Made in metal: Writing the industrial background of Graham Sutherland’s war art

Graham-Sutherland-246x269Earlier in the year I spent some weeks in the summer researching and writing a survey of the links between Cornwall and South Wales, particularly those evidenced in the metal industries of copper, iron and steel, and tin.

It resulted in a wonderfully illustrated book called Graham Sutherland: From Darkness Into Light. War Paintings and Drawings, co-authored with Sally Moss and Paul Gough, and published by Sansom and Company.


Buy the book. RRP. £17.95.

Read Made in Metal in preprint version on my site.

it is not often that you will find modern art discussed in equal measure to the historical context of its subjects.

The book accompanied a Heritage Lottery funded exhibition of Graham Sutherland’s war art organised by Penlee House Gallery and Museum in Penzance, and curated by Sally Moss, called From Darkness into Light. Mining, Metal and Machines. The Many of the exhibits came from a private collection in Italy, never shown before in a public gallery in Britain.

Part of the show will shortly tour to Swansea, to the National Waterfront Museum.

In 1939 Sutherland (1903-1980), best known as Britain’s most accomplished 20th century landscape artist, was commissioned by his mentor Sir Kenneth Clark to be an official war artist. Sutherland’s project was to record different aspects of war time industry, specifically mining in Cornwall and iron and steel production (and also coal mining) in South Wales. He also painted blitz damage in the East End of London and in Swansea.

The artistic context of Graham Sutherland’s war art, and what these works tell us about his character and motives, tantalising described in a series of oppositions by curator Sally Moss as “neo-romantic or surrealist; landscape or portrait painter; social climber or socialist; genius or ‘intelligent dandy’; celebrity or outsider” are much more ably and eloquently explored by my co-authors.

I would strongly urge anyone with an interest in Cornish and South Wales industrial history, modern art or wartime history to buy the book as it is not often that you will find modern art discussed in equal measure to the historical context of its subjects–particularly when it comes to industrial topics.

Writing a comparative industrial history

My commission was quite simple. Alison Bevan, the then Director of Penlee House, was passionate about using this exhibition, and the book, to convey the many correspondences between Cornwall and South Wales. And you will not find those connections in sharper relief than in the shared histories of their metal industries.

As an author my motive was to write an industrial history that was less insular, less parochial, and less reliant on averaging statistics, through comparison. In Cornwall there is a vague notion that copper ore went to South Wales for smelting. In South Wales, the paradigm that in return for Cornish ore, Welsh coal was exported–first explained by John Henry Vivian, the progenitor of Cornish-Welsh industrial affiliations–is seldom explored further.

Bronze statue of John Henry Vivian of Cornish scientist, later Swansea industrialist and patron (credit: Jory Juglor).

The chapter explores copper, iron and steel, and tin, to convey the complexity of the shared industrial histories of Cornwall and South Wales that many readers will not have come across.

The challenge for me lay in bringing this history into the 20th century, and into wartime Britain, and also to do justice to surveying the iron and steel, and tin industries, about which I knew much less than copper. My thanks go to Robert Protheroe Jones of the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea who started me off on the trail of the ferrous industries, which is so often considered separately from the economy in non-ferrous products.

My ‘Made in Metal’ survey is divided into three parts, with a short epilogue that casts a spotlight on the comparative processes of de-industrialisation in Cornwall and Wales. Each moves on the subject  chronologically, although this was used as a narrative framework rather than to assert definitive points of change:

  • Copper: The special relationship, c.1700-1870.
  • Iron and steel: Faded industrial glory and wartime offensive, c.1880-1945.
  • Tin: The survivor, c.1930-1998.

Each examines the personalities, economic conditions and products that created, by the period of the Sutherland’s industrial war art, what I describe in the introduction as the “small islands of stubborn resistance that refused to accept entirely that they were the victims of their own global success.”

My search for links or comparison of experience between Cornwall and South Wales, particularly during the Second World War resulted in some striking examples, such as the Cardiff Wren being trained to use a Cornish ‘Holman projector’, a missile launcher developed by the Camborne firm Holman Brothers out of probably Welsh engineering steel.

1943 Wren_and_Holman_Projector
Wren with a Holman Projector at Cardiff ranges, 1943 (credit: The Trevithick Society/Peter Joseph).

Or that on the eve of war, the hard-won yields of Cornish tin miners, were more likely to end up in the USA government’s stockpile in Texas, than in the Welsh tinplate manufactories, which before 1941 were almost completely reliant on tin imported from Malaya and Bolivia.

Tin Miner by Graham Sutherland (credit: The Artist's Estate).
Tin Miner by Graham Sutherland (credit: The Artist’s Estate).

Want to find out more? Buy the book. RRP. £17.95. Or order from your local bookseller.

I will be exploring more connections between Cornwall and South Wales in my ongoing research project on the material culture of the British copper industries.