GALLERIES by LEIGH HATTS MANY of us following the second World War anniversaries now realise that although the BBC solemnly marked the anniversary of the outbreak a year ago we have only now reached the fiftieth year since the first serious bombing.
Early in 1 94 0, before Churchill had come to power, it was not thought a luxury to ask artists to record the still peaceful landscape as part of war preparations.
Kenneth Clark was responsible for persuading the Ministry of Labour and American money to set up the "Recording Britain" project based in a corner of the National Gallery. It would not only record Britain but keep artists in work preserving their skills during the expected short war, These artists include now famous names as can be seen from the hundred paintings and drawings (chosen from 1,500 plus) in the Recording Britain exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (daily until 18 November; free).
Herbert Read, writing about the scheme in 1940, said that it showed exactly what was being fought for "a green and pleasant land, a landscape whose every winding lane and irregular building is an expression of our national character". But he had a greater fear. He believed that painting, unlike photography, could capture the intangible element which might be destroyed by growth as well as bombs.
"There will be little point", Read added, "in saving England from the Nazis if we then deliver it over to the gerry-builders and the development corporations.." In the first month of war Ditchling in Sussex was threatened not with bombs but unregulated housing.
Frank Pick, who commissioned artists for Underground posters, urged the recording of country landscape and soon Charles Knight, leader of the Handworkers Guild at Ditchling, was enlisted. Several of his watercolours are in the exhibition including the village's Anne of Cleves House. The work led to his appointment as Princess Margaret's art tutor. At home he had added to the landscape by designing inn signs.
Charles Knight's funeral this year was in Ditchling church
where his work can be seen. Ancient churches were another target for the project and John Piper was sent round England and Wales in his Lancia. Piper, then a new Anglican convert, went to the abandoned church at Stanton Low in Buckinghamshire to draw the Norman chancel arch which has now gone. He also painted the church-like barn Cistercian barn at Coxwell in Berkshire representing the continuity of rural church in life.
Quaker Kenneth Rowntree chose one of the most important churches in Britain. Norman and early English neatly merge on Dunstable Priory's west front. Behind this peaceful facade Archbishop Cranmer launched the Anglican breakaway with his unilateral pronouncement of Henry VIII's divorce.
Rowntree then went up to Yorkshire to catch the last fragment of Guisborough Priory. But his most exciting find was the bright ceiling paintings in a Welsh chapel at Llanrwst. Dating from 1673, they defy the suppression of the medieval tradition. Adoring angels, sacred symbols and texts are as bold as the colours.
Holy Trinity, Clapham Common was painted by S R Badmin but his main brief was to record the stately homes
which Clark feared would even in victory be abandoned or become "lunatic sanatoria". Badmin's attention to detail would have been invaluable hasdt, Broughton House, known as the "English Versailles" been lost. The picture is reproduced in Recording Britain: A pictorial Domesday of pre-War Britain (David and Charles £29.95) which not being the catalogue shows many pictures not in the exhibition. The commentary is unusually thorough and it is heartening to be told by Gill Saunders of the V & A that over half the "Recording Britain" subjects remain substantially unchanged.
Someone currently coordinating the work of numerous artists is Lady Christina Hoare. Her embryo Christian Arts Centre stages several shows a year although a permanent home has yet to be found.
Many who have benefitted from Christina Hoare's organising ability, including young artists, may be interested to know that she has found time to hold her own one woman exhibition next week at the Charlotte Lampard Gallery in Chelsea's Mossop Street (daily 17 to 22 September; free).