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Sunday, December 05, 2010

L. Ashwell Wood - Behind the Scenes part 2

L Ashwell Wood's King George V Class Battleship
by Jeremy Briggs

As a follow up to the piece on Eagle artist Leslie Ashwell Wood's preliminary pencil drawing of the 6 Pounder anti-tank gun of World War Two, we have a further preliminary pencil sketch of his dating from the same period of a King George V Class battleship of the Royal Navy. Unlike the 6 Pounder prelim, which was used for an explanatory illustration, this battleship prelim shows off the type of artwork that Wood is best known for, the cutaway.

The King George V Class of battleship consisted of five ships commissioned between 1940 and 1942 - HMS King George V, HMS Prince of Wales, HMS Duke of York, HMS Howe and HMS Anson. While HMS Prince of Wales was lost, along with the battlecruiser HMS Repulse, when they were attacked by Japanese aircraft near Singapore in December 1941, the four other ships of the class survived the Second World War despite tangling with such famous German opponents as the Bismarck and the Scharnhorst.

The prelim here was used to create the cutaway painting of King George V Class battleship published in the 1943 Odhams hardback book Britain's Glorious Navy. For the painting, Wood added top and side plan views of the ship in the rectangular frame in the top right of the prelim. Since battleships of the time would have had destroyer escorts, Wood also added a destroyer on the left side of the image.

This is the point at which the story of this particular prelim would normally end however there is an unexpected addendum to this cutaway.

As Steve discovered when he did his first Bear Alley piece on Leslie Ashwell Wood, the National Archives holds five of his art boards, four black and white explanatory paintings of army tactics and one full colour painting. That full colour painting is of a King George V Class battleship and is also based on this prelim. In this case the painting is not a cutaway and shows the ship firing with its A Turret guns, meaning that they are not in the same position as the prelim.  Unlike in the printed cutaway, the destroyer escort is on the right side of the painting and this is also reflected on the prelim.

Also obvious in the painting and reflected in the prelim is a Fairey Seafox float plane. Battleships and other large capital shops of this period used float planes and flying boats as spotter aircraft for aiming their main guns accurately, so having a plane in the air whilst firing the A Turret guns would be accurate to life.

However the King George V class did not operate Fairey Seafox float planes, they used Supermarine Walrus flying boats. The aircraft on this class of battleship was launched from a compressed air catapult amidships and both the painting and the printed cutaway show an aircraft on the catapult. The colour painting has a Seafox pointing to the right while the black and white cutaway has a Walrus pointed to the left.

As can just about be seen the prelim also has the Walrus on the catapult as well as having something that neither of the completed versions have and that is an aircraft being launched, complete with motion lines to show its flight path. Indeed the prelim appears to have two versions of the Walrus launch, a very black one which may have been scribbled out and a much lighter one that is more difficult to see but which represents a launched Walrus flying boat (as shown in the lower photo) more accurately. Both sketches of the Walrus in the air have it right at the edge of the rectangular box of the plan view of the battleship. Perhaps Wood did not include it in the final version because he decided that there was not enough space to comfortably fit it in.

The Fairey Seafox float plane was an older aircraft type than the Supermarine Walrus and was not actually used on the King George V Class battleships which only ever carried Walrus flying boats. This suggests that at the time Wood created the painting he was not aware of the aircraft type to be fitted to the ship and therefore illustrated his best guess of aircraft based on what had been used on earlier Royal Navy warships. In addition to this, Wood illustrated the ship’s secondary gun turrets in the painting as the older square style with a open rear section while the cutaway’s secondary turrets are the more modern enclosed circular style that were actually fitted to the ships. This, in conjunction with the general lack of detail in the painting of the ship compared to the printed cutaway, suggests that Wood had much fewer reference sources to work from for the painting and therefore that the painting predates the cutaway.

In addition to the prelim having details from both the painting and the printed cutaway, it also displays the fact that Wood drew the bow of the ship, and its port anchor, twice. Whilst the length of the ship from bow to anchor is consistent in both final versions, the distance between the anchor and the deck breakwater in front of the A Turret is shorter on the cutaway than on the painting giving the ship in the painting a slightly longer forward section. Since the prelim has a number of different frames drawn around the main image the assumption can be made that the prelim was originally drawn for the painting with a certain ratio of length to height. When the prelim was updated and used for the cutaway in Britain’s Glorious Navy, the cutaway version needed to have a different ratio of length to height, one that was effective slightly shorter and Wood achieved this by simply shortening the bow of the ship. While this could be seen as a cheat, it was certainly an efficient use of the prelim by the artist.

We can date the cutaway to its 1943 publication in Britain's Wonderful Navy, although it is possible that it may have appeared earlier than that in Odhams' weekly magazine Modern Wonder/Modern World that Wood worked on before 1943. As for the painting it was at the very least prepared for some sort of print publication due to the position marks around its edge. However with no date on it, and apparently no record in the National Archives of its use, it is impossible to say where and when it was published.

That is something that we still have to discover.

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