Bernard Hailstone: The Artist And His Sitter

Among my earliest memories is Bernard Hailstone’s oil portrait of my father, Louis Heren, in jungle-green army uniform, black beret and captain’s pips, with a fiercely watchful expression. It hung on the walls of our many homes as we moved around the world with him, a foreign correspondent of The Times. Under the portrait hung the samurai sword my father acquired from the Japanese officer who had tried to behead him on the road to Mandalay in March 1945, around the time the portrait was painted. Although many combatants had their portraits painted in the Second World War, this picture must be most unusual in having been made in the field. This is how it came about.

In early 1945, the British 14th Army under Lieut-General Wavell was advancing rapidly in Burma, and beginning the annihilation-not too strong a word-of their Japanese enemy. The advance was so swift, and the terrain so difficult, that the fighting troops were being resupplied by air. One day it fell to my father to take a detachment of lorries from 7th Light Cavalry, where he was a half-squadron commander, to collect supplies at an airstrip hacked from the jungle. It was a scene of enormous activity, DC-3s landing and taking off, vehicles from dozens of units loading food, ammunition and fuel. Amid the bustle, my father noticed a bearded Englishman in what he described as a “Savile Row jungle uniform”, sitting disconsolately on incongruous leather baggage. He was Bernard Hailstone, official war artist, and he was waiting for someone from corps headquarters to collect him.

After the last Dakota had taken off, and the ground parties had mostly left, my father returned to Hailstone, and invited him to stay with 7th Light Cavalry until they could pass him on to a higher formation. Hailstone remained with the regiment a few days, and the two men became friends, conversation lubricated by gin and whisky from the Army & Navy Stores in Calcutta which had been among the newly-arrived cargo.

My father was an East Ender, Hailstone had served as an auxiliary fireman during the worst of the London Blitz in 1940/41, and they shared maverick traits. My father described himself as “officer and temporary gentleman”, while Bernard, leftish and pacifistic in his views, was not entirely at ease painting senior officers of South East Asia Command; earlier in the war his subjects had been merchant seamen, firemen, bargees and shipping.

Bernard Hailstone, left, as part of London’s Auxiliary Fire Service in c.1940 

While he was with them, 7th Light Cavalry were in daily contact with the enemy. Hailstone painted the portrait in the evenings, my father sitting, he recalled, on a crate at the rear of his Stuart tank. The 26-year-old man in the picture, tense, lean, dangerous, is in many ways so different from the jovial convivial father that I knew, though I could always see it was him. For me, the image conjures the gulf between war and peace.

Louis’s friend Ian Aitken wrote in his Guardian obituary: “The portrait shows a young man in a squashy black beret who could easily be mistaken for an Italian condottiere painted by a Renaissance master. Sweaty, self-confident and fierce, it is the face of a real soldier.”

After the war, Hailstone showed the painting at the Royal Academy’s 1946 summer exhibition, where it was described as “Portrait sketch”. It is not as finished as one of Hailstone’s official war portraits, many of which can be seen in the Imperial War Museum. The sketchy quality adds to the feeling of immediacy. Later he sold or gave it to my father, and the two remained in distant contact.

While Louis embarked on an adventurous career of foreign corresponding, Bernard Hailstone began to develop a successful portrait practice. Always retaining bohemian attributes, he painted many of Britain’s great and good, from the Queen to Churchill. With such subjects he did not play about-the last portrait of Churchill, now in the Imperial War Museum, is powerful and utterly correct in all its details. But he was never overawed, and when, as with Lord Mountbatten, he detected a certain phoniness, it was there in his portrayal.

Twenty years after that Burmese encounter, we were living in Washington D.C. when Hailstone came to stay with us. He was expecting a commission to paint Paul Mellon, the billionaire art collector. My parents put him up in our spare bedroom. Mellon’s private secretary proved elusive, and the expected week’s sojourn stretched to a month or more. Hailstone, who seems to have been short of funds, offered to paint my mother Patricia in lieu of rent.

Patricia Heren, Washington D.C., 1965

The resulting portrait is, for me, poignant and deeply affecting. My mother was about 40 at the time, and about to enter the advanced stages of multiple sclerosis that killed her ten years later. Hailstone deftly catches her gentle beauty, intelligence and good humour-but also a hint of sadness, of courage under impending shadow.

The image reminds me that she nursed me through devastating illness, passed on her religious faith and taught me-among much else-to endure hardship with as much grace as I can muster. Mellon remained elusive, and Bernard turned to the newest member of our family, my sister Elizabeth, then about a year old. The infant’s gaze gives little hint of the psychotherapist she was to become.

 Elizabeth Heren, 1965

Finally the day came, and my father drove Hailstone to Mellon’s townhouse at Dupont Circle.

“How much are you going to charge him Bernard?”

“I thought perhaps $5,000.”

My father pulled the car over and switched off the engine.

“Bernard, that is out of the question. Mr Mellon is one of the richest men in the world, and an American at that. He thinks you are good enough to paint his portrait, and he expects to pay you properly. You must ask for $35,000 at least.”

This was considerably more than my father’s annual salary, and probably three or four times the average American salary in 1965. Hailstone looked doubtful, but said he would up the ante.

           Paul Mellon, Virginia, 1965

He returned that evening, triumphantly squiffy. The meeting had gone well. They had discussed the portrait, how Mellon would be sitting, what he would wear, the general atmosphere. Then the secretary asked Hailstone about his fee. Bernard nervously suggested $30,000.

“We rather thought $25,000 would be an appropriate figure.”

The resulting portrait was a great success, not only with Mellon, but also in