Deirdre Henty-Creer, 1928-2012

Born in 1918[1], in Sydney, Australia, Henty-Creer spent most of her working life in Britain. We have not been able to find out very much about her training: the invaluable David Buckman[2] describes her as being self-taught, after a private education.

Not surprisingly, for a woman who turns out to be so interesting, her family background provided her with a remarkably unconventional and enriching childhood. The early years of Deirdre and her younger brother, Henty, and sister, Pamela, were spent living on a destroyer, which had been turned into a training ship and was commanded by her father. The latter was, himself, of a line of sea captains who had left the Isle of Man for Australia and had established themselves as prominent naval men. Whilst Deirdre was still under ten, her parents divorced, and her mother led the family as they embarked on a period of extensive travel - which she regarded as being an excellent education for her children. They apparently visited several countries, including Java, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Fiji. Finally, the Henty-Creers set off for England, which they used as a base from which to tour Europe. Financial disaster loomed and the family returned to England, in c.1931, and settled in North Devon. By the late 1930s, with Henty Henty-Creer now working for leading film producer and director, Alexander Korda, the family returned to London. Their romantic attachment to great military and naval exploits was to be tested, as War approached.

Despite the threat and, indeed, the reality of War, the Henty-Creers seem to have found themselves at the heart of cultural debate in London: friends included not only Alexander Korda, whose Hampstead home they frequented (a home apparently full of Impressionist paintings), but also Peter Ustinov, whose wife was Nadia Benois, the ‘celebrated painter’[3].

Deirdre was not the only Henty-Creer to embark on a career in the visual arts. Her brother, Henty, trained as a cinematographer. He worked for Korda on films such as The Thief of Bagdad, in 1940 and then, in 1941, on the The 49th Parallel, which was sponsored by the Ministry of Information (MoI), as a bold piece of propaganda. Deirdre’s sister, Pam Mellor, also established herself as an artist and writer[4]. But this was not all the family had in common. In many ways, the Second War shaped the rest of their lives. Henty Henty-Creer was still a very young man when he was lost in 1943, as Commander of a midget submarine which was engaging with the Tirpitz. For Deirdre, trying to discover what became of her brother dogged her life for years[5]. After the War, she became a Committee Member of AFAS – the Armed Forces Art Society – and thus continued her links with the military. It is not surprising, then, that some of her very best work was produced during and, probably, shortly after the War.

Buckman reports that Henty-Creer was accredited to the Ministry of Information as an artist, between 1940 and ’45. Such an accreditation did not guarantee that an artist’s work would be purchased or collected for the nation, but it did provide reasonable access to the subject matter. Unfortunately, we have been unable to corroborate that Henty-Creer enjoyed this degree of official backing: instead – like many other fine artists – she was recorded as having made an unsuccessful application to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee (WAAC) of the Ministry of Information in both May 1941 and November, 1942[6]. Despite this, however, it is possible that Henty-Creer’s connections might have provided her with a degree of unofficial support from the MoI.

At this juncture, it is important to highlight the obvious fact that, when thinking about ‘war artists’, those who immediately come to mind for the First War include, perhaps, Paul Nash or C.R.W. Nevinson – whose work is full of desolation – and, for the Second War, Henry Moore’s images of nameless crowds sleeping in the Underground would seem to conjure both the despair and the resilience of the people. Even for someone versed in the art of the period, it can be quite a struggle to bring to the fore a woman artist whose output is as well-known and iconic[7].

Nevertheless, in WWII, women artists were involved, in official publicity campaigns, camouflage, and cartography. Some were commissioned by the WAAC or a similar body - and they were usually encouraged to focus on the ‘home front’: quite apart from anything else, their images of women (and others who were not on active service) involved in war work performed a vital role as propaganda, encouraging others to join and reinforcing female solidarity and pride[8]. The powerful paintings of Ethel Gabain and, of course, Laura Knight[9], remain extraordinarily memorable. But, how does Henty-Creer fit into this pattern?

