Henry Tonks’s war picturesBMJ 2011; 342 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.d101 (Published 12 January 2011) Cite this as: BMJ 2011;342:d101
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Henry Tonks was only the first of a number of artists who assisted
Harold Gillies and his colleagues in the recording of facial injury, and
in fact most of his work was done at the Cambridge Military Hospital,
Aldershot before the move to the Queen's Hospital Sidcup in June 1917.
His involvement stemmed from the inability of Gillies to draw well. In
addition to the pastels in the College of Surgeons there are three more in
the collection of the Slade School. Conservation work on the College
collection has revealed a second pastel on the back of one of the others.
Some of the Tonks pastels are named, and with this help, and from the
casenotes in our possession, I have been able to identify 54 of them. 11
subjects have more than one pastel - either a "before and after" pair or
an accompanying operative drawing.
Tonks sat in the operating theatre with Gillies and made lightning
operative sketches, several dozen of which survive in our collection of
casenotes; some are of men whose pastels he drew, but many are not. Most
are on thin paper which has been stuck into the notes; in a few cases he
has redone the drawings onto the notes pages themselves. These drawings
represent the first attempt to record operative technique in a systematic
way. Later surgical drawings at Sidcup were drawn by Daryl Lindsay, an
Australian from an artistic family who was taught by Tonks (and who also
produced a substantial number of watercolours - about 70 are in the RACS
collection in Melbourne) and by Sidney Hornswick, who was to produce the
illustrations for Gillies's textbook "Plastic Surgery of the Face". More
watercolours were created by the New Zealand artist Herbert Cole, who
later painted under the pseudonym Rix Carlton. We possess a total of 100
watercolours from the New Zealand Section by Lindsay, Cole and probably
Hornswick; apart from Lindsay's, none are of the quality of Tonks.
There appears to have been a falling-out between Gillies and Tonks
(there are various accounts of this) and the notes contain none of Tonks'
work after the end of 1917.
One can speculate on the purpose of the watercolours and pastels;
photography was used extensively at Sidcup and we have tens of thousands
of photographs, again done systematically, so what was the point of
painting? Maybe it was simply an echo of the past, recalling Sir Charles
Bell's work, pre-photography, in Spain and at Waterloo. Records suggest
that many of the Sidcup watercolours were worked up using plaster casts of
the face as a reference rather than entirely from life. Certainly they
allow a perception of colour; the lividity of burns scar tissue is very
evident and in one patient the most startling observation is that he had
red hair. In WW2 Gillies, McIndoe and others used the skills of Percy
Hennell to record photographically in colour, and no paintings were made.
Further information, and a gallery of pastels (courtesy of the RCS)
and watercolours may be found at www.gilliesarchives.org.uk. Six of the
NZ Section watercolours from the archives will be on show in the
"Watercolour" exhibition opening at Tate Britain in February 2011.
Competing interests: No competing interests