High Art

03rd February 2020

Born at the end of the 19th century, artist siblings Sydney, Hilda and Richard Carline not only left a remarkable body of work – including some of the First World War’s finest aerial paintings – they also led extraordinary lives, filled with success and sadness in equal measure.

Words by Jonathan Black

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Many families share an artistic path. Not many possess such a powerfully interwoven creative heritage as the remarkable Carline siblings, Sydney, Hilda and Richard, born towards the end of the 19th century in Oxford. All three of this strikingly gifted trio became artists, but with very different life stories. In their early adulthood they travelled, studied and painted together, but war, an early death (Sydney, the eldest, born in 1888, died tragically of pneumonia at just 40) and an unhappy marriage (Hilda’s union with fellow artist Stanley Spencer led to great distress) took them on vastly different paths. Left behind is an impressive but little-known body of work, much of it made by the two brothers during and immediately after the First World War. Especially striking are the aerial paintings shown here, many painted by Sydney during his time as a pilot.

Richard produced psychologically perceptive group portraits and vivid images of exotic locales

The family’s artistic roots went deep. The siblings’ father, George Francis Carline, was a respected late-Victorian painter in oils and a leading member of the Royal Society of British Artists, while his wife Annie was a talented watercolourist. The boys were educated at public school (Repton and the Dragon), while Hilda had private tutors. There wasn’t enough money to allow them to further their artistic studies, but Sydney was not to be deterred and paid his own way to study at the Slade School of Art before going on with his brother in 1912 to study in Paris at the academy at 69 Rue d’Assas in Montparnasse, under eccentric Canadian painter Percyval Tudor-Hart. This was the Paris of Picasso and Gertrude Stein, Matisse and Braque, with cubism in the ascendancy. It must have been a thrilling time for the brothers, ending when the academy relocated to Hampstead early in 1914, with war looming. The Carline family moved close by, to 47 Downshire Hill, NW3.

The siblings in Blakan attire

The siblings in Blakan attire

In August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. Richard wasn’t keen to volunteer, but his older brother Sydney – the most politically conservative of the siblings – felt increasingly uneasy walking around London surrounded by men his age in uniform. In the late summer of 1914 he bought a second-hand twin-cylinder Douglas motorbike for £15 with the intention of learning how to drive the machine and becoming a British Army despatch rider at the Front. His father noted with alarm his son roaring up and down Haverstock Hill at a “dizzying” 40mph with Richard clinging on the back.

Sydney Carline's A British Pilot in a BEC2 approaching Hit along the course of the River Euphrates 1919.

Sydney Carline's A British Pilot in a BEC2 approaching Hit along the course of the River Euphrates 1919.

Sydney volunteered for military service abroad late in January 1916 and was accepted as temporary Second Lieutenant with the Royal Flying Corps (RFC), with help from Churchill’s Private Secretary, Edward Marsh, and art historian the Hon Evan Charteris. On 20 July 1916 he was awarded his wings with 20.5 hours of flying time. The next month he was posted to France and just a fortnight later, on his third mission for 19th Squadron RFC, he was shot down over the Somme, flying an obsolescent BE12 fighter, and badly wounded in his left leg. After three months recovering from his injury, Sydney went to work on an experimental camouflage project for the RFC with his brother and their old tutor, Percyval Tudor-Hart, in the depths of rural Hampshire. Richard had volunteered as a private in the Middlesex Regiment early in 1916. Sydney then recommended he transfer to the RFC and train as an Officer-Observer and wireless operator.

Initially Sydney made quick watercolour sketches while trying to fly his Sopwith Camel with its joystick between his knees

In the autumn of 1917 Sydney retrained as a fighter pilot in the fearsome Sopwith Camel F1 – the most successful British fighter plane of the First World War. It was a move that would affect not just his life but his art. In January 1918 he was posted to a fighter squadron in the newly formed RAF, supporting the expeditionary force that Britain had sent to Italy after the Italian army was routed at the Battle of Caporetto. He spent three months as an operational fighter pilot with 28th Squadron, flying over 120 missions against the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Air Service over the Alps and in the frequently stormy skies of north-east Italy. This produced some of his best work. 

The CO of his squadron, Canadian ace William “Billy” Barker, thought Sydney was a gifted pilot but that he lacked “the killing edge”. He enjoyed flying in Italian skies so much that he often forgot to try to shoot down the enemy. Sydney did in fact succeed in shooting down three enemy reconnaissance aircraft. In a letter to his brother early in March 1918 he described his first “kill” in suitably clinical language: “On patrol with two others I saw a Hun two-seater taking photos 5,000 feet below us (we at 10,000) and on our side of the line. We dived on him. He put up no show, the pilot was shot and the observer leaning over tried to dive for home but he was also shot and the machine crashed in the river…” This incident inspired his impressive 1919 oil painting The Destruction of an Austrian Machine in the Gorge of the Brenta Valley, Italy.

He enjoyed flying in Italian skies so much that he often forgot to try and shoot down the enemy

Towards the end of July 1918, Sydney was appointed an official British war artist attached to the RAF, working for the British Ministry of Information. That he was offered this post  at all was largely the work of his younger brother, Richard, who always appeared to have more “get-up-and-go”. Richard had managed to make an overture to the RAF section of the Ministry of Information via influential art critics PG Konody and Robert Ross. Just before Sydney began his duties as a war artist, flying from an airfield north of Vicenza in mid-August 1918, Richard was sent to France to paint key positions from sketches he made in the observer’s seat of an RAF reconnaissance aircraft, such as the stunningly evocative Mine Craters at Albert Seen From an Aeroplane, 1918.

