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Book Review, NRJ 69.2

June 30, 2024 10:17 AM | JAMES HATCH (Administrator)

The Royal Navy In Action: Art from Dreadnought to Vengeance

By John Fairley

  • This attractive book uses paintings and drawings to illustrate Royal Navy operations from early actions in the opening weeks of the Great War to strikes in 2021 by the new carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth, against ISIS bases in Syria. The paintings—there are ninety-six of them in color and eight line drawings—are drawn from museums and private collections. They are grouped thematically and described by John Fairley, a television producer and author who served in the RNVR in the late 1950s. A former journalist, his text is a very readable but eclectic, running dialogue peppered with interesting details. How many of us, for example, are aware that Prince Andrew (long before his reputation was ruined) piloted the first helicopter to arrive to rescue survivors from the requisitioned container ship Atlantic Conveyer off the Falklands in 1982? Another example is how Fairley describes how war artist, Norman Wilkinson, returning from a weekend's trout fishing in Devon in 1917, was suddenly inspired to conceive that dazzle paint could confuse an attacking U-boat (29).

    Good war art can convey the essence of a situation in a dramatic manner. The author quotes World War II artist who believed that five hundred years in the future war art would mean far more than contemporary records.

    This collection includes several examples of striking paintings that communicate the core of a story. Outstanding cases in point are Richard Eurich's image of survivors from a torpedoed ship, Philip Connard's depiction of the control room of World War I submarine during an attack, and Charles Pears’s two paintings of convoys to North Russia another of the battleship Howe. There are several striking works by William Wyllie who gained a major reputation during his lifetime. These include arresting images of survivors and dead bodies floating in the flotsam left by the sinking of Lusitania, and lovely studies of the Grand Feet at sea and during the Battle of Jutland. An interesting painting by Stephen Bone offers a three-dimensional perspective looking up the conning tower of a submarine.

    While most of the paintings depict well-known events, Fairley included two evocative watercolors by G.L. Parnell of a British fleet created in the Caspian Sea in 1919. Most of the pictures are of ships, but Anthony Gross's view of a board game in progress in the claustrophobic mess deck of a troop ship during the artist's long voyage around Africa gives a vivid sense of cramped living conditions.

    The narrative does not describe every incident depicted; nor does it discuss every war artist. Two fine paintings of World War convoys by Herbert John Everett convey a palpable sense of how ships out on the ocean move and look. Apparently, the artist spent time at sea as a merchant ship officer which may explain his extraordinary ability to put the viewer out on the water.

    The Royal Navy in Action presents a compelling collection of marine art spanning the years 1914-2021. Some paintings by well-known British artists like Eurich, Wilkinson, and Wyllie have appeared in other books, but most are less well known and fresh. These dramatic and evocative depictions have been superbly chosen and attractively reproduced. They are supported by a running text describing actions by the Royal Navy over the last century.

  • Barnsley: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2022
  • 8-3/4” x 11-1/2”, hardcover, x + 150 pages
  • Illustrations, appendices, picture credit. $60.00
  • ISBN: 9781399009492

Reviewed by: Margaret Evans, University of Southern California

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