‘Blitzed! War Artists’ in Bath’

Lansdown Crescent from the ruins of Lansdown Chapel, Bath 1942 by John Piper (1903 − 1992)

‘Blitzed! War Artists’ in Bath’ on 25th April 2014, marked both the final day of the Civic Society’s winter talks and the anniversary of the blitzing of Bath in 1942!

Perhaps it was appropriate that the last of the Civic Society’s winter talks in the Old Town Hall was entitled ‘Blitzed!’ Our speaker David Mclaughlin, (a Conservation Architect and guest curator in the 2005 Exhibition at the Victoria Gallery in Bath) certainly ‘blitzed’ his audience with dramatic paintings of Bath city on fire in the German bombing raids on 25th – 27th of April 1942. These raids were known as the ‘Baedeker raids’, since their target was cultural rather than strategic. Although David was – as he assured us several times – ‘exhausted’, he had, by way of compensation, been delighted to discover that he was talking to us on the 71st anniversary of the first blitzing of Bath! His figures were horrendous with over 400 people killed, 1,000 injured and 19,000 buildings damaged – of which 218 were of a special historic interest.

Sitting by his laptop David began – and suddenly a vivid wall of flames entitled ‘Fire Seen over Pulteney Bridge’- fittingly like the painter John Martin’s 19th century biblical disaster ‘Apocalypse’ – filled the wall of the Old Town Hall and we were off! The fireman artist, Wilfred Stanley Haines, who was active in Bath in 1942, painted this work – one of many, David added, exhibited two years later in the Ashmolean in Oxford.

We learned that in 1940 Kenneth Clark established a scheme ‘Recording the Changing Face of Britain’ which ran alongside the official War Artists’ Scheme.  National buildings were surveyed, measured and photographed: maps and paintings were commissioned to record buildings and paintings. In Bath the artist Clifford Ellis with his wife Rosemary recorded many buildings – one a watercolour – ‘Gates at the Hermitage’ records fine wrought iron gates many of which were added to the map of ‘Unnecessary Railings’. We saw Francis Marshal’s painting ‘Blitz in Bath’ (April 1942) showing shattered buildings with huge shards of broken glass in the foreground. Appropriately David showed Rosemary Elizabeth Allan’s contrasting painting ‘The WRVS Red Cross and St John’s Hospital Supply Department’ of women at hard at work.

The artist John Piper was also sent to record war damage in Bath in April 1942. When he arrived he wrote to John Betjeman that  ‘I went to nothing so sad before.’ Piper’s painting –  ‘Somerset Place’- for example – was said to be the first to achieve theatrical lighting effects, and certainly it gleamed, dazzled and seared the eye. These stone buildings blasted open to reveal bright red bricks behind, became somehow, metaphors for the dead and wounded – similarly blasted open to the sky.

Francis Marshal, the famous magazine and fashion designer at the V & A was employed to make a bombing map of Bath, and another artist, Norma Bull an Australian, also came to record what was going on. One of her paintings ‘The Circus’ shows torn buildings and even records an unexploded bomb being removed. Another was of the Assembly Rooms on fire and David mentioned the tragic story of the bombing of the nearby Regina Hotel, when staff who hurried to the vaults underneath a road were saved, while the residents, who refused to go with them, were all killed.

Buildings reduced to leaf-like outlines against blue skies flashed over the screen in a merging mass of devastation. The speed of the images emphasised the full horror of those three days when Bath was ‘Blitzed’, and somehow Picasso’s belief that the history of the world could be read in its paintings rang true. These paintings recorded the rapid destruction of Bath, just as Picasso’s haunting painting ‘Guernica’ recorded Hitler’s blitzing of a northern town in Spain during the Spanish Civil War.

Suddenly David stopped and turned to us ‘Well, that’s it’ he said, the lights came up, and after an enthusiastic vote of thanks by Tim Mars we were left, like S.T. Coleridge’s Wedding-Guest,‘sadder and wiser’ and as David had been at the beginning, utterly exhausted.

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