Initially Sydney tried to make quick watercolour sketches over the Alps while attempting to fly his Sopwith Camel with its joystick between his knees – hardly ideal with the notoriously unstable Camel. He then tried sketching from the back of a twoseater RE8 recon aircraft and a Bristol F2 fighter-bomber but his watercolours froze at 20,000 feet and his face was peppered with razor-sharp fragments of ice flying upwards from the surface of his drawing board. He eventually discovered that he obtained his best efforts making quick sketches in the air and then using them as the basis for a composition to be painted within half an hour of returning to base.

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Sydney returned to London late in 1918 to be informed by the RAF section of the Ministry of Information that he and his brother were to undertake a tour of the Middle East, recording episodes where the RAF had made a significant contribution to the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1916-18. The brothers travelled to Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, then from Port Said to Bombay, Karachi, Basra, Baghdad, Mosul, Kurdistan, Teheran, then back to the UK via Basra. 

Richard focused on producing a series of impressive images of major cities sketched from the air. Sydney was more interested in evoking dramatic incidents from September 1918 when RAF aircraft on ground attack missions had transformed the retreat of Ottoman Turkish armies into an utter rout. He also produced more generalised yet extremely evocative images of flying in Middle Eastern skies, such as Flying Over the Desert at Sunset, Mesopotamia, 1919.

Sydney and Richard returned to London early in October 1919 to paint full-sized works from some of their sketches made in the field for inclusion in the huge “The Nation’s War Paintings” exhibition held at the Royal Academy in Burlington House from December 1919 to February 1920. Their contributions were singled out for critical approval, and they cemented their reputation as Britain’s leading “intrepid aerial artists” with a joint exhibition at London’s Goupil Gallery in March-April 1920. The show went on tour in the US and Canada to considerable acclaim, all of which helped Sydney to be appointed Master of Drawing at Oxford University’s prestigious Ruskin School of Art in January 1922.

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In July 1928, Sydney married the Hon Gwendoline Hayter, a specialist in “antique Greek dance” who was considerably younger than him (on first meeting him she’d apparently been impressed by his interpretation of the Charleston). This was a happy time for Sydney: he was sufficiently successful to indulge his love for fast roadsters, which he drove with élan down the narrow lanes of Drayton St Leonard in Oxfordshire, where he settled with Gwendoline. His first solo exhibition opened at the Goupil Gallery in February 1929, and was a considerable success, both critically and financially. It included beguiling and evocative portraits of his wife, such as The Eiderdown (1928), now held at Manchester Art Gallery. However, he attended the private view with a heavy cold, which developed into pneumonia, to which he succumbed on 14 February 1929, aged 40. In his obituary, The Times declared: “British art of the younger generation has suffered a very severe loss.”

Ironically, despite his critical success, Sydney always believed that his younger sister Hilda – whose striking 1923 self portrait is in Tate Britain – was the most talented of the three. After working in the Women’s Land Army in Suffolk during the First World War she studied at the Slade under Henry Tonks, where she was joined by her younger brother, Richard. But her career was interrupted by marriage to Stanley Spencer in 1925 and motherhood. The family had their doubts about the match; Sydney admired Spencer as an artist but found his religious obsession unsettling. To begin with, the couple lived in Hampstead and soon had a daughter, Shirin. Two years later they moved first to Hampshire and then to Spencer’s native Berkshire. In 1930 Hilda had a second daughter, Unity. But the relationship was doomed: Spencer eventually asked for a divorce in order to marry their lesbian neighbour Patricia Preece. The divorce was finalised in 1937. For a young woman of such promise, Hilda’s was a tragic story: she experienced a series of nervous breakdowns and died from breast cancer in Hampstead in 1950 – though her artistic career did see a late flowering in the years following the Second World War.

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As for Richard, he had exhibited work from an early age. Precocious and mercurial in temperament, he produced psychologically perceptive group portraits, like the remarkable 1925 painting Gathering on the Terrace at 47 Downshire Hill, Hampstead, as well as vibrant landscapes and vivid images of exotic locales, which attracted much admiration between the wars. After his part-time study at the Slade, he had a wellreceived solo show in 1931 at the Goupil Gallery. Critics were impressed by a series of works based on a visit Richard had made to South America during which he explored the mouth of the Orinoco River. In the early 1930s he was a founder member of the Artists International Association [AIA] and in 1935 published a pioneering study, Arts of West Africa. After tours of the US and Mexico in the late 1930s he produced an impressive series of landscapes. During the Second World War he created innovative camouflage designs for the Ministry of Aircraft Production and in 1944 was a founder member of the Hampstead Refugee Artists Committee. Travel remained a constant in his artistic career: after the war he worked for UNESCO and for many years served as vice president of the AIA. In 1950 he married the artist Nancy Higgins and they had two children. A longtime and much-respected resident of Hampstead, Richard died there in November 1980 after a distinguished career in arts administration and education.

The bridge at Mostar, 1922

The bridge at Mostar, 1922

One photograph captures the interwoven lives of these three remarkable artists. In 1922, before taking up his post at the Ruskin, Sydney joined Richard and Hilda on a trip to the recently created Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the adjacent Kingdom of Albania. The siblings travelled, explored and sketched, returning to Downshire Hill with complete sets of exotic attire for themselves. Sydney enjoyed dressing up as an Albanian bandit chief à la Byron and fancied himself a fine player of a challenging Balkan stringed instrument. Hilda thought he simply made an appalling din. Their lives were about to take very different paths, but here they are, young, creative forces, full of promise. Success and sadness lay ahead,but their work remains a testimony to their enormous talents.

Dr Jonathan Black is an art historian who has curated shows on the Carline siblings.

This article was taken from the Winter 2019/2020 edition of the Goodwood Magazine.

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