Description: THE BATTLEFIELDS OF BRITAIN signed
Dimensions: 76.5 by 62.5cm.; 30 by 25in.
Artist or Maker: CHRISTOPHER RICHARD WYNNE NEVINSON, A.R.A. 1889-1946
Medium: oil on canvas
Exhibited: Possibly London, Royal Academy, 1942, cat. no.286 as Battlefields of Britain, Opus IV, 'One Fine Day, 1941' .
Provenance: Sale, Sotheby's London, 14 (th) November 1984, lot 82 (as Battle of Britain), where acquired by the present owners
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Although Nevinson will always be indelibly linked with his images of the Western Front during WWI, this superb painting from the dark days of WWII demonstrates that he had lost none of his ability to capture the essential nature of each specific conflict.
In the wake of the Dunkirk evacuation and the French surrender in June 1940, there seemed to be little prospect of Britain, virtually without allies, being able to withstand a direct German attack. However, in order to be able to effect such an attack, Hitler recognised that air and sea supremacy were vital. With the Kriegsmarine badly hampered as a result of the Norwegian campaign, it was decided that it was through air power that the opportunity for invasion would come about. In Directive No. 16; On the Preparation of a Landing Operation against England, issued on July 16 (th) 1940, it was stated that The English air force must have been beaten down to such an extent morally and in actual fact that it can no longer muster any power of attack worth mentioning against the German crossing. Although many senior German military figures doubted that even air supremacy would make an invasion plan viable, Goering's Luftwaffe began bombing raids with the intention of both neutralizing the RAF capacity and destroying military facilities in the areas which would be relevant for a future attack. Not only did the RAF resistance prove to be more active than was initially expected, but the use of radar, which the Luftwaffe knew about but considered to be of minor importance, allowed for an active defense to be mounted.
Whilst the release of official records of casualties have shown that both sides somewhat exaggerated the numbers of enemy planes shot down for propaganda purposes, the intensity of the conflict, predominantly over the southern and southern-eastern counties of England, cannot be doubted and the period from July to September 1940 marked an important psychological pointfor both sides. For the British, the exploits of 'The Few' were a key signifier of the nation's indefatigable spirit and as the first major invasion threat fought over, if not actually on, British soil for centuries, the Battle of Britain achieved a huge national significance. For the German military, it perhaps highlighted the internal rivalries, tactical failings and problems of rapidly extended supply and maintenance chains which would beset later campaigns, and thus was a harsh blow to the myth of military invincibility which the political elite had created.
The fact that the conflict took place in full view of large swathes of the country meant that the actions of the RAF, which were primarily aimed at foiling the Luftwaffe's bombing offensives, were brought completely into the ken of the nation and were something that clearly stirred a number of artists. Some remarkable images were produced on this subject, such as Richard Eurich's Air Fight over Portland and Paul Nash's Battle of Britain (both IWM Collection), and in these the sense of the action in the skies above is highlighted by the interweaving exhaust trails and the waves of incoming planes. Nevinson's painting however is very different.
The landscape unfolds beneath us, the meandering path of a river leading away into the distance through a patchwork of fields. This is seen through clusters of cloud, whose movement and insubstantial nature he captures with perfect acuity. Unlike the paintings of his contemporaries, only gradually do we become aware of the presence of aircraft in the distance, a tight v-formation of three fighters (known as a 'vic'), and the suggestion of a further group beyond. Highlighting the smallness of the numbers involved, rather than the massed ranks seen in both Nash and Eurich's paintings, Nevinson manages to imbue the whole scene with an air of unreality and calm in full contrast to the action which may be about to begin. This duality, especially in the bright sun of late summer, with the lush green of England below, was something that the pilots themselves remarked upon, and in some cases sought to elucidate further. Writings such as Richard Hillary's The Last Enemy discuss the almost duel-like element of the engagements, and this kind of imagery clearly struck a chord with the contemporary public.
As with much of the best work produced during WWII, whether directly engaging with typical 'wartime' subject matter, or looking at the fabric of the country itself, such as in the work of John Piper, the overall sense of an innate nationalism can hardly be avoided. That feeling that what one is seeing is somehow representative of the whole national effort towards survival is a potent one, and in this painting, Nevinson has created an image that even as the conflict ebbs further from living memory stands as an icon of a crucial moment in British history.
One of three paintings Nevinson produced under the group title The Battlefields of Britain, of which two were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1942, the artist presented one to the nation in late 1942 and it hung in the Council Room of the Air Ministry for many years (Government Art Collection).
Those who lived in the countryside of southern England in 1940 and 1941 will not forget it. In both years the midsummer weather was magnificent; the longest days of the year were perpetually beautiful, warm and blue....This thing, which has been called a good many names but which in fact was the defence of these islands, filled the cloudless skies of both summers with many planes. (H.E.Bates, Introduction to War Pictures by British Artists No.3: R.A.F, Oxford University Press, 1942, p.5)