At the Works on Paper Fair a decade ago, art dealer Andrew Sim devoted his entire stand to the work of a little-known watercolourist he calls “the English Van Gogh”.
“It was a sell-out,” he says. “The first – and last – time that this ever happened to me.”
The artist was Thomas Hennell (1903-45), a passionate plein air painter who wrestled with severe mental health issues. Like Van Gogh, he was also the son of a clergyman, unlucky in love and reached an expressive artistic peak before his premature death aged around 40.
“To my mind, he is the great undiscovered story of mid-century British art – inexplicably neglected and deserving of an important place in both the artistic and literary canons,” adds Sim.
Since his sell-out stand 10 years ago, the dealer says he has become a “a sort of magnet” for Hennell material, selling “dozens” of pictures – including to museums such as Wellcome Collection and the Bethlem Museum of the Mind – through his gallery Sim Fine Art.
He also launched a website devoted to the artist.
“The more steeped in it I’ve become, the more convinced I am that he is a genius, very much in the Van Gogh mould,” Sim says.
For Hennell devotees, it is the lyrical quality of his work that sets him apart from his contemporaries. He was nicknamed ‘Turner’ at art school (when Picasso and Fauvism were all the rage) and his paintings were described as “the work of a poet” by artist and teacher Edgar Owen Jennings.
Born in Kent, Hennell spent almost his entire career painting his native county and its disappearing rural nature until the last three years of his life when he became an official war artist, replacing his friend Eric Ravilious, and, like him, dying on active service.
It was this late flowering as a war artist that caused him to be overlooked in the Modern British canon, says Sim.
“The vast majority of these works was produced in harness to the war effort and, as such, now resides in museums – where they are rarely shown because, being works on paper in the main, they cannot be on permanent display.”
Prices on the secondary market for Hennell’s pictures have risen steadily over the last decade in line with the general rise of the Mod Brit market, though small ink drawings can still change hands for under £1000 at auction.
A premium is paid for both the artist’s Second World War pictures and a small group of works relating to his treatment for schizophrenia following a nervous breakdown in 1932, later described in his memoir The Witnesses (1938).
Watercolours and drawings from both these periods feature in a retrospective at Sim Fine Art that traces the artist’s life through the places he painted and drew.
Landscapes of the Mind, which is timed to coincide with the launch of a new biography by Jessica Kilburn, is held in partnership with Bethlem Museum of the Mind and is available to view online with a plan to open to the public for three months from April. Among the highlights is Yarmouth Sands from Memory, which contains the only known self-portrait of Hennell’s mature career.
This dreamlike, imaginary scene – another rarity in the artist’s oeuvre – shows Hennell seated in the foreground sketching the seaside. An outsized carnival head, a railway that leads nowhere, an aurora inspired sky, a gaudily painted tearoom and the words ‘All My Own Work’ are among the surreal components making up this self-revelatory work.
Another rarity is an oil painting from Hennell’s time at Claybury Mental Hospital, one of two hospitals he was detained in from 1932-35. The Orator shows three patients heading out to exercise or, as Hennell grimly described it, “to tramp round and round the enclosed court apportioned for recreation”.
By contrast, a large watercolour titled Rathcoursey House from Mad Dog Wood records happier times and depicts one of the few places Hennell travelled to before the war. This house in Cork, which Hennell described as a “paradise in every way”, overlooked the sea and was home to his friends the Smyth family.
When war came, Hennell turned to painting pastoral depictions of the war effort in England.
The works in the exhibition from this period show Land Girls helping to gather in the nation’s food by digging up carrots, farmers ploughing the land and groups of figures sacking potatoes.
Eyewitness to war
Later in the conflict he was sent to France where he recorded the brutality of war, sketching his way through the devasted towns and villages in the north of the country.
The ruins of a building in Normandy are depicted in a small pen drawing in the show.
At the war’s end, Hennell received a final posting to the Far East with the RAF. Building an Airfield, Pegu, Burma (1945), is typical of the watercolours from this period which are characterised by large groups of figures. Here, for example, workers in sizeable groups extend an airfield to accommodate more aircraft.
Shortly after this was painted Hennell was caught up in the struggle for independence in Java where he was captured, and is presumed to have been killed, by Indonesian nationalists.