The Last of The Few
With the RAF’s centenary falling in 2018, artist Jeremy Houghton sat down to draw the four last surviving Spitfire pilots in tribute to what is still seen as the service’s finest hour in 1940
Article by Rupert Watkins
Formed on April 1st 2018, the RAF is the world’s oldest independent air force. Over its century is has gone from the Sopwith Camel to Reaper unmanned drones, but for many its defining point remains the Battle of Britain in 1940. Off the back of a small exhibition at the Cavalry & Guards Club where he found himself chatting about the military and RAF, artist Jeremy Hougton was approached with the idea to draw the last remaining Battle of Britain Spitfire pilots. “The story fascinated me,” Jeremy recalls, “and when I was able to meet the pilots it was really a profoundly humbling experience.”
Sitting down to talk with the veterans, Jeremey found, “they were all extremely uncomfortable with the ‘hero’ tag – no different to their modern day counterparts – they just felt they were the lucky ones.” One of the pilots, Tom Neil, recalled at the end of his initial pilot training the arbitrary manner the course was streamed onto bombers or fighters. “He remembered an officer walking down the line saying ‘bomber, fighter’ in turn and praying – given the loses bomber crews endured – that he would be selected for fighters.” When he came to draw the four, Jeremy was faced with the problem of how to depict them. “They all loved the simplicity of the pencil drawing – a couple had sketches of aircraft on their walls” he comments. This manner of depicting them also played to both Jeremy’s love of working in monochrome, “I feel there is a spiritual quality to monochrome pictures – as much what’s not in the picture as what’s there,” and the haunting nature of the meetings with the pilots. Jeremy did sense there was a clear and unsurprising burden of survivor’s guilt.
As well as individual sketches, Jeremy plans to create one major work entitled “The Last of the Few” which will be auctioned in late April with all proceeds going to the Air Cadets Association. He hopes the drawings will become part of a wider exhibition. He has met and sketched the current Lord Trenchard – grandson of the RAF’s founder – and has been offered the chance to visit RAF Conningsby to sit down and draw the pilots of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (BBMF). There is also a provisional plan for him to visit the Red Arrows as well. As the pilots on the BBMF also fly the modern day equivalent of the Spitfire, the Typhoon, “there is a strong idea of the past and the present and a sense of continuity – the fraternity of fighter pilots.” Jeremy has also be lucky enough to draw the Group Captain currently commanding the Central Flying School. Established in 1912, it is the world’s oldest flying training establishment.
Having taught art in South Africa for some years, Jeremy has since then been artist in residence for among others The Gentlemen at Arms, Highgrove, Windsor Castle and Goodwood. With a very fluid style, Jeremy focuses on movement, space and light, “working on the cusp between reality and the abstract.” Though his drawings of the Battle of Britain survivors are on the traditional end of the artistic spectrum, some of the work when in residence for the Gentlemen at Arms, when he painted the Household Division fuses the military ceremonial with his distinctive sense of energy and dynamism.
Jeremy retains the interest in the military. Though not ex-forces himself, his grandfather trained pilots for the Glider regiment during the war and was commander British Forces Aden. Through serving friends, Jeremy has done a number of private commissions for regiments and at the start of 2018 spent some time on a wintery Otterburn training area with the Royal Gurkha Rifles. With the RAF’s centenary this year, he sees his work on the Last of the Few as exceedingly pertinent. “You look at children today and realise how little they know about the past, you have to tell the younger generation about what these people did. They did it for us.”