Thomas Hennell expressed his love of landscape and rural life in words and images that were at once accurate and intense. Late in his short career, he became an official war artist, and presented aspects of the international conflict through his unique vision, from Iceland to Java, where he is presumed to have been killed. Thomas Hennell was born at the rectory attached to St Peter’s Church, Ridley, Kent, on 16 April 1903, the second of four children of the Rev Harold Barclay Hennell and his wife, Ethel (née Thomas), the daughter of a surgeon in the Madras Medical Establishment, India. His mother had studied at the Slade School of Fine Art.
During the first nine years of his life, Hennell developed a strong attachment to Ridley and its rural surroundings. In 1912, he and his family moved to Ash Rectory, just a mile to the west of Ridley, and he was sent to Hildersham House, a preparatory school in Broadstairs, though was later removed. Between 1916 and 1920, he attended Bradfield College, Berkshire, his schooldays ending abruptly after he and his friend, John George, protested against compulsory games.
Moving to London to study art at Regent Street Polytechnic School of Art (1921-25), Hennell became influenced by the work and personality of the artist, Archibald Standish Hartrick.
He was also greatly inspired by Marion Richardson who taught him in a final pedagogical year at the London Day Training College (1925-26).
Qualifying as an art teacher, Hennell worked at Kingswood School, Bath, and, for one day a week at King’s School, Bruton (1928-32). During this time, he began to make drawings of country crafts and farm implements and, from 1932, painted full time. A friend of Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious, he visited them and their families at Great Bardfield in Essex from 1931 while preparing the first book that he both wrote and illustrated, Change in the Farm (1934).
Despite his apparently successful development as an artist, Hennell suffered a nervous breakdown, following the rejection by Marion Richardson of his proposal of marriage. He was confined to Claybury Mental Hospital for three years (1932-35) and, while there, drew his fellow patients and wrote poetry. Following his release, he returned to Kent, and settled at Orchard Cottage, which stood across the fields from Ridley Rectory. In 1936, he published a volume of Poems.
For the next seven years, Hennell painted local rural scenes, and wrote and illustrated books. He collaborated with H C Massingham on four books, including Country Relics (1939), and with C H Warren on two: The Land is Yours (1943) and Miles from Anywhere (1944). The most astonishing of his own prose works is The Witnesses (1938), an account of his experiences in hospital. He also published an essay, ‘In Praise of Watercolour’, in the Old Water-Colour Society Club volume for 1943. For, in this period, he exhibited his watercolours regularly and was elected to the Royal Society of Painters in Water-Colours (ARWS 1938, RWS 1943) and the New English Art Club (1943).
Hennell produced images of South east England for Recording Britain, and in 1941-42 was commissioned by the Ministry of Information to record aspects of toolmaking and land work in wartime. When Eric Ravilious died in 1942, Hennell replaced him as official war artist in Iceland (1943), the work he produced there being exhibited at the National Gallery (1944). He was later sent to Holland and France (1944-45, attached to Royal Navy) and India and Burma (1945, attached to RAF). In 1945, he was captured by Indonesian terrorists in Java and is presumed to have been killed. His The Countryman at Work appeared in 1947, with a memoir by H C Massingham. Memorial shows were mounted at Leicester Museum and Art Gallery (1955) and the Imperial War Museum (1956).
His work is represented in the collections of the Government Art Collection and Imperial College, and numerous public collections, including Bethlem Museum of the Mind, Imperial War Museums, the National Maritime Museum, the Royal Air Force Museum, Tate and the V&A; Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, Cheltenham Art Gallery & Museum, Ferens Art Gallery (Hull), Graves Gallery (Sheffield), Laing Art Gallery (Newcastle upon Tyne), Manchester Art Gallery and Southampton Art Gallery; and National Museum Wales (Cardiff).
Further reading: Jessica Kilburn, Thomas Hennell: The Land and the Mind, London: Pimpernel Press, 2021; Michael Macleod, Thomas Hennell: Countryman, Artist, Writer, Cambridge university Press, 1988