Thursday, February 4, 2016

Bellbroughton, Worcestershire

The Scythe-Smith: Illustration of the month

During World War II being a war artist was not necessarily a safe or easy option. One of the most famous war-time artistic casualties was Eric Ravilious, who was in a an aircraft that was lost off Iceland while searching for another plane that had come down. What’s perhaps less well known is that Thomas Hennell (1903–1945), the artist who replaced Ravilious in Iceland, was himself a wartime casualty. Having worked with the RAF in Burma, Hennell lost his life in Surabaya, Java, in November 1945, after being captured by nationalist fighters; the precise circumstances of his death don’t seem to be known.

Thomas Hennell was a fine watercolour painter, a noted illustrator (he worked on several books by the countryside writer and conservationist H J Massingham), and a poet and author in his own right. He loved the British countryside that he drew and knew it intimately, and his friend Massingham described him as courteous, moral, fastidious almost to the point of asceticism (he was emphatically no Bohemian), and deeply rooted in his native soil. Yet these qualities, which could imply a kind of detached serenity, did not bring contentment. He suffered a nervous breakdown: there were hallucinations, what Hennell described as ‘a fire of furze’ blazing in his mind, and a period in London’s Maudesley Hospital. Hennell wrote a book, The Witnesses, about this affliction.*

The book from which my illustration comes is Hennell’s last, The Countryman at Work (1947), assembled after his death from a series of illustrated articles he wrote for the Architectural Review.¶ These short and highly informative essays cover 15 or so traditional crafts, from blacksmithing to thatching, hedging to the production of Windsor chairs. In each case, the craftsman is portrayed in his place of work, and the drawings convey a wonderful sense of the people, the setting, the tools, and the job. I’ve chosen the Scythe-Smith, though it could easily have been one of the others. I like its sense of the working space – a high-ceilinged building full of heat and the noisy beating of the huge tilt-hammer, the head of which is right in the centre of the frame.

In his text Hennell describes in detail the processes used in making a scythe blade. The picture shows one man standing at the forge, manipulating a pair of tongs that hold in the fire a bundle of four steel or iron bars. When the bars are hot enough, he will pass them to his colleague seated at the hammer, so that they can be welded together by the hammer’s hefty blows. Each welded bundle of bars will eventually make two scythe blades, another man cuts the piece in two with an enormous cutting device, which I think is what the third man, bent to the task in the middle foreground, is doing. Both hammer and cutter are driven by a waterwheel that turns the shaft which, with its various wheels, takes up most of the right-hand part of the illustration.

I wonder whether this post-war publication with its coarse paper does full justice to Hennell’s drawings. Their line is sometimes broken and uneven, and I think the reproduction might overemphasise this. However, there’s still much to admire – the credible way in which the figures are positioned, the details of tools and machines, the sense that there’s a lot going on, but that everything is in its place. And the sense of space and its special adaptations – that vent in the roof at top left, the hanging chain (it supports the hammer-man’s seat, so that he can move about as needed without getting up), the round pillars on either side of the forge (c. 1780, Hennell tells us). We are in a lost world – a world of traditional Midlands metalwork: hard, back-breaking stuff, redolent of Ruskin’s memorable account of Worcestershire nailers in Fors Clavigera,† but bereft of romanticism and full of metallic crashing and clanking. The white heat of old technology.

* Most of my information about Hennell comes from H J Massingham’s introductory memoir in The Countryman at Work.
¶ A book to place on the shelves along side Dorothy Hartley’s Made in England and John Seymour’s The Forgotten Arts, all three good surveys of the same subject area.
† John Ruskin, Fors Clavigera, Letter LXXX. When I say a ‘lost world’ I don’t mean that it’s gone completely (though specialists like Henell’s scythe-smith are rare as hen’s teeth, there are many general smiths doing stirling work). Just that most of us have lost our connection with it, to our detriment.

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