I can’t think of anyone I knew when I was at school called Thomas, or even Tom, it wasn’t a popular name then. My great-grandfather was a Thomas, always known as Tom, but growing up, at school, at college, I can’t think of any Toms… although Once I started teaching I came across colleagues called Tom, and students called Thomas and Tom. I’m not sure exactly how I happened to call the main character in my Radwinter books Thomas, I think he was inspired by another character, one in the TV series The Killing, Forbrydelsen series 2, Thomas Buch played by Nicolas Bro.
I became fascinated by another Thomas, Thomas Phelippes, a code breaker, forger and probably spy who had a decisive hand in the sentencing of Mary Queen of Scots to death… and one of my favourite poets is the extraordinary Sir Thomas Wyatt.
Thomases, it seems, have become an important part of my artistic life! We went to visit Compton Verney last week, a magnificent stately home in Warwickshire, and we went to see an exhibition by Eric Ravilious; as well as his work there were displays from other artists who were his friends and contemporaries, Edward Bawdon, John and Paul Nash, and someone I had never heard of before, Thomas Hennell.
He was born in 1903 in Kent and after school he went to study art at Regent Street Polytechnic. He became a teacher and he taught not far from where we live, in our county of Somerset in Bath and then Bruton. He travelled round the countryside, drawing and writing about the countryside – and it was a description of him arriving on his battered bike at the farmhouse where some of the artists were living, and how he joined them, sounded so of its time that I began to wonder about him. The idea of riding around the country on your bike and just arriving at a farm and staying on would never happen today!
Sadly, Thomas had a nervous breakdown and was sent to the Maudsley Hospital as a psychiatric patient. He stayed there for three years until somewhat recovered, he was able to leave and take up his art again, studying rural life and crafts.
When the war came, at the age of thirty-six he volunteered to be a war artist; he served in this country before being sent to Iceland after his friend Eric Ravilious, now a war artist, was lost on a missing aircraft. That must have been very hard for Thomas. He returned to England and then to France with the Canadian First Army. He also travelled to the Low Countries before coming home to England in order to be sent out to Burma. He was based for a while in Rangoon and then travelled to Calcutta, Colombo, Penang, Singapore and finally Java. The war in Europe and Japan was over, but in Indonesia nationalists were fighting for independence and Thomas, aged forty-two was captured and presumably killed. Such a tragic loss.
Some of Thomas’s work is held by the Imperial War Museum, and others are part of the Ministry of Defence’s art collection. Thomas’s books are available, but some are very expensive now:
- 1936: Change in the Farm
- 1936: Poems – with wood-engravings by Eric Ravilious
- 1938: The Witnesses
- 1943: British Craftsmen
- 1947: The Countryman at Work
If you want to know more about Thomas and see some of his work, here’s a link: