little details that we needed; the essential skills at the heart of the jobs seemingly taken for granted, as if ‘passed down like folksong’ from one generation to the next at the time.

Enter Hennell’s book. And what a discovery it was, even thumbing through it in the bookshop I could see that here was someone who had been there, and could see that these arts (which they truly were) were disappearing around him, and had taken the time to record so much of the activities, tools and their usages on the farms of the time in immense detail.

So the book became an invaluable reference. There were even moments where it sat beside us, tool in one hand book in the other, as we tried to this or that technique out, much in the manner of how everyone seems to use those ‘how to’ videos on You Tube these days!

Who else has recorded in such detail as his excellent sketches do, the jointing arrangement on a threshing flail made from two sticks, for instance? Who would think there was a need to? Yet if you make this wrong, one of those sticks has the potential to fly off most dangerously and unpredictably across a barn like some possessed medieval weapon.

Despite holding the book most dear, I never thought much about Hennell himself at the time. The book indeed gives one little cause to, his voice and drawings are solely directed at factual (and excellent) recording. With hindsight, I now realise that this was the first time that I first walked alongside the ghost of this great man, yet such was the humility of his writing,we barely noticed his presence at the time.

If the use of his recordings for our agrarian purposes was too utilitarian to be recognisable as art to most, there was one instance from back then, some 20 year ago, where I did make something ‘artistic’ enough that I can look back and consider it as a previous, if unintentional, tribute to him in artistic form:

As part of our endeavours at the farm we recreated a fully functioning ‘lambing fold’ next to a hay rick that we had built, complete with the Museum’s original shepherd’s van to base our nightly watch of the flock as they lambed:




Pictures of our lambing fold at the Museum. (Photos courtesy of Pete Williamson)

Sitting up in there one night, waiting for ewes to lamb, I was thumbing through Hennell’s ‘The Old Farm’ again when I noticed his description of a bird shaped rick ornament made from straw, which with an old pint bottle built into its middle would have been mounted atop of a hay or corn rick to act as a weather vane.

It seemed an inspiring subject for my tired mind, the perfect activity to occupy myself whilst needing to staying awake in the shepherd’s van. So taking a bundle of our left over thatching straw, over a couple of nights sitting next the stove in the van and interspersed with assisting ewes and lambs, I set out to recreate one of these as per Hennell’s drawing. It stood atop the rick until it came to cutting into it for the hay, and I hope Hennell would have been pleased to have seen it:

A rick ornament made of straw, based on a Thomas Hennell's drawing.

The finished rick ornament on our Lambing Fold hay rick. (Photo courtesy of Pete Williamson)

Over the next few years I found few years I found myself able to acquire a couple more of Hennell’s books in second hand bookshops. One was ‘British Craftsmen’ in which Hennell’s wider appreciation of the craft skills that have given so much of the character to our whole landscape, urban or rural, secular or ecclesiastical is clearly visible.

Once again, there is relatively little intrusion of Hennell’s own persona into the writing, but two facets of his perception cannot but help shine through. The first is a massive appreciation, borne from acute observation, of the immense skill and care that that has been injected into the craft skills that made our buildings and supported even the most utilitarian aspects of the production of the nations daily needs. The second is a clear tone of lament. The sadness at the rapid decline and disappearance of these skills in an increasingly industrialised society is deeply personal tone that cannot help but shine out through the text and shows just a little insight into the man behind the book.

My other second had bookshop find was his “The Countryman at Work”. Another fine account of rural trades, illustrated with his trademark drawings which always captured something more than just the facts of the rural working, characterising the ‘colour’ and character of their workshops and the quirky individuality of rural working life in their sharp recording of detail.

The copy I had of this book was a 1947 reprint of the 1941 original. Due to Hennell’s tragic death in 1945 it included a memoir of him written by his friend H. J. Massingham. Here I had stumbled across a first hand insight into the character of this man, whose interest in rural craftsmanship seemed strangely aligned with my own. I could not help but feel an even deeper affinity for him and a keen sense of the loss that his untimely death represented.

Over the years since these few books of Hennell’s continued to be superb references for me in my work. Each time I would reach for one though, there was now an added poignancy attached to their use. A sense of the quiet and unobtrusive, yet elusive and complex character that lay behind their insightful creativity, and the tinge of sadness at the thought of a brilliant life cut short.

The layers of interest have only grown since too. I have held a long cherished ‘side’ fascination for mills throughout my life, both wind and water mills. On one of many visits to different mills I was poring through the books in the gift shop when once again I was to find Hennell had been here before me. A reprint of a book of full of his illustrations that I was unaware of, “The Windmills of Thomas Hennell ” lay in front of me, demanding purchase.

