Claude Francis Barry (1883 - 1970):
The Heart of the Empire: Our Finest Hour,1940
Framed (ref: 587)
Signed, inscribed with title and date on the reverse, also titled on a label on the reverse: ‘Our Finest Hour’
Oil on canvas, 43 x 106 in. (109 x 269 cm)
Provenance:Artist’s estate (no. 34); private collection, Jersey.
Exhibited: Jersey Museum, long-term loan, 1980s.
Literature: Katie Campbell, Moon Behind Clouds: An Introduction to the Life andWork of Sir Claude Francis Barry, Jersey 1999, repr . p. 78.
Little is known of Barry’s activities during the war , but in 1940 he was already in his late fifties and based in St Ives. A committed pacifist, he was in any case too old for active service.This little-known but remarkable painting, his magnum opus, dramatically depicts ChristopherWren’s great St Paul’s
Cathedral, seemingly standing in defiance of the Nazi bombing onslaught aking place. Inspired by C.R.W. Nevinson’s dynamic treatment of searchlights in his work, and by Georges Seurat’s pointillist technique, Barry has gone further and created this night-time scene by regrouping buildings to form his subject, showing London’s major buildings on the skyline, notably celebratingWren’s Monument and his distinctive City church towers.
The first major bombing around St Paul’s took place on Sunday 29 December 1940, and was immortalised in Herbert Mason’s famous photograph published in the Daily Mail on its front page onTuesday 31 December , which became known as ‘TheWar’s Greatest Picture’. It may well have been the spur to Barry to embark on this ambitious painting, which is dated 1940 on the reverse and, given its scale,must have taken the best part of a year to achieve.
Barry’s viewpoint here is the south bank of the Thames, roughly where the current Mayor of London’s recently built headquarters now stands, on the site of Bermondsey’sVictorian warehouses, and perhaps taken from one of their roof-tops. It excludesTower Bridge, however , and shows only an outlying part of the Tower of London. On the river , tugs, barges and lightermen’s boats busily scurry in front of Robert Smirke’s handsome columned Custom House, but Billingsgate Market, to its west, has been compressed.The old London Bridge by John Rennie stretches to the left (it was sold in 1968 to be re-erected in Arizona). Its graceful arches underline the sturdy medieval tower of Southwark Cathedral to the left, the unmistakable silhouette of the Houses of Parliament, and the tall, slim
campanile of John Bentley’s neo-ByzantineWestminster Cathedral.The focus of the painting is obviously St Paul’s Cathedral, which Barry has relocated for theatrical effect to where the Bank of England stands.To its left can be seen the Baroque dome of the Old Bailey, an Edwardian homage toWren. Despite his pacifism, Barry has created an extraordinary work, something of a metaphor for the heroic spirit of the British people who, under the leadership
of Winston Churchill, defied German aggression.
We are grateful to Michael Barker for the above text, and to David Capps,
Graham Miller and Robert Mitchell for their assistance.
This painting is subject to an export licence.