Henry Marvell Carr, RA, RP, RBA (1894-1970)
War Artist and Portrait Painter

Henry Marvell Carr, RA, RP, RBA (1894-1970)Leeds artist Henry Carr lived through two world wars, in WW1 as a young soldier facing the horrors of the Western Front in France, in WW2 as an official war artist commissioned to record life on the home front and on the battlefields. His war paintings were widely exhibited and in the 1950s and 60s helped to establish him as the artist of choice for portraits of the great and the good, though he never lost his sympathetic eye for everyday people and their lives.

Born in Hunslet in 1894, he came from everyday roots. His father ‘Matt’ Carr was a clerk, a leading light in the Hunslet rugby and cricket teams – he used to take young Henry to matches, then on to a Music Hall and billiards. The family moved to Roundhay when Henry was six but kept their close Hunslet connections. He went to Leeds Modern School, then at eighteen to Leeds School of Art, bent on being an artist. He was doing well when war was declared in 1914 and life was totally overturned.

He volunteered within weeks and was assigned to the Royal Field Artillery in France, promoted after a time to sergeant. His lowest point, never forgotten, was at Passchendaele in 1917, struggling to lead his gun team through thick black mud and blinding, incessant rain. Sent home on leave, he missed the bomb which soon after killed the rest of his team. He survived, recording everything in sketches sent back home to his fiance Olive Rundle.

He and Olive married in Hunslet in 1920. He returned to Leeds School of Art, and in 1921 won a place at the Royal College of Art in London under Sir William Rothenstein, with fellow Leeds students Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth: a brilliant group. He had his first picture accepted at the Royal Academy in 1921 and graduated in 1922, when he and Olive moved to London with their baby daughter. He pursued his artistic career, painting landscapes, figures and portraits, supplementing his income with teaching. For some fifteen years he taught at the noted Beckenham School of Art, ending as its principal.

He featured in a prestigious Royal College of Art show alongside Moore and Hepworth in 1924, when he and Hepworth were both finalists for the highly competitive Rome Art scholarships. His work was regularly shown at the Royal Academy, and during the 30s was included in many exhibitions of Yorkshire artists in Leeds, often picked out for their freshness, bold colour and lively treatment. His paintings covered subjects from portraits (mainly women) to landscapes and figure studies, like ‘Bathing the Baby’, a highlight of the 1930 RA exhibition.

Then war again. In 1939 he heard that Kenneth Clark, Director of the National Gallery, was promoting a scheme to recruit artists through the War Artists Advisory Committee – many hundreds of the finest British artists ultimately took part. He sent a picture to Clark, who was impressed. Initially he was commissioned to paint home scenes but in 1943 he was sent as official war artist to North Africa and then Italy. His many paintings from the front included portraits of the commanders (Eisenhower, Alexander, Tedder etc) but also some fine portraits of people doing essential jobs – a telegraphist, an ambulance driver, a ‘Desert Rat’, all named, treated as individuals. He was passionately concerned that the everyday toil of servicemen and women should be recorded.

Post-war, with his reputation enhanced by his war portraits, he won many eminent commissions: Princess Margaret in her St John’s Ambulance uniform; the Bishop of Birmingham; the Lord Mayor of York; civic dignitaries and captains of industry galore. Leeds University commissioned three official portraits. Did Henry Carr tire of these formal portraits, with sometimes demanding sitters or sponsors? Maybe, but he did not forget ordinary working people. He painted two pretty ‘Aero’ girls for Rowntrees, and at Saltaire he agreed to paint a series of pictures of workers at Salt’s Mill through the whole process of production. It took him two years and several visits of close observation.

He was an enthusiastic teacher, published a book on how to paint portraits in 1952, and gave two pioneering series of demonstrations on early TV. A convivial man, with a real interest in people (essential for the portraitist he said) he enjoyed all he did. He went on painting and exhibiting (lastly with his son Sebastian) until his death in 1970 at his home in Chelsea. His reputation has faded, but you can see some of his war paintings and formal portraits on the Art UK website and his engaging Saltaire work, recently restored, at the Mill itself.

Eveleigh Bradford
January 2018