Much as once a week I like to take time off to cover warships (Wednesdays), on Sundays (when I feel like working), I like to cover military art and the painters, illustrators, sculptors, and the like that produced them.
Combat Gallery Sunday: The Martial Art of RV Pitchforth
Roland Vivian Pitchforth was born in Wakefield, West Yorkshire on 25 April 1895. Studying at the Wakefield School of Art and Leeds College, his formal art education was interrupted by the Great War when Pitchforth volunteered for Wakefield’s own 106th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery.
After seeing the elephant on the Western Front, from which he always carried a hearing loss, he soon became an art instructor himself, teaching at the Clapham School of Art, St Martin’s School of Art and the Royal College of Art in the 1920s and 1930s while producing very British watercolors.
View of Harbour – Folkestone circa 1920 Roland Vivian Pitchforth 1895-1982 Bequeathed by the artist 1983. In the Tate collection.
When the Second World War came, the still spry 43-year-old partially deaf art teacher volunteered once more and became an official war artist for the Ministry of Information, and then later for the Admiralty, under the aegis of the War Artists’ Advisory Committee as a temporary captain in the Royal Marines
In the early months of his appointment, he painted coastal boats and seaplanes in action and traveled on convoys to the Azores and Gibraltar, often seeing combat first hand while armed with only a sketchbook.
3 Kingfisher seaplanes stand in an aerodrome consisting of corrugated metal hangars painted with camouflage patterns Pitchforth, Roland Vivian
Seafox heading down a slipway, surrounded by sailors. Ahead, a second plane is already in the water
Protection Pits for Dispersed Aircraft, Lee-on-Solent, note the landbased float-less Kingfisher in the foreground and the Swordfish in the back
Grey-colored Swordfish sitting on a runway, facing away from the artist Pitchforth, Roland Vivian note the contrasting shadows
Hurricane Test Pilots, Henlow
Activities begin as soon as the mist blows out to Sea, 1942. In the foreground, a Short Sunderland prepares for take-off on a calm sea. To the right there is a dense wall of pink-colored mist, and further out to sea there are three large ships. This is one of the more artistic war paintings I have seen.
HMS Brecon escorting an Aircraft carrier from Algiers. Brecon (L76) was a 1,900-ton Hunt-class destroyer of the Royal Navy that was present at almost every major amphibious landing in the Med and took part in the sinking of the German submarines U-450 and U-407.
A Parachute-landing 1940
Motor Gun-boats going on Operations 1943 note the calm turquoise sea
Night Exercises in Plymouth Sound
Motor Gun-boats in a Night Action
HM Submarine Torbay in Dry Dock at Plymouth, 1942. A T-class sub, Torbay, (N79) had the misfortune of being involved in two incidents regarded by many as war crimes when her skipper was accused of ordering his crew to fire on Axis troops as they swam in the water during Med ops.
HMS Eskimo and other Destroyers Fitting Out at Durban. Note how the bollard frames the work and if you didn’t know better, would think is the subject. Eskimo (F75) was a Tribal-class destroyer that was a bruiser. She fought in Norway (losing her bow at Narvik), the Mediterranean (being blown apart by German dive-bombers), the English Channel and in Burma. She chalked up U-971.
He also covered the war effort at home and the Blitz firsthand when he wasn’t white-knuckling destroyers at sea.
The bomb damaged House of Commons in Westminster after an air raid, 1941
View inside a bombed telephone exchange, filled with piles of wires and rubble 1941
Post office building 1941
The City Temple Church, London, EC4
Snack Time in a Factory 1941
Towards the end of the war, Pitchforth spent most of 1944 in the Med and was sent out to the Far East, witnessing the end-game of the Burma campaign.
Convoy leaving Gibraltar 1944
Loading an English Carrier and the French Cruiser ‘Gloire’ at Algiers. This watercolor is particularly interesting for its depiction of ‘dazzle’ painting, a technique designed to disguise the hulls of ships and render them less visible as targets. On 18 September 1940, Gloire’was intercepted by the British and brought to port in Casablanca where she was neutralized and worked with the Allies the rest of the war. Notably, she remained in service into 1958, spending most of her post-WWII life in Indochine waters.
He made numerous watercolors of Colombo Harbor in Ceylon before joining the combined amphibious and airborne attack on Rangoon with the commandos during which he improvised a scheme for painting camouflage on the amphibious landing craft to minimize the threat of airborne attack.
First British Troops in Rangoon 1945. Note the landing craft
Picking up a severe lung infection in Burma, he was invalided out in South Africa and remained there until able to travel again in 1948, returning to London.
Cruiser HMS Enterprise at Simonstown, South Africa: Christmas 1945. Enterprise (D52) was an obsolete 7500-ton WWI-era Emerald-class light cruiser that carried Ethiopian King Haile Selassie into exile in 1937. Brought out of retirement during WWII she was used for escort duties and naval gunfire support, firing over 9,000 rounds on D-Day alone. Ironically, the old behemoth even sank a German torpedo boat with a torpedo, which is the ultimate in irony. When Pitchforth ran across her, she was in the last days of her service, helping return British troops from Asia and Africa before being broken up. Pitchford was in South Africa at this time recovering from his own war aliments. In many ways when he painted this work, Pitchforth and Enterprise were the same.
Now in his 50s and a veteran of both World Wars, Pitchforth returned to teaching for another 20 years, and was made a Senior at the Royal Academy and a member of the Royal Watercolour Society.
He passed in 1982 at age 87.
The Imperial War Museum has 90~ pieces of his art online, many in high rez, while other works are in the MoD collection the GAC, indexed through Art UK and at the Tate in Liverpool.
An extensive bio is here.
Thank you for your work, sir.