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Eric Kennington, R.A. (1888-1960)
Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's… Read more PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE SWISS COLLECTION
Eric Kennington, R.A. (1888-1960)

Heart of England; Homage to Richard Hillary

Eric Kennington, R.A. (1888-1960)
Heart of England; Homage to Richard Hillary
signed with initials ‘EHK’ (lower right)
pastel on paper
15¾ x 19¼ in. (40 x 48.9 cm.)
Executed circa 1942-1944.
The family of Richard Hillary, and by descent to the previous owner.
Anonymous sale; Sotheby's, London, 11 December 2006, lot 62, as 'Homage to Richard Hillary', where purchased by the present owner.
Exhibition catalogue, The face of courage: Eric Kennington, portraiture and the Second World War, Hendon, Royal Air Force Museum, 2011, p. 108, no. 69, illustrated, as 'The Heart of England'.
Hendon, Royal Air Force Museum, The face of courage: Eric Kennington, portraiture and the Second World War, June 2011 - June 2012, no. 69, as 'The Heart of England'.
Special notice

Artist's Resale Right ("Droit de Suite"). Artist's Resale Right Regulations 2006 apply to this lot, the buyer agrees to pay us an amount equal to the resale royalty provided for in those Regulations, and we undertake to the buyer to pay such amount to the artist's collection agent.

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Pippa Jacomb
Pippa Jacomb

Lot Essay

This extraordinary drawing constitutes Eric Kennington’s heartfelt tribute to the author and fighter pilot Richard Hillary (1919-1943) and demonstrates the artist’s superb control of the pastel medium. Kennington is primarily known today as a gifted sculptor and producer of intensely realist portrait drawings. However, this striking drawing belongs to a small series of several works Kennington produced between mid-1942 and early 1944 in which he explored figurative symbolism heightened by a near-Expressionist density of colour.

Kennington had greatly admired Hillary’s book The Last Enemy on reading it shortly after its publication in June 1942. He had been immensely moved by the young pilots account of high speed combat in a Spitfire during the Battle of Britain and of being shot down over Kent early in September 1940 - during which Hillary’s face and hands were badly burnt. The artist had also been impressed by the stoic courage Hillary displayed in undergoing multiple operations at the hands of the legendary pioneering plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe. Indeed, Hillary was among McIndoe’s first ‘guinea pigs’ whom he treated at the Queen Victoria Hospital, East Grinstead.

In September 1942, Hillary was introduced to Kennington by mutual friend the writer Eric Linklater. Hillary asked Kennington to draw his portrait in pastel for which the artist asked £30. Hillary travelled to Kennington’s South Oxfordshire home, Homer House, for a number of sittings over 1-3 October 1942. They discovered a shared admiration for the writings of Robert Graves and, especially, of T.E. Lawrence. Indeed, the artist lent Hillary his copy of the limited unexpurgated edition of Lawrence’s The Mint. Reading this played a key part in leading Hillary to decide that he ought to strive to return to operational flying.

In the middle of the sittings Hillary wrote to his then girlfriend: ‘I have quite lost my heart to Kennington. He has the most extraordinary personal magnetism of anyone I have met – a great man I think.’ When the portrait, after three days work, was completed Hillary was delighted with the result (now in the National Portrait Gallery, London), exclaiming to several friends: ‘I’ve got a face!’

A month later, though he was finding it exhausting to handle the controls of an aircraft with his claw-like hands, Hillary was nevertheless passed fit for flying and posted to an Operational Flying Unit to train to become a night-fighter pilot. Hillary and his navigator were killed on 7 January 1943 when the Mark IV Blenheim Hillary was piloting crashed into a hillside during a night time training exercise. Kennington heard the terrible news two days later and over the next three to four weeks drew The Heart of England dominated by a figure representative of Hillary in RAF blue and sporting the wings of a pilot, face and hands bandaged holding out a red rose symbolic of love to the country the young pilot had loved so deeply.

On receiving the drawing from Kennington, early in February 1943, Hillary’s father, Michael, wrote to the artist describing it as: ‘a tremendous comfort to me and each time I feel I am faltering, I gaze at the picture and gain fresh courage to try and carry on as Richard would expect and demand of me. No written word could convey the depth of my gratitude and my appreciation of the conception that produced such a wonderful work of art.’

We are very grateful to Dr Jonathan Black F.R.S.A. for preparing this catalogue entry.

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