The Picture Sale Review


A collection of watercolours by the enigmatic Second World War artist Thomas Hennell (1903-45) sold for close to £10,000 at the Picture and Maritime sale at Mallams in Oxford on July 5. Consigned by a private collector, the ten works sold for prices between £500-1400 each.

Born in Kent, the second son of a clergyman, Hennell was something of a rural visionary, specialising in illustrations of British country crafts and craftsmen at work in and beyond the Home Counties. His friends Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, who he first met in 1931, regarded his expressive ‘alla prima’ watercolours of a vanishing agricultural society, as ‘works of genius’.

However, at the outbreak of war in 1939, Hennell wrote to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee, offering his services as an artist. Sent to Iceland to replace Ravilious (missing in action) in 1943, in 1944 he sketched German prisoners of war and the launch sites of V-1 flying bombs as he moved through the north of France with the Canadian First Army. Later based in the Far East with an RAF unit as the Japanese retreated, in November 1945 he was captured by Indonesian nationalist fighters in Surabaya, Java. He was presumed to have been killed shortly thereafter.

A number of Hennell’s works are held by the Imperial War Museum. The ten works on paper in Mallams sale dated from the 1930s and early 40s and depicted scenes such as threshing, baling, and orchard clearing. Sold at £1400 was The Green Cornfield, a 31cm x 47cm watercolour that had appeared in two previous Hennell exhibitions and is pictured in Michael Macleod’s Thomas Hennell published by the Oxford University Press in 1988.

Pictured: The Green Cornfield by Thomas Hennell (1903-45), measuring 31cm x 47cm, £1400 at Mallams Oxford.

Leading the sale at £8000 – and selling to a private buyer via an internet bid – was Simeon Solomon’s (1840-1905) Vespertilia, signed and dated 1896. This 50 x 17cm white chalk on buff paper of a typically sensuous Pre-Raphaelite subject came from a private source in its original frame.

The date of 1896 – the year following the publication of the poem Vespertilia and other verses by Rosamund Marriott Watson (1863-1911) – puts it relatively late in the artist’s career. By then his career as a Royal Academician had been cut short after twice being charged with attempting to commit sodomy. Although enjoying an air of celebrity (and collected by Oscar Wilde among others) by 1884 he was admitted to the workhouse, later dying from complications brought on by alcoholism.

Another popular picture at the sale was a fine portrait of a grey racehorse with trainer in the circle of Benjamin Marshall (1767-1835). This oil on canvas, 85 x 101cm, in untouched condition sold to the trade at £4000.

For more information contact Rupert Fogden, Head of Traditional Paintings and Prints at Mallams on 01865 241358 or

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