The Dunkirk Evacuation, also known as the Dunkirk Miracle, is one of the most dramatic events of the Second World War. In the face of overwhelming German advance, between 26 May and 4 June 1940, 366,162 Allied soldiers were evacuated from Dunkirk. Some 800 boats had been involved in the gigantic rescue operation, not just naval destroyers and other large vessels, but also hundreds of the now so-called ‘little ships of Dunkirk’, which had risen to the occasion, ranging from pleasure and fishing crafts to merchant vessels.
Although this retreat could be seen as a defeat for the Allied forces, it was also recognised it as one of the greatest feats of the war, notably by the artist Richard Eurich (1903-1992). Eurich was one of the artists commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee, which had been set up at the beginning of the war to ‘secure pictures of artistic worth likely to be of historic interest as war records for future generations’. In addition to propaganda purposes and posterity, the Committee aimed to keep British artists in employment during wartime.
Throughout the war, Eurich would depict the war effort and effects of the war at home – with paintings such as The British Power Boat Company (1941) and HMS Revenge Leaving Harbour (1942), both on display in the Queen’s House – as well as the theatres of the war at sea and on shore, sometimes selecting subjects of his own.
'now the epic subject I have been waiting for has taken place. The Dunkirk episode. This surely should be painted and I am wondering if I could be considered for the job! I was in Dunkirk and Antwerp this time last year collecting material for painting, going on a cargo boat as being the best way to see things.’
It seems to me’, he continued’, that the traditional sea paintings of Van de Velde & Turner should be carried on to enrich and record our heritage’.
Exactitude was an important concern in his work, and he concluded his letter thus: ‘I shall certainly have a go at the subject some day on my own account. But the putting at my disposal of photographs and eyewitness accounts, which the Ministry of Information could no doubt supply me with, would help.’
Not only was Dunkirk still fresh in his mind from a trip there the year before, Eurich had witnessed the paddle steamers and small vessels bringing troops back to Southampton, near where he lived. The harbour, he recalled in an interview in 1978, was filled with ‘French soldiers and so on, lots of chaps who had stores about what was going on.’
The Committee swiftly approved Eurich’s proposal and procured him photographs, while the artist’s agent, the Redfern Gallery, helped him secure information for another painting of Dunkirk Beaches. Eurich set to task quickly: the commission agreed in July for a fee of £50, his Withdrawal of Dunkirk, June 1940, was delivered on 19 August, and included in the ‘War Artists’ exhibition opening at the National Gallery, London the following week, with reproductions available for the public to purchase.
With this painting, Eurich shot to fame: it was used by the Navy as its Christmas card for 1940, and, displayed as part of the ‘War Artists’ exhibition in New York the following year, it was praised for having ‘something of the calm character of a Dutch seventeenth century painting of ruined towns.’ The harbour’s topography is unmistakably Dunkirk’s, while Eurich did not spare any detail, from the men laboriously wading through the waves, to the characteristic shapes of the various rescue vessels. With its high, panoramic viewpoint, this emotionally intense tribute evokes the tradition of the great naval battles paintings of the past, while combining what would become, in his wartime works, a characteristic association of almost humorous anecdotal detail with an atmospheric mood, rendered by the pall of smoke ominously hovering in the translucent blue sky.