William Dring's portrait of Commander Bill King

This blog entry was written by Bethany Wright, intern at Royal Museums Greenwich.

I am doing the MA Curating the Art Museum at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and doing an internship in a museum forms part of my degree. For the past few months I have been in the Curatorial & Research department of Royal Museums Greenwich, undertaking research into the War Artists at Sea exhibition currently on show in the Queen’s House. On the ground floor, two galleries of drawings focus on the human experience of war (on display until 15 July), and one of my tasks has been to research the sitters in William Dring’s evocative pastel portraits. Dring was employed as a portraitist by the War Artists Advisory Committee in 1940, and specialized in precise and carefully handled pastel drawings. His portraits capture both the likeness and spirit of his subjects, many of whom were war-time heroes. There is a moving story behind each portrait, but I found one particularly inspiring – that of Commander William King.


Portrait of Commander William D. King by William Dring, 1943, pastel on paper, Museum no. PAJ3017 Portrait of Commander William D. King by William Dring, 1943, pastel on paper, Museum no. PAJ3017

King (1910-2012) came from a distinguished military background and joined the navy at a young age. At the start of the Second World War, he was Lieutenant in charge of his first submarine command, HMS ‘Snapper’. Under King, ‘Snapper’ sunk six ships before the end of July 1940 and King was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. In September 1940 he found further success when successfully navigating his way out of an extremely dangerous situation: the ‘Snapper’ had run aground on the German-occupied Dutch coast, but King skilfully managed to return his crew to the safety of open water. He was rewarded by an invitation for brandy and cigars with Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, and a Distinguished Service Cross was soon to follow.

King was next placed in command of HMS ‘Trusty’, the only British Submarine in the South China Sea during the fall of Singapore to Japan in 1942. This has come to be known as the greatest British defeat of the Second World War and is a period which haunted King throughout his life. HMS ‘Trusty’ had received orders to join a flotilla and travel to Singapore in search of the Japanese fleet. The British fleet had suffered heavy losses from a bomb strike on the naval base in Colombo, and the ‘Trusty’ found it deserted. King lead the ‘Trusty’ on patrol in search of the Japanese fleet alone, but lacking orders and basic supplies the mood on board was grim. After the war King wrote about this time in several books, describing the immense strain the crew was under and the disastrous effect it had on their mental and physical well-being. His command of HMS ‘Trusty’ came to an end when he became ill with Dengue Fever.

Whilst recovering in Lebanon, King was introduced to Anita Leslie, a writer working in Cairo who would later become his wife. He returned to service refreshed and was placed in command of HMS ‘Telemachus’. In 1944 he was awarded a bar to his Distinguished Service Order when his crew successfully torpedoed and sank the Japanese submarine I-166.

Despite his success in the Navy, King was affected by his experiences and retired soon after the war ended. He married in 1949 and set off on an extended honeymoon sailing around the West Indies. The newlywed returned to raise their family and settled at Oranmore, a crumbling castle near Galway. However King remained distressed by haunting memories of the war.

King realized that in order to recover from these memories he needed to do something to confront them. In 1968 he set off to single-handedly circumnavigate the globe and at the age of 58 became the oldest participant in the first organized round-the-world yacht race. Luck was not on his side and his first two attempts failed due to damage to his boat. He preserved and achieved his goal in 1972. He found solace in his time at sea, reading many spiritual and philosophical texts. It seems the time to himself had a meditative effect on him. In an interview in 2006 he said: ‘I never felt lonely, it’s all so beautiful, you never get depressed that’s certain…time meant nothing you just lived for the moment…’ He also learnt to accept the unpredictability of the sea, and the revelation that certain things were out of his control allowed him to move on from his wartime experiences.

In 2004 King received a surprise visit from Akira Tsurukame, whose father had been killed when the ‘Telemachus’ sunk the Japanese submarine I-166. Despite their past both men became firm friends, a testament to the peace King had found in his later life.  King’s story is a touching reminder that the war was above all a very human experience, and illustrates its lasting impact on those individuals involved.