Obituary: Frank Wootton

David Buckman
Monday 22 June 1998 00:02 BST

FRANK WOOTTON has been called "probably the finest aviation artist of all time" for his depiction of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain and beyond.

The day after the Second World War was announced Wootton volunteered for the Air Force, "not as an artist . . . I wanted to fly as air crew or whatever job could be found for me". Air Commodore Harald Peake, RAF director of public relations, appreciating Wootton's special skills, invited him "to record the Canadian Air Force who had sent their men and machines over".

The War Artists Advisory Committee had been formed at the outbreak of war, initiated and overseen as chairman by Sir Kenneth Clark. Among its briefs was "to draw up a list of artists qualified to record the war at home and abroad", in co- operation with government and the various services as desirable. A small number of artists were granted commissions, others receiving agreed fees for specific works.

Wootton applied to be an official war artist, but was rejected by Clark, who was reported to be miffed at not being consulted when Wootton was chosen to record the Battle of Britain at Biggin Hill.

That difficult-to-weigh commodity, artistic merit, rather than illustrative accuracy, was said to be the committee's guiding principle. But the RAF member of the Committee, Peake, expressed disquiet about work by Paul Nash and made a plea for Wootton's more technically accurate efforts to be sympathetically considered. It fell on deaf ears.

In time Wootton became the RAF's own official artist, by-passing the Committee. Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Commander of No 12 Group during the Battle of Britain and Commander-in-Chief Allied Air Forces for the 1944 Normandy landings, chose Wootton to cover the invasion.

He was in France shortly after D-Day with No 35 (Recce) Wing of the RAF, following the Allied advance through Belgium. Wootton was granted Leigh- Mallory's personal pass, allowing him unique freedom of movement and access. The result was outstanding pictures such as the Imperial War Museums Rocket- Firing Typhoons at the Falaise Gap, Normandy.

Wootton went on to work for the RAF in India and Burma. There his fellow war artist Thomas Hennell made a personal plea to Clark for Wootton to be granted commissioned rank, as he was still a humble aircraftman on four shillings a day. The official ear remained deaf.

Frank Wootton was born in Milford on Sea, Hampshire, in 1914. His father was in the Merchant Navy, and his mother died when he was still at school. Father did not approve of Frank's wanting to be an artist, urging him to "go for a proper job", like architecture or engineering, chosen by his brothers.

Wootton persisted however. He won a scholarship at 14 to the School of Art in Eastbourne, where the family had settled; the principal was Arthur Reeve-Fowkes. Wootton never forgot the ability of his teacher Oliver Senior to draw hands or the excellent instruction of Eric Ravilious.

He won the gold medal and a travelling scholarship, which took him to Germany, where he was commissioned to paint murals. It was a good introduction to becoming a commercial artist, which he did on his return to London, and where he so missed Sussex that each weekend he would cycle there and back.

During the 1930s Wootton freelanced, making aviation a speciality. He produced his first book, How to Draw Aircraft (1936), which was a best- seller, revised and rewritten many times. How to Draw Cars followed in the late 1930s.

After the war with Japan Wootton recorded Anglo-Iranian Oil's activities in Persia, then resumed his commercial career. Imperial Airways and British Overseas Airways Corporation commissions took him all over the world. In 1954, on a visit to the author Nevil Shute in Australia, he offered someone with a more urgent journey his seat on a Comet returning to England. The plane plummeted into the sea off Elba.

The RAF connection continued with several commissions. Wootton recorded royal visits to Marham (in 1956) and (in 1968) Abingdon air bases, the latter on the occasion of the RAF's golden jubilee. The Australian War Memorial and the National Air Museum, Canada, were among many collections who acquired Wootton's work. In 1983 the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC had a big Wootton exhibition as its inaugural show.

A book on Wootton, At Home in the Sky, was published to commemorate the Washington exhibition. The Landscapes Paintings of Frank Wootton followed in 1989, and Frank Wootton, 50 Years of Aviation Art in 1992.

He was founder-president of the Guild of Aviation Artists and among many honours was appointed OBE in 1995 for services to the RAF.

Wootton was also a notable equestrian and landscape artist. A good horseman, he became vice-president of the Society of Equestrian Artists and last year was sole judge of the British Driving Society's Concours d'Elegance at Windsor.

He had a gift for portraying not only the form and action of horses, but their individual characteristics. His first show in New York, in 1969, brought him many clients, who appreciated his faultless draughtsmanship and careful recording of the play of light on the subject. When the Tryon Gallery included him in Horse Artists of the World in the same year, Wootton's status rose.

Frank Wootton gave his time and works to aid service charities. An early such gesture during the Second World War was at a Wings for Victory week in Trowbridge, where Wootton drew visitors at a pound a time, raising pounds 250. His commanding officer, a Lancastrian, was impressed, commenting: "Well done, lad. Play your cards right and you could make a good living at this on t'pier."

It was appropriate that as mourners stood outside Berwick Church in Sussex for his funeral, a Spitfire flew a victory roll over Frank Wootton's grave.

David Buckman

Frank Anthony Albert Wootton, artist: born Milford on Sea, Hampshire 30 July 1914; OBE 1995; married 1938 Eileen Butler (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1958), 1958 Jinny Cawthorne (one son, one daughter); died Alfriston, Sussex 21 April 1998.

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