The one theme which it is very hard to find, in the oeuvre of women artists in the Second War, is of the military men themselves. Yet these are the focus of Henty-Creer’s work. She did not paint battle. She produced paintings of the very ordinariness of a soldier’s everyday existence: she paints them chatting, resting, doing the basic housework of a man in army camp, eking out those long, dull days whilst waiting for something to happen. At first glance, one might imagine that she is picturing recruits: she rarely depicts the men as exceptionally fit and strong. And yet, her militay men carry themselves with unselfconscious ease. They have learned the skill of relaxing, of shuffling-off anxiety. Henty-Creer captures their humanity, their companionable silences, their young faces marked by experience. These men are battle-hardy, but their heroism lies in their dedication and quiet discipline, not in misery or in pugnacity.

These pictures – in which everything is bathed in a consistent, outdoor light – are painted with simple, fluid brushstrokes, not over-worked, not highly-refined; in other words, not excitable at all. The easy regularity of the paint is echoed in the soft hues which dominate the canvases: the subtle olives, earthy browns, rusts, burgundies, pinks and ochres, which describe uniforms, trees, tents and flesh. This very coherence seems to separate these figures from the everyday world. Henty-Creer’s admiration and affection for these men – both, perhaps, having spilled over from her attachment to her brother – is powerfully conveyed. And, beneath it all there is a strong sense of the poignancy of these captured moments, which all concerned must have known were not to last. Whether these were works painted in 1941 or ’42 – or after she lost her brother in 1943 – we do not know; but they are the antithesis of history paintings, or propaganda.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, Henty-Creer continued to be busy. She had already exhibited at the RA in 1940 and ’41. In 1941, she also had a solo exhibition at the Fine Art Society. In 1948, she was recognised as the youngest participant in the Olympic Games’ Art Competitions[10]. After the War, she continued a successful career as an artist, travelling widely and sketching wherever she went. Her subject matter still included military scenes - the ships of the Royal Navy, for example. There are also colourful slices of street life, from London, Nice, or somewhere else glimpsed on her travels. Several pictures are on a fairly large scale: images of crowded beaches, ski-slopes: post-War holidays, full of colour and startlingly bright light. In addition, her output included some rather curious pictures of individuals in colourful costume. These are, in fact, the studies she executed in 1951, when she and her mother visited Norway and travelled north, through remote settlements in Lapland, ‘as far as the Russian border’[11] - in a search for any information about Henty Henty-Creer, reported missing in 1943 but never confirmed as dead.

Henty-Creer, then, is an interesting artist and a remarkable individual. Her war work, however, probably reveals her at her best and these pictures add a good deal to our understanding of the profound impact of war on men and women. This is not a matter of heroism; it is a matter of transforming the daily lives of everybody who is caught up in it.

© Dr. Hilary Taylor, 2013

[1] There appears to be some uncertainty about the date of her birth. It is usually given as 1928 but, in fact, it seems to have been 1918 or ‘19, as her obituary, on her death in 2012, reported her as having been 93. Furthermore, we know that she was the elder sister of Henty Henty-Creer, who was born in 1920 and was lost, in the Second War, in 1943.

[2]Artists in Britain since 1945, Vol.1, 1998.

[3] These accounts can be found in Deirdre Henty-Creer’s book, Salute a Submariner - the submariner in question, of course, being her young brother, Henty Henty-Creer.

[4] Mellor also co-wrote a book about her brother, publishing The Mystery of X-5 in 1988.

[5] Deirdre Henty-Creer’s Salute a Submariner reveals the depth of her disappointment that details were never forthcoming (to her satisfaction) about how – or, indeed, whether – her brother and the crew of the midget submarine had been lost, and why they had not been properly honoured.

[6] See Brian Frederick Foss, British Artists and the Second World War, with particular reference to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee of the Ministry of Information, Ph.D thesis for UCL, 1991, p.440. The War Art Artists’ Advisory Committee was the commissioning arm of the MoI.

[7] It is well worth reading Kathleen Palmer’s Women War Artists, written to accompany the exhibition of that name at the Imperial War Museum, 2011.

[8] Only with the start of conscription for women, from December, 1941, did the constant need to rally more volunteer workers on the home front begin to recede.

[9] Already a Dame and elected to the RA, Knight was given unusual recognition for her war paintings, which included, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech-ring, 1943, commissioned by the Ministry of Supply, via the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC).

[10] Henty-Creer represented GB. This was when her birth-date was recorded as being 1928, rather than 1918. It does mean that establishing an accurate birth date for her is, in some contexts, significant!

[11]The Advertiser (Adelaide, South Australia), 29th November, 1951.