His contemporaries regarded him as a genius. Academics have called him one of the 20th centuries greatest British watercolourists. Some have described him as the English Van Gogh. Thomas Hennell may have been all these things, but he was certainly an enigma and, even now, something of an unknown.
Born 1903 in Ridley in north west Kent, Hennell was schooled in Berkshire and went on to study at Regent Street Polytechnic. He worked as an art teacher then became a full-time painter and writer in the early 1930s, and soon became friends with the two men who would champion his career, yet always overshadow it, Eric Bawden and Eric Ravilious.
Hennell’s was a career of two halves. The first as a rural painter, in the tradition of Constable or Palmer, recording the immense changes taking place in the English countryside. These works included many Kentish scenes, some in the Folkestone area. The second began in 1939 when he volunteered to be a war artist, serving at home, then in Iceland (replacing Ravilious when he went MIA) and later France, Holland, India and the Far East. It was a career interrupted by severe psychological problems – alongside his rural subject matter the reason for the epithet ‘the English Van Gogh’.
Since Hennel was so highly regarded by his famous friends, why has he been somewhat forgotten? Perhaps it is simply because his career was cut short. While serving in the Far East in 1945 he went missing, in circumstances as mysterious as the man himself, and was presumed dead.
Hennell’s work is now undergoing something of a revival and a new exhibition in Folkestone is set to bring his paintings to a new audience. It takes place at the University Centre Folkestone from April 1oth to 18th.