More than meets the eye, with Portsmouth’s ‘unofficial war artist’

This painting shows the Guildhall in Portsmouth following German bombing in WWII. Whilst here it looks relatively intact, what we are looking at is just the remaining exterior shell, having actually suffered extensive internal damage.

On the night of 10-11 January 1941, some 153 aircraft dropped 140 tons of high explosive bombs and 40,000 incendiaries. 171 people were killed and 430 people injured. The German bombers were guided by beams which intersected over Southsea Common. At one stage there were 28 major fires and 2,314 separate fires in total. The Guildhall was gutted by an incendiary which lodged in a ventilation shaft, whilst the adjacent shopping centres in Commercial Road, Palmerston Road and Kings Road were destroyed. The FA Cup had to be dug out of the vault of a bank in Commercial Road.

This view, painted by Edward King in the immediate aftermath, shows the building from the side and rear with part of the original cupola missing – which was never replaced. At a glance the Guildhall looks relatively unscarred, and even majestic; it’s only the slivers of blue sky in amongst the stone columns that are a reminder that it is empty.

Edward King was commissioned by the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress to paint approximately 70 views across the city in the aftermath of the Blitz bombings. At this time Edward King was a permanent patient at St. James’ Hospital, where he lived for 26 years until his death in 1953. Prior to 1926 he had been a well-established artist, exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy and making a steady income from illustrations for the Illustrated London News. During the late 1880s it is documented that van Gogh had been inspired by some of King’s sketches.

The WWII paintings by Edward King continue to provide an enduring insight into Portsmouth during the Blitz and have become an intrinsic historic document immortalising parts of the city that no longer exist. They also are a legacy to the man who became the unofficial war artist of Portsmouth.