Thake’s Shapes

Eric Thake (see a brief earlier post here) was an Australian official war artist working with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) in the latter part of the Pacific War. Unlike many other war artists, he chose to make a significant proportion of his formal, main output as depictions of aircraft wreckage. Almost uniquely, Thake managed to both achieve a rare – sometime strange and spooky – artistic effect with these paintings and at the same time keep the actual wrecked parts accurately depicted, so much so that the aviation historian can name the aircraft and often part of the aircraft included.

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Here, in ‘Salvage Dump Port Moresby’ (AWM collection) that can be proven in that the centrepiece is the wing and engineless nacelle of a NAA B-25 Mitchell, with the fuselage frame and fin of a light observation aircraft.  He wasn’t slavishly copying what he saw, however, but, as any good artist does, interpreting and rearranging reality to tell the story they choose. Below that is ‘Japanese Wreckage Penfoei Airstrip’ from the AWM collection again. As any Japanese aircraft modeller will tell you, that particular green is both typical of Japanese aircraft interiors (added for protection) and hard to depict accurately.

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One of the most anthropomorphic examples is of the rear fuselage of a Lockheed Lodestar transport – the tail section’s lightening holes looking very like human eyes, and making a face of the aircraft’s shape (partly through perspective compression). This painting is seen in a Canadian War Museum exhibition website, here, but belongs to the AWM.

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Artists with a real sympathy for the aircraft they depict are very rare. For the most part they are on the one hand successful mainstream ‘fine art’ artists with a very limited understanding of the way aircraft work, their textures and structures. This may seem a rivet-counter’s quibble, but is akin to a painter not understanding weather yet expecting their cloudscapes to be taken seriously. The other (seen in a great deal of aviation art, including the print market) is where the technical details may be very accurate (as that audience expect) yet have limited artistic merit, degenerating sometimes into the visual cliche or often repeated cheap emotional format.

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In contrast to the latter is the painting above, entitled ‘The Birds of Paradise’, from the Art Gallery of NSW, here, the wrecked Pierced Steel Plank (PSP) Marston Mat is rolled around a hydromatic propeller (compare to the details in the manual shared earlier on the blog here). while Northrop P-61 Black Widow night fighters appear to cavort in the skies beyond. (Again a measure of Thake’s work, they are not the expected similar  P-38 Lightnings – note the proportions, and straight leading edge of the wings.) Like the much more famous and successful Paul Nash’s visual pun ‘Totes Meer’, Thake is taking an entirely mechanical, artificial subject and presenting it as a piece of ironic nature – but unlike Nash, he’s not modified the machinery far from its real nature to make the pun.

Perhaps the most famous of these paintings by Thake is ‘Liberator Face’ (Another AWM item) painted in Darwin, and featuring the head-on view of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator and the Emerson bow turret – the effect achieved by the holes where the guns have been removed.

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Despite the disarmament, this aircraft is probably just being used in a non-aggressive postwar transport role where the guns were just potential excess weight, rather than being another wreck. Again, the eerie ‘face’ is also created with a realistic presentation of the structure of the B-24, something those familiar with the heavy bomber would easily also recognise.

Would the RAAF have chosen Thake to depict these offbeat subjects in the way he chose? Official war artists, when directed, usually were asked to show the battles, the people, and (all too often) the senior commanders of the war they were documenting, though many stretched the edges of those expectations. Thake seems to have literally been enabled with his RAAF travel chits to wander off to the margins of the war and depict the apparently meaningless detritus of the mechanics of war, different, but also similar to, the aviation enthusiasts’ excitement at the junk pile behind the museum display hangar. We are lucky he chose to do what he did.

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While Thake did not return to this theme post-war, he did undertake a number of other commissions (the anniversary stamp set for the 1919 England-Australia air race, above, being one) and some fun and witty aviation depictions of his own with ‘Airlines resume, 1980’ here and ‘TV drawing: Sir Somebody or other of the R.A.A.F., 1971’ here, both in the NGV collection. In all of these I feel there’s both a sense of humour and a refusal to take anything too seriously that shines through, as well as an often under-appreciated ability to accurately depict the subject.

nla.obj-144466080-1Thake, Eric Prentice Anchor (1904–1982).
Photo of Eric Thake, circa 1955, by Port Philip Bay, at Brighton, Victoria, by Sarah Chinnery, NLA. Thake’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography is here, and Dr Peter Pinson’s PhD on Thake’s wartime paintings is online here, and a very interesting read, and including Pinson’s quote that summarises this post: “Thake depicted materiel rather than man as being the primary protagonists in warfare, often lending mechanical forms anthropomorphic properties.” Another insight to Thake, including his earlier ‘Archaeopteryx’ aviation piece by my colleague Dr Brett Holman on his Airminded blog here.

James Kightly, Vintage Aero Writer.

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