Strident Supermen? Constructions of British Masculinity and the Image of the Hero in the Second World War Portraiture of Eric Kennington (1888–1960) (summary)

Jonathan Black (PDF)

The article focuses on images of British military and civilian service personnel created by British artist Eric Kennington (1888–1960) between 1940 and 1945. The article discusses the formation of Kennington’s attitude towards the genre of portraiture before the First World War during his visits to his mother’s relatives in St Petersburg and Moscow. As an official Ministry of Information artist, Kennington became famous in Britain for his depictions of the ordinary British soldier, known universally as Tommy. Between 1940 and 1942, Kennington painted spectacular portraits of British servicemen as part of his official commissions for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee within the Ministry of Information, headed by Sir Kenneth Clark. The article also discusses portraits Kennington painted after September 1942 when working as a semi-official war artist for the War Office. His works were commissioned by the London Passenger Transport Board, the Ministry of Labour and Imperial Chemical Industries.

The portraits of soldiers by Kennington delighted and inspired much of the British public. However, they angered some intellectuals in this country because they portrayed the British man as a fearsome fighter too bluntly. For some, the realism of these portraits seemed too bleak and relentless, interpreted as the British equivalent of the German New Objectivity. The idealised portraits by Kennington can also be linked to images of Soviet socialist realism of the same period, examples of which were presented in poster form in London in early 1942. It should be noted that portraits by Kennington were often associated with famous figures in British history, such as Sir Francis Drake (1540–1596), a corsair, and Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), Lord Protector, who were often mentioned by the artist or by commentators on his work.

In summary, the article concludes that a more traditional, aggressive and less polite form of Englishness was deliberately created for the general public in response to the challenges of total war.

Keywords: Tommy, Socialist Realism, soldier, warrior, London