The Warrior's Tomb, 1941
Gertrude Hermes RA (1901 - 1983)
RA Collection: Art
The Warrior’s Tomb (1941) was made at a time when the artist Gertrude Hermes was creating biomorphic images (abstract but derived from natural forms) which had much in common with the work of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth during the same period. Apparently abstract at first glance, The Warrior’s Tomb in fact shows the sea viewed from above as a submarine disappears below the surface, so that, as noted in an inscription below, ‘And all that remained to be seen were bubbles rising and oil spreading over the surface of the sea’. Two birds and the shadow of an aeroplane (indicating the viewer’s perspective?) further anchor the image in reality.
The inscription was supposedly a quotation from a bomber pilot returning from a mission in January 1940. Hermes had been affected by the sinking of the submarine Thetis in 1939, although according to Hermes scholar Judith Russell the inscription derived from reports about the bombing of an enemy submarine by an aircraft of RAF Coastal Command in January 1940.
During World War II Hermes and her children moved to Montreal to stay with relatives, although she also spent time in New York. For much of her stay in North America, Hermes worked as a draughtsman in aircraft production and shipbuilding as part of the war effort, and The Warrior’s Tomb (1941) was the only major wood-engraving she completed during this period. The artist began engraving the wooden block in England, and brought it with her as hand-luggage, later completing the print and having it printed in New York by George Grady’s Press. It may be that Hermes was drawn to this marine subject by anxieties about the long flight across the Atlantic which she was about to undertake.
According to Russell, the block began to crack ‘as a result of North American central heating’, and Hermes had to touch in cracks in each impression by hand using Indian ink. The print was first exhibited in Hermes’ first solo show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, September 1945.
Gertrude Hermes was elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1963 (making her the first female Associate engraver), and as a Royal Academician in 1971. Hermes is best-known for her wood-engravings (a medium she taught herself while studying with Leon Underwood), although after World War II she grew ‘heartily sick of black and white’ and began to make colour linocuts such as Waterfall (her Diploma work), combining blocks of different colours.
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