And with came yet further insight into Hennell. Whilst the illustrations had his hallmark perceptive observational drawings of a dying craft once again, this time I was stunned by their technical precision.

The drawings cover just about every functional part of a working windmill, drawn from many different mills around the country. The drawings show not just with the eye of an artist, but the mind an appreciation of an engineer in their meticulous and accurate representation of the form and function of the machinery. It is perhaps an unusual combination to find , but one that I have a strong empathy for, having originally trained as an engineer myself.

Perhaps in this lies the embodiment of Hennell’s most enduring gift to me so far, the insight into the total beauty of the fusion of engineering, human ingenuity and craftmanship that makes for a form of beauty that is an art form in itself; the expression of which is most abundantly clear in the these patient and crisp studies of pieces of mill machinery. I feel Hennell was channelling much of the same in some of his studies of the rural and farming crafts, where I see it all to plainly too.

It has an inspiration extension for me too; for I find the same perception filtering through in the realms of my aviation and railway works as well. To my eye some of the same beauty underlies these machines. The embodied skills in the construction of a the Hurricane’s fuselage and the exquisitely shaped panels of the Spifire’s wings, or the idiosyncratic beauty of the multitudes of steam loco designs of the 30’s seem like prime examples.

All seem to me to have at their heart, the same touch of human creative endeavour, something of the William Morris dictum about the need for us to only have things which we “... know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” ....and how much better still where they are both.

I know I will continue to find Hennell’s footprints here and there along many of the tracks I tread. I have yet to spend more time delving into the work he created in the last couple of years of his life when he became an official war artist.

The few works that I have seen from this era, have their own distinct interest. I can’t help but feel that Hennell continued to bring his own unique take to this role. As well as the expected pictures of troops, prisoners and devastated buildings there are amongst the pieces I have seen from this period, some which suggest he seemed to have retained his urge to record some of the same kind of subjects which had always interested him.

There are pieces in which it is clear he was also turning his acute sensibilities to recording the wider continuance of rural life and the subtle nuances of its changes. Perhaps capturing something of what must have seemed the strange normalcy of rural continuity against a backdrop of the madness of war.

I’ve no doubt that in this last phase of his work there will be new artistic insights for me to discover. It seems maybe that the revelation of full expression in colour may finally have flourished for himat this time, with most expressive effect, and one anticipates much to be savoured therein.

All of which brings thoughts of him in a new light to me, and it’s perhaps inevitable that I should now find occasional thoughts of him crossing my mind as I work on some of my Battle of Britain pieces. Pieces where the harvest continues unabated down below in the fields and farmhouses of the native Kent that he loved so much, whilst the deathly aerial combat raged in the skies overhead.

It is eighty years since 1943, the year in which Hennell took on the official mantle of a salaried war artist, in a turn of events that must have been strange and hard for him. The post he took had previously belonged to his friend and fellow artist, Eric Ravilious, who lost his life on a flight in the course of his duty. Hennell’s undertaking of the post would ultimately lead to his death too, just two years later, in 1945, in Indonesia.

It seems appropriate to mark this eightieth anniversary of Hennell’s brave decision to take on this duty and so I’d like to dedicate this painting of Polegate Windmill to his memory. It is in many ways a tribute to him and his art.

My piece is no attempt to ‘follow’ his style, and overtly may appear to bear no obvious link to him. But I like to think that the piece draws a certain amount on his work. Like him, and partly inspired by him, I have been fascinated to record the details of some of the functional parts of the mill as accurately as possible.

I think too, that though the style may be different, the sense of appreciation of the rich cultural rural heritage that the mill standing in the landscape represents, is as resonant to me whilst painting it as I suspect each mill was to him as his brush carefully crafted so many of their images in watercolour.

Lastly there is one further way in which this piece represents to me the ‘crossing of our ways. Amongst his mill drawings are a couple of detailed drawings of the ‘stone furniture’ and a sack holder at this very mill. So here finally is a place that I know that Hennell definitely trod before me, in actuality as well as metaphor.

Even though the better part of a century now separates our steps here, as I look at the piece there are moments where it seems that a tall angular yet unassuming figure, clad in corduroy and tweed, is leaning on the gatepost in the previously empty gateway, gazing up at the mill and pulling out a sketchbook from the voluminous pockets of his grey woollen coat.....

The gateway in which I can picture the figure of Thomas Hennell