Home About Susan Susan's Blog Illustrations based on the Battle of Britain pilot, Richard Hillary, by Gavin Alston, c.1960

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Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Illustrations based on the Battle of Britain pilot, Richard Hillary, by Gavin Alston, c.1960

'Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few', Sir Winston Churchill. Illustrations for a Scottish television programme to commemorate the Battle of Britain , circa 1960.

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There are over 20 pen and ink drawings on grey sugar paper (roughly A3 scale)  by Gavin Alston, created in 1960. This series of drawings illustrates the life of WWII pilot, Richard Hillary, based on his autobiography ‘The Last Enemy’ (1942).  They are in a state of incompletion.  It is believed that the images were created for a television programme. Gavin worked with a young STV producer Brian Mahoney on a number of projects, designing work for short animations or illustrated interludes.  My mother cannot remember the name of the programme, but she tells me that it was like ‘Songs of Praise’, with a regular Sunday evening slot.  I cannot find any paperwork regarding this particular commission, however there are other letters from STV regarding the commission of artwork from Gavin for Scottish Television.  My mother tells me that the reason for the work was to commemorate The Battle of Britain (the epic battle for supremacy of the air instigated by the Nazi Luftwaffe against the British during the summer and autumn of 1940). However, it appears that Gavin stopped working on the drawings, the project being scraped due to the arrival of German troops in Scotland for training around this time, hence ‘don’t mention the war’!

Richard Hillary, Australian by birth, was Oxford educated and joined the University Squadron at the start of WWII. His story was made famous by his autobiography, “The Last Enemy’, in which he recounts his training and being shot down during The Battle of Britain. He was badly burned, but managed to escape his cockpit and parachute into the North Sea. A Margate based lifeboat rescued him. Much of his face had to be reconstructed (his eyelids and upper lip had been burnt off, and his hands extremely badly burnt). At the Queen Victoria hospital at East Grinstead, the pioneering plastic surgeon, Sir Archibald MacIndoe, looked after him. The burn injuries incurred by the fighter pilots during the WWII were horrific, and medicine had to quickly develop in order to tackle these ‘new’ injuries. These casualties were included in MacIndoe’s ‘Guinea Pig Club’, so called because MacIndoe effectively trialed new, untested plastic surgery techniques on the patients.

Hillary, who was told it was most unlikely that he would fly again, went to America to raise awareness of the plight of Britain in war torn Europe and it is at this stage that he wrote his book.

Most surprisingly, considering his severely damaged hands, Hillary was passed for military service again in 1943. While at the RAF training base, Charter Hall, in Scotland, on a night time practice, Hillary crashed his plane and died in 1943.

Gavin’s representation of Richard Hillary bears little resemblance to the photographs of Hillary or the portrait held in the National Gallery, that I have seen. Instead these drawings remind me more of Gavin and his brother Jim.  Gavin often drew his family members (like my mother) and it seems natural for an artist to draw subject matter through the lens of personal imagery and experience .

Gavin and his family had personal experience of World War II and the devastating blitzkrieg air raids. The Alston family were in their flat in Kirkintilloch, with the blackout blinds firmly shut, when Clydeside was mercilessly bombed in March 1941. My mother distinctly remembers Gavin peeking out of the blind and saying ‘they must be heading for the Clyde’, the drones of the Luftwaffe could be heard overhead.  Gavin wanted to head down to Clydebank to help with the rescue. Subsequently a family from Clydebank, dispossessed of their home, came to live next door. 

During those war years my mother remembers vividly her brothers and herself sitting around the kitchen table, listening to the radio reports of the war as it unfolded, and drawing. Her three brothers, Gavin, Jim and William, drew events and made booklets about the battles. There are early drawings of battleships and of military scenes drawn by a youthful, schoolboy, Gavin.  These, my mother remembers, graced the walls of the art room at school, Lenzie Academy.

Gavin Alston saw military service himself towards the end of the Second World War (photography of him at the bottom, in uniform, circa 1944). He left school at an early age, perhaps at 15, without his Higher Leaving Certificate, to work for a time as a commercial artist. Before he was due to be called up for military service, his father sent him to the Glasgow Wireless College at Charing Cross, in order to give him some qualifications. His father did not want him to be sent ‘down the mines’ (to become a  ‘Bevan boy’) or to be sent to the Front Line. As a result Gavin was conscripted into the Royal Corps of Signals, aged 17, in 1943.  Initially sent for training in Thurso, in the North of Scotland, and then Barnet outside London, Gavin was eventually sent in a troop ship to the port of Alexandria in Egypt in 1944/5.  He was then stationed at Haifa. After the liberation of the Middle East from Ottoman rule, the British had a mandate to oversee immigration into the area. Before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, the British held military presence in the area to monitor the flow of immigration and to quell the various rebellious factions forming ( both Jewish and Arab).  It was part of  Gavin’s job to detect the transmitters  of illegal radio stations.

Gavin’s strong figurative drawings are so much a part of the Glasgow School of Art figurative tradition. We tend to think of Peter Howson and Ken Currie, but they came much later.  The images embody Gavin’s ideas about the war, the heroism of fighter pilots like Hillary who ultimately gave their life for their country. His draughtsmanship is powerful and assured. My mother said that she never saw him copy images, but drew directly from his imagination, ‘He could draw anything’ .  In particular I am amazed at his drawings of the falling parachutist, twisting and turning in the air, filling the page and the torn and bloodied face of Hillary as he drifts in the water, half-dead. His work is, I believe, indebted to the Renaissance idea of the human form as central to conveying meaning and emotion in a work of art. The human condition is best expressed in the manipulation of the human form.

This year there have some fantastic art exhibitions related to the theme of war and remembrance services for The Great War. The Anselm Kiefer retrospective at The Royal Academy, where haunting, eerie, painted/clawed/dug, spaces are imbued with a malignant atmosphere of their past history. ‘Truth and Memory: British Art of the First World War’ at The Imperial War Museum, introduced me to the graphic art of C.R.W.Nevinson and I saw Paul Nash’s otherworldly, devastated, shell-pocked landscapes.  Not forgetting the swathes of blood red poppies of the ‘Blood Swept Lands and Sea of Red' installation at The Tower of London.  All the work brings home the utter devastation, futility and legacy of war with poignancy, in a rather more metaphorical manner than the descriptive, illustrational, quality of Gavin's work.

But for me Gavin’s work, personal as it is, touches me most deeply, giving me  greater insight into my own family history during the war, as well as the development of his artistic style and growing technical maturity. 

 
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