By the Second World War, aerial photographers were a relatively common fixture in the passenger seat of RAF fighter planes – however, for this season, we’ve been fascinated by the hand-painted work of official war artists such as Roland Vivian Pitchforth, who offer a more personal behind-the-scenes insight into the stories of the pilots, both in the air and on the ground.
Pitchforth, born in 1895, was an artist of great range and flexibility. He trained at the Wakefield School of Art between the years 1912-1914 and at Leeds College of Art, where his contemporaries included artist Raymond Coxon and sculptors Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore.
During 1940-1945, Pitchforth served as an official war artist for the Ministries of Information, Home Security, Supply and for the Admiralty. In March 1940, he was given a brief to depict the work of the Air Raid Precaution (ARP) organisation and in December secured a six month appointment with the Ministries of Home Security and Supply. In a series of pencil, watercolour, oil and lithograph pieces, he depicted ARP training, war damage, military production and naval scenes. Many of these were singled out for praise by the War Artists' Advisory Committee (WAAC) and exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1941.
Pitchforth subsequently specialised in coastal scenes, joined several naval convoys to Gibraltar and the Azores and produced paintings on RAF test flights and maintenance subjects.
Commissioned in October 1943 as a temporary captain in the Royal Marines, Pitchforth was attached to the Royal Navy and in 1945 was sent by South Eastern Command to record the naval campaigns to retake Burma and Ceylon. During the British assault on Rangoon, he assisted in the camouflaging of his group’s amphibious craft. He captured the events in a series of paintings of Colombo Harbour and in The First British troops in Rangoon (1945). At war’s end, Pitchforth acquired a lung infection and spent 1945-1946 convalescing in South Africa (he still managed to exhibit at Wildenstein’s Gallery) before returning to London in 1948.
It was during a trip to IWM Lambeth's private art archive (before the grand reopening of the museum), when we first spotted Pitchforth’s watercolour painting of two pilots, kitted up in their flying hats and bomber jackets with parachutes slung over their shoulder and we knew we just had to share it.