Thomas Hennell 16th April 1903 – 1945

John Rothenstein on Hennell: ‘A tall, awkward rustic chap, but one of obvious sensibility, and, I should think, of complete integrity.’

Hennell was born in Ridley, Kent in 1903, the second son of the Rev. Harold Barclay Hennell and Ethel Mary Hennell. He attended primary school in Broadstairs and then secondary school at Bradfield College, Berkshire before studying art at Regent Street Polytechnic. Hennell qualified as a teacher in 1928 and taught for some years at the Kingswood School, Bath and at the King’s School, Bruton in Somerset.

‘Beechan Cliff Farm from Widcombe’ across from Bath 1930. ‘A Bedroom at Rathcoursey House,’ County Cork, c. 1930-32.

Whilst at college Hennell had begun cycling around the British countryside to work on essays and illustrations of rural landscapes.

‘Threshing 1930?’ ‘Threshing 1931 ?’

Hennell cycled into Great Bardfield in 1931 on his ancient, black bike with a suitcase tied on the grid seeking material for his book ‘Change in the Farm’. A quest for accommodation led Hennell to Mrs Kinnear’s Brick House, a lodging house which already had two lodgers – Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious.

Bawden recounted: ‘One morning in 1931 when Eric Ravilious and I came down to the kitchen in Brick House to wash ourselves we found a stranger, stripped to the waist pumping water over his head and making quite a splash in the large slate sink. He was tall, thin with black beady eyes rather close set, dark slightly curly hair and as he greeted us his voice had a deep, booming parsonic ring, echoed even more loudly when he laughed. Outside leaning against the doorpost was a heavy, khaki-coloured Army bike and on it, tied to the bar between saddle and steering wheel, a large and perfect specimen of a corn dollie…..Tom greeted us in the most friendly manner. Our identity was divulged in a matter of seconds and friendship was established immediately’

Edward Bawden’s drawing ‘Garden Party at Brick House’. Thomas Hennell is seated front left with Ravilious behind. Tirzah Garwood (Ravilious) front right with Bawden behind.

With a mutual interest in the countryside they became firm friends, and Ravilious produced four engravings for Hennell’s ‘Poems’ of 1936.

Hennell’s Book of Poems with the four wood engraving illustrations by Eric Ravilious.

“The Angel”, draft of a poem – Claybury Psychiatric Hospital 1932-1935. “When at first I would seek a mate / I met an angel in a tomb”. The angel is a re-occuring theme for Hennell. The poem ends “And now I seek nor care for any human, / That is an eagle which I thought a woman”. The eagle is a reference to Marion Richardson who rejected Hennell’s marriage proposal. ‘The Angel’ was published in the Oxford University Press Poems of 1936.

Hennell suffered a nervous breakdown from 1932–35, diagnosed with schizophrenia and was detained at the Maudsley Hospital, Camberwell, South London before being sent to Claybury Psychiatric Hospital, Woodford Green.

Portrait Study: Five Figures at Claybury Hospital.. c.1935

Edward Bawden encouraged Hennell, recuperating at Brick House, to write The Witnesses, an account of his mental illness. Hennell stood as godfather to Edward and Charlotte’s son Richard.

Having recovered from illness Hennell returned to the work of recording scenes of rural crafts and craftsmen at work. At the outbreak of the Second World War an ambitious scheme ‘Recording Britain’ was set up by Sir Kenneth Clark employing artists on the home front. The result was a collection of more than 1500 watercolours and drawings that make up a fascinating record of British lives and landscapes at a time of imminent change.

Hennell was passionate about Windmills, some of his finest work for the Recording Britain project. Hennell made hundreds of drawings of windmills many recorded in ‘The Windmills of Thomas Hennell’ by Alan Stoyel 1993. ISBN 13: 978 1 84306 224 0

Top left: ‘Steel Workers’ Middle left: ‘Flint Pile, Making a Road. c. 1937-41.’ Bottom left: ‘Winchcombe Pottery 1940.’ Top Right: ‘The Hermitage, Long Bredy 1938.’ Right second down: ‘Abbotsbury Tithe Barn c.1940.’ Third down: ‘Stooking Corn, Mill Half Farm, Whitney on Wye 1941. ‘ Bottom right: ‘The Guesthouse, Cerne Abbas. c.1940.

Hennell was sent at short notice to Hampshire to record the magnificent beech avenue at Lasham before it was felled to make way for an aerodrome. He worked for the Ministry of Information in 1941, producing watercolours of rural crafts and agriculture in Kent, Dorset, Berkshire, and Worcestershire. His great interest was rural England and its fast-disappearing country life, the recording of which became a way of life.

‘Beech Avenue at Lasham 1941.’

