The Face of Courage. Eric Kennington, Portraiture and the Second World War

by Jonathan Black, London, 2011, ISBN 978-0-85667-705-2 (and exhibition at the Royal Air Force Museum, Hendon June 2011 – June 2012)

The title of the book must, I think, represent Eric Kennington’s ambition in many of these portraits – to display the physical attributes of human courage on a face. All these men, mostly young and no doubt high-spirited when opportunity arose, are shown with serious, high-minded expressions; there is no smiling or laughter here. Perhaps the artist encouraged his subjects to adopt a stern expression, so as to reflect the truly appalling and stressful nature of the experiences which these men were undergoing.

England’s predicament in 1940/1 is revealed through the faces of the airmen shown here: it was clearly a desperate situation. Almost every story attached to the portraits has elements of, at best, heroic adventure. A number of the subjects were awarded Victoria Crosses. At worst the dangers faced by these people can barely be imagined. It is not by chance that remedial plastic surgery developed so fast during the War, as surgeons struggled to cope with living but hideously burnt pilots.

Kennington doesn’t show injuries. Either he was squeamish about them, which would be understandable, or his subjects preferred not to be subjects once they were disfigured, which is also understandable. Even the legendary Richard Hillary, shown in the brief period between having his face and hands reconstructed by A.H. McIndoe after his first crash and his death at the age of 23 shortly afterwards in his second crash, has hardly a blemish here.

So this is a pantheon of young heroes, noble, self-sacrificing, duty-bound. They are presented like the housecarls who died surrounding Harold at Hastings. The modern world is, of course, cynical about courage and duty and sacrifice and younger viewers may well find these images unsympathetic. Kennington, as with many of his time and type, was not cynical; he was worshipping. He knew that the handful of pilots portrayed here had helped to save England from invasion. No wonder he worshipped them.

The art in the portraits is inevitably a secondary, and rather impertinent, aspect to consider. Kennington was known as an excellent portraitist. He seems to have romanticised some of his subjects, according to the notes; but what portraitist doesn’t? Sitters are vain, like the rest of us. It is almost political art, though. It is a subset of the wider genre of War Art, which has received a great deal of attention over the years, but not so often in the context of the RAF (although it should be said that not all the work in the book is of RAF subjects). This book and exhibition should really be reviewed in an old-fashioned boy’s comic or in some Journal of War Studies. The pictures were designed to serve a purpose and they succeed brilliantly. The artistic qualities of the marks on the paper are inevitably secondary – and largely irrelevant.