Visitors to the Queen’s House will have noticed that the drawings by Gladys E. Reed, William Dring, John Worsley and John Kingsley Cook shown as part of War Artists at Sea, came off display last month. This is because works on paper are particularly sensitive to light and can only be shown for limited lengths of time. In their place, a new display of prints and drawings is opening to the public on 11 October, in the same two galleries on the ground floor of the Queen’s House. The first gallery is devoted to works by John Everett (1876–1949). Everett trained at the Slade School of Art in London in the late 1890s, during which time he also developed a passion for seafaring. After his first sea voyage in 1898, he made marine painting his speciality. On his death, he bequeathed practically his entire life’s work to the Museum: some 1500 paintings, drawings and prints produced over 50 years. The drawings now on display show Everett’s artistic response to the First World War. Everett was at first unable to sketch outdoors due to wartime security regulations, but in the spring of 1918, the Ministry of Information asked him to depict London river scenes. Everett received a permit to draw, and that summer, spent every day at the docks.
What attracted him most were the ships covered in ‘dazzle painting’. Dazzle was a type of camouflage developed by the artist Norman Wilkinson in 1917, in response to the heavy losses sustained by British merchant ships to German U-boat submarines. It involved painting the ship in contrasting colours and shapes in irregular, angular patterns. This created a distorted effect designed to deceive the enemy about the vessel’s size, outline, course and speed. Everett’s dazzle pictures are among his most daring works for their sense of composition and modernity, but they remained unsold. Everett wrote in his unpublished memoirs: ‘The Ministry of Information went out of existence in Nov. 11th 1918. I could have sold all the works I did in the docks during the war. After the war, everybody was so fed up, they wouldn't look at any war thing. In Nov. I had a show of 50 things at the Goupil Gallery in Lower Regent Street. I only sold one, to H.G. Wells.’ The pictures stayed with Everett until they came to the Museum, and the selection now on display shows them as dazzling as they must have been when first seen. New displays are always the result of a fantastic team effort, where staff from across the Museum are involved, from learning and interpretation colleagues through to the designers, Art and Object handlers and lighting technicians.
For instance, members from the Visitor Experience team visited the stores to give feedback on my selection of objects, while the Photographic Studio ensured that each work is digitised for Collections Online before it comes on display. And every such project is an occasion for the Conservation team to give thorough attention to the objects under our care as they are prepared for their presentation to the public. Everett’s wartime drawings remained in his studio for over 30 years before being bequeathed to the Museum. The huge scale of his output meant that these were probably stacked, in the typically cold and damp environment of a studio, and their condition was affected as a result. On London River was one of the many items our Paper Conservator, Elisabeth Carr, skilfully conserved during the project.
Brittleness and distortions of the original backboard, which forms an integral part of the artwork, had caused severe tears and losses in the margins, and the drawing was therefore structurally unstable for display. The mixed media used by Everett, which includes powdery and unfixed pastel, made conserving the object particularly challenging, since any surface contact or humidification placed on such friable media would alter it irreversibly. During treatment, Elisabeth, devised ways of gently relaxing the very thick and distorted backboard with fine water vapour and weights without disturbing the pastel pigments. The losses and tear joints were then toned and inpainted in order to recover the artwork’s visually integrity. The artwork now looks as stunning as it must have on the day Everett produced it. Conservation treatment revealed other surprises.
Removing this drawing’s mount during conservation treatment exposed that Everett used an earlier watercolour as a backing. It is not unusual for an artist to paint or draw over a work they might have been dissatisfied with, but art supplies were also short in wartime and this shows Everett’s economical, practical use of material. Likewise, the uneven edges of this View of a harbour show that for his sketches Everett used whatever paper he could find, possibly scrap paper in this case. Also parsimonious with his use of paint, he left some of the sheet uncovered with the colour of the paper standing in for the translucent waters in the foreground.
I hope many of you will come and see Everett’s wonderful pastels, gouaches, watercolours and graphite drawings. My personal favourite is this vibrant pastel drawing of a merchantman, in which he explores form and colour.
It is in a modernist style not unlike that of the Vorticists, a group of British artists who favoured a geometric approach tending towards abstraction. The outline of the ship detaches itself forcefully on the vivid blue sky, and makes it a work of simple, yet dazzling beauty. What is your favourite?