Hennell sketching.

Hennell painted ‘Summer at Ridley’ in 1942 prior to flying to Iceland. Farmer Eric Chapman requested that Hennell paint his farm.

At the outbreak of war in 1939 Hennell had written to the War Artists Advisory Committee, offering his services as an artist. From 1943 he was a full-time salaried war artist.  It wasn’t until 1943 that he received his appointment and his first posting – to replace Ravilious in Iceland.

In 1942 Ravilious, had on arrival at the Iceland base, immediately volunteered to accompany an air-sea rescue mission – presumably intending to sketch the rescue – but his Hudson aircraft disappeared soon after take-off and was never recovered.

Paintings as a war artist, Iceland 1942.

Hennell painted in Iceland throughout the second half of 1943 before going to the northeast of England in January 1944 to paint maritime topics. In May 1944 Hennell went to Portsmouth to record the preparations for D-Day, which he took part in. Throughout the invasion he spent two months with the Canadian First Army as they moved through the north of France.

Hennell commented: “We look, in landscape painting, not primarily for a rationalised statement, nor for a description of fact but for the moment of vision. Watercolour is the most lovely, delicate and flower-like of all ways of painting. I don’t need to be told that a row of men lining up with their cups and mess tins when the mess-corporal shouts ‘Come and get it’ – is as fine a subject as a good drawing needs.”

‘Flooded Fields at Walcheren’.

He sent back watercolours of a variety of subjects recording the Allied advance towards the strategically important port of Antwerp, which was taken on 4th September. On 3rd October the Royal Air Force Bomber Command tore a 120-yard breach in the sea dyke at Westkapelle on the heavily fortified island of Walcheren. On 1st November Royal Marine Commandos stormed Westkapelle and by 10 November, after fierce fighting, often waist deep in mud, German resistance ended. The Scheldt and the port of Antwerp were re-opened to shipping on 28th November. This typically rapid watercolour was almost certainly made on the spot. It is signed

A year later Hennell was sent further afield, to record the war effort in India and Burma, which he did with success until the official cessation of hostilities. He survived the war but was not to survive the peace, being captured by terrorists in Batavia, Indonesia in November 1945 and subsequently reported missing, presumed killed.

At the time of his death, Hennell was widely considered to be one of Britain’s most significant water-colourists possibly the last great watercolourist of the English tradition. He was also an original, strange and visionary poet and the author and illustrator of a number of important books about English rural life.

‘Rathcoursey House, County Cork 1940.

Bawden commented re Hennell’s work: “We (Bawden and Ravilious) regarded him as a man of genius. The best of it is as good as anything done by other English 20th Century watercolourists”

“I have no doubt that Thomas Hennell was the greatest watercolourist that England has produced during this century,” Carel Weight RA, painter and teacher.

I have two books of mine here which will be of interest, both can be easily found on line and fairly cheap.

‘British Craftsmen by Thomas Hennell 1943.’ Passionate about country crafts Hennell recorded craftsmen at work portraying the lives of the craftsmen.

‘The Land is Yours’ by Henry C Warren 1944. Illustrations by Thomas Hennell.

Finally, can I pay tribute to a wonderful new book just published – ‘Thomas Hennell. The Land and the Mind’ by Jessica Kilburn 2021. ISBN 978 1 910258 62 0 Well worth buying !!

Graham Bennison March 2021.

15 thoughts on “Thomas Hennell 16th April 1903 – 1945

  1. Fascinating article about another British artistic talent, like Eric Ravillious, taken from us far too soon.


  2. I have only fairly recently ‘discovered’ Thomas Hennell and my goodness, what a discovery. A wonderful watercolourist of such delicacy and understated – but perfect – use of colour. Many thanks for this excellent piece with the many lovely illustrations.


  3. wonderful stuff, I have the windmills of…which is a fabulous book.. its like this generation of artists recording a vanish way of life-very like Pendon model Railway museum is doing in recording the life of the vale..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tom Hennell was my maternal grandfather’s cousin and it has been wonderful to find out more about him. My grandfather who moved to NZ when he was 25, talked about him quite often, but l always wished l had asked more questions! My grandfather thought l couldn’t possibly be interested and would only joke about the childhood he had spent with siblings and cousins in a very different kind of world to the one he now occupied. He did meet up with Tom’s sister once, when she visited Christchurch as a companion to a titled lady. He went in his little Austin car to her hotel.


  4. While sorting through books yesterday I came across a copy of British Craftsmen, 2nd edn. It has been here for years and will remain. Imagine my delight when I read your account of Thomas Hennel this morning, giving his context and account of connections with artists who recorded the rural evidence of skills and workmanship.


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