Saturday, December 04, 2010

L. Ashwell Wood - Behind the Scenes part 1

L Ashwell Wood’s 6 Pounder Anti-Tank Gun
by Jeremy Briggs

Leslie Ashwell Wood is an artist most associated with one publication and one style of illustration as he produced nearly two thirds of the almost 1000 cutaway illustrations that appeared in Eagle comic during the 1950s and 1960s and which made him the title’s longest serving artist. His work ran throughout the entire run of original Eagle from the first issue dated 14 April 1950 to the penultimate issue dated 19 April 1969 and even in those issues that showed images that were not technically cutaways, his accuracy invariably still made his paintings of educational value. Eagle published several photos of Wood throughout its run with the first appearing in the first anniversary issue of the comic, which featured a selection of small circular photos of some of the comic’s artists.

Yet despite his enormous output for Eagle, Wood also worked for other publications including Modern Wonder magazine in the late 1930s and early 1940s, a series of hardback books for Odhams during the 1940s and, after Eagle, a series of small books entitled Inside Information published by Benwig on the cusp of the 1970s. Since the National Archives hold examples of his work it is fair to assume that at some point he also worked for the Ministry Of Information as many other artists did during the Second World War.

Wood has been covered in Bear Alley before when Steve went to some length to try to discover his date of birth and also presented a list of the books that featured his illustrations. That list included the various Odhams hardbacks that he worked on including the series of related books on warfare published between 1940 and 1944 that included Britain's Wonderful Fighting Forces, Britain's Modern Army, Britain's Wonderful Air Force, Britain's Glorious Navy and Britain's Merchant Navy. These books all featured illustrations by Wood as well as other artists to complement their black and white photographs. The last of the warfare books was published in 1944 and was entitled Warfare Today with the sub-title 'How Modern Battles are Planned and Fought on Land, at Sea and in the Air'. This 256 page book featured sections on all three armed services and reused some of what had already been published in previous titles. The book is credited to Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, Major-General J. F. C. Fuller and Air Marshal Sir Patrick Playfair as joint-editors and between them they brought many decades of service experience in the Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force.

There is a selection of mainly double page illustrations by Wood in Warfare Today including illustrations of the 25-Pounder field gun in the Army section and a cutaway of an Illustrious Class aircraft carrier in the Royal Navy section, a revised version of the illustration which originally featured in Britain's Glorious Navy. The Army section also includes a double page illustration of the Ordnance Quick-Firing 6-Pounder 7 Cwt, a 57mm towed anti-tank weapon introduced in 1942 and commonly referred to as the 6-Pounder, an illustration that had not appeared in any of the earlier books.

Recently a selection of Leslie Ashwell Wood’s preliminary pencil sketches have come to light, including work from Modern Wonder, the Odhams books and even Eagle. One of those pencil prelims, which were sketched on layout (tracing) paper to the full size of the final painted version, is for this explanatory illustration of the 6-Pounder.

While the final printed version in Warfare Today is 10 x 6¼ inches (approx 25 x 16cm), the prelim is a remarkable 25 x 15½ inches (approx 63 x 39cm) in size or “1½ up”. At this size it shows off some of the techniques that Wood used to create his final painting as well as some of the differences that he introduced between this original concept and the final printed version. The final version contains six main images of which the prelim contains five. Of these, the sections showing the gun on tow behind a lorry, the loading of the ammunition and the explanation of the sights, are all very similar to the final printed versions as can be seen below.

The pencil prelim of the gun’s breech, the rear of the barrel where the shell is loaded, shows the breech in both its open and closed positions in the one illustration. This saved Wood from drawing the breech section in pencil twice and when he transferred the sketch to the art board that he would paint on, he would have simply used the one pencil for the two final versions, omitting the appropriate sections as required.

The breech illustration also shows off best the one major difference in the pencil prelim and the final version. In the pencils above the breech opening there is a raised metal section with a hole through it that is apparent in other parts of the pencils as well but which the final version does not have. It may be a hoist ring for lifting the gun or for tying down the barrel. Viewing photographs of actual 6 Pounder guns show that some of them have this whilst others do not which suggests that at some point during the weapon’s production run it was either removed from or added to the design. Its disappearance on the final version could well have been an editorial decision although the one photo of a 6 Pounder in Warfare Today shows a gun with it.

The final major image is that of the gun in its firing position. While the pencil layout is near identical to the final version it shows that Wood originally included an image of a soldier standing beside the side view of the gun which gives a good indication of its size. Strangely the figure has been removed from the final version meaning that the size of the weapon is less easy to determine. Also evident, although less so, is that he also included sketchy figures of the gun aimer and the gun loader in the same side view section and there is also a very sketchy outline of a further man beside the left tyre of the gun in the main section, a figure that would have distracted from the final image. The pencil prelim also has more detail of the gun’s 30 inch long recoil area which in the printed version is shown as a simple dotted outline.

The final section of the printed version shows a front view of the gun looking straight down the barrel with the gun carriage slightly traversed. Interestingly while Wood left room on the prelim for this image he did not draw it and there is no evidence on the layout paper of it being sketched and rubbed out or a separate section glued down which has since disappeared. Perhaps the explanation of its omission is that since the main part of the image is a view directly down the gun barrel, Wood considered it such an easy image that he did not feel he need to do a prelim and so sketched it directly onto the art board.

So how did Wood get his pencils and final paintings so accurate? We know from issues of Eagle that before working on the comic he had been a draughtsman in an aircraft company. As a trained technical illustrator it would have been his job to produced engineering drawings, commonly referred to as blueprints, for the many components that made up any given aircraft. He was able to transfer that skill to his illustrations of technical subjects and while it may be going to far to suggest that he had engineering drawings of each of his subjects, one can only assume that he either had excellent reference photographs of them or was able to see them in real life to make notes and detailed sketches.

The discovery of some of Leslie Ashwell Wood’s original preliminary pencil layouts gives us a little more information on how he created these excellent paintings which, nearly 70 years later, still impress with both their accuracy of detail and the simplicity with which they explain their subject matter.


  1. Hello Steve,

    I came across your excellent blogs while trying to research the work of Leslie Ashwell Wood, having seen his signature on many of finest illustrations to grace the pages of 'Modern Wonder'.

    I'v managed to compile a collection covering the entire run of the 'Modern Wonder' magazine, from Issue 1, Volume 1 (week ending 22nd May 1937), right through to when it was absorbed into 'Modern World', which began with its Issue 1, Volume 1, in the week ending 23rd March 1940.

    There was a short transition phase, where the magazine was retitled 'Modern Wonders' (plural), but this happened in 1940, long after the full-colour artwork had fallen victim to wartime printing restrictions. The last colour issue was No.124, Volume 5, (week ending 30th September 1939).

    Ashwell's covers are the most consistently striking of the various artists they used. The last non-photographic colour cover for 'Modern Wonder' was Issue 98, Volume 4, (week ending 1st April 1939), but some of Ashwell's best colour centre-spread artwork actually comes after this date, with beautifully composed montages describing the various equipments, displacements, uniforms and tactics for the ARPs, anti-aircraft defences and fire brigade.

    That said, the mono-chrome artwork is still full of information and fine draughtsmanship, such as the examples of 6-pounder you showed in this blog.
    I was drawn to your note that:

    'Recently a selection of Leslie Ashwell Wood’s preliminary pencil sketches have come to light'.

    Was this in an auction back in 2010 and they now in private hands, or is the collection now in the care of museum or archive where it would be possible to view them?

    Would be interesting to see the scale at which he drew, and how much photographic reduction was employed in the printing process, which would make his drawings appear even tighter.

    Kind regards,
    Paul Cattermole

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