Observed from the window of an air pilot’s cockpit, ’Battlefields of Britain’, a painting by Christopher Nevinson, reveals an ethereal skyscape of clouds and glimpses of green countryside far below. Painted in 1942, this work was directly inspired by a line from ‘High Flight’, a sonnet by John Gillepsie Magee:
Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor even eagle flew –
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high, untrespassed sanctity of space
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
Magee was a 19-year-old American pilot officer who died while on active service in Britain on 11 December 1941. After reading the posthumous publication of his sonnet in The Daily Mail in February 1942, Nevinson reflected on it as ‘… one of the best of the war, and I’ve tried to put his thoughts into my picture’.
Nevinson had a keen interest in flying, and sketched during ten flights in preparation for painting 'Battlefields in Britain'. In October 1942 he presented the painting to Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister, who, decided that it should be a gift to the nation, after which the work entered the Government Art Collection. ‘Battlefields in Britain’ was first displayed in the Air Council room at the Air Ministry. Since then it has also featured in 10 Downing Street and the Residence of the British Ambassador to the United Nations in New York.
Born in London, Christopher R. W. Nevinson studied at St John's Wood and Slade Schools of Art. In 1912 he studied in Paris for a year. In 1914 he co-founded the London Group and issued a Futurist manifesto, ‘Vital English Art’ with Filippo Marinetti. In the First World War Nevinson served abroad with the Royal Army Medical Corps. In 1915 he participated in exhibitions of war art and Vorticism in London. His solo show at the Leicester Galleries (1916) received great acclaim. Nevinson became an Official War Artist in 1917. In the late 1930s, he was created Chevalier of the Legion d'Honneur and an Associate of the Royal Academy. Suffering deep depression after the Second World War, he died in London in 1946.
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