Thursday, March 19, 2009

John Worsley

John Worsley was a versatile artist who turned his talent to an extraordinary range of work. Even in his late seventies, he could be found busy in his studio working on a marine painting, a sculpture or glass engraving. He was a gracious guest of honour at dinners organised by fans of his famous comic strip, "The Adventures of PC 49", and impressed a new generation with his collection of wartime sketches, John Worsley’s War. Although his paintings and portraits (including those of Montgomery and Admiral Sir John Cunningham) can be seen in the Imperial War Museum and National Maritime Museum, not all of his work was so public, as he worked tirelessly as a police sketch artist, his facility for capturing a likeness responsible for many arrests.

His ability to accurately report through his work was recognised early by the Admiralty who ordered Midshipman Worsley into the thick of things as the youngest official War Artist in the Mediterranean. Worsley had already survived the sinking of H.M.S. Laurentic by a German U-Boat in November 1940, and now found himself taking part in the landings at Sicily, Reggio and Salermo. In 1943 he was amongst the rescue party sent to establish a base on Lussin Piccola in the North Adriatic, only to find it overrun by Germans.

Worsley was taken to Germany where he was interrogated, spending much of the next two months in solitary confinement before being sent to the POW camp Marlag ‘O’, near Bremen. Amongst the other prisoners was journalist Guy Morgan who had been badly wounded and was to be repatriated, smuggling out a number of Worsley’s drawings in the plaster cast on his arm.
A more daring escapade was the escape plans of Lieutenant Mewes which required the assistance of a stand-in. Out of wire and papier mache, Worsley created a dummy, dubbed ‘Albert, R.N.’, who was held between two soldiers during roll call, fooling the guards into thinking they had a full compliment of prisoners whilst Mewes made his way to the coast. For four days, Albert, with his ping-pong ball eyes and no hands (his sleeves were stuffed into his jacket pockets), fooled the guards. Unfortunately, Mewes was refused passage on the northern coast of Germany, and was recaptured. ‘Albert’ was finally rumbled when a second escape attempt two months later was foiled quickly and the escapee caught just after roll call, the guards realising they now had one too many prisoners.

Back in England, Guy Morgan immortalised 'Albert R.N.' in a play which was filmed in 1953. The movie starred Jack Warner and Anthony Steel, the latter portraying Geoffrey Ainsworth, a fictional version of Worsley. Worsley recreated Albert for the film, the dummy now at the Naval Museum in Portsmouth.

Born in Liverpool on 16 February 1919, Worsley was the son of a Naval officer who, demobbed six months later, moved his family back to the family coffee farm in Kabuka, 40 miles north of Nairobi in Kenya. It was here amidst the spectacular scenery and at an altitude of 6000 feet that John Worsley grew up, shooting and messing around in the family Model T Ford when he wasn’t attending school.

This idyllic life came to a crashing end in 1928 when the recession caused the price of coffee beans to collapse, and John was sent to St. Winifred’s boarding school, his fees subsidised by a grant from the Royal Navy Trust. He won a scholarship to Brighton College, and entered Goldsmiths’ College School of Art where he studied for three years, subsisting on a £300 legacy which he eked out at £2 a week, still finding the money—£4—to purchase a second hand Fiat in his third year. This he used, after leaving College, to travel along the South Coast, making sketches which he would sell to magazines.

Worsley’s experiences in the Royal Navy, which began with a three week crash course in seamanship in 1939 did not end with his repatriation. As allied troops advanced in early 1945, Worsley and other POWs were forced to march the 80 miles to Lubeck, arriving a few days before the war ended. When Worsley returned to the UK it was to a small studio in Baron’s Court where he was asked by the Admiralty to paint portraits of many high ranking officers.

Worsley found work in illustration through an agency and found himself working on the Eagle comic soon after its launch painting a full-page advertising strip for Walls Ice Cream starring Tommy Walls, a young lad whose heroics were always accomplished by making the Lucky Walls Sign, and whose reward was, inevitably, lashings of ice cream.

It was as the artist for "The Adventures of PC 49" that Worsley really reached an audience; from his first episode in August 1951, he would eventually draw the tales of Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby until his final appearance in March 1957. 290 episodes appeared in Eagle comic alone, with further tales appearing in Eagle Annual and various spin-off books. Worsley’s was, to most fans, the definitive portrait, and Worsley himself commented "You cannot portray a character three thousand times without getting to know him pretty well." Three quarters of a million schoolboys relished every brushstroke each week. Worsley also worked for the Eagle’s companion paper, Girl, drawing "The Story of Miriam" (1951-52) and "Belle of the Ballet" (1952-54), and for many years was an illustrator for the educational nursery paper, Treasure, notably drawing the adventures of "Wee Willie Winkie" (1963-67).

In later years, Worsley was commissioned by Esso to produce a series of paintings of life on oilfields in Iraq and America. Never standing still, Worsley also embraced the new medium of independent television, and produced hundreds of colour illustrations for readings of famous children’s stories; many of them were later used as illustrations for large format hardcover books published by Purnell and Deans. An article about his work by one of his enthusiasts was entitled “The Complete Artist” and nobody earned that title more than John Worsley.

Worsley died on 3 October 2000, aged 81.

(* PC 49 © Estate of Alan Stranks/BBC; PC 49 artwork © IPC Media; war artwork © Estate of John Worsley; Wee Willie Winkie © Look and Learn Magazine Ltd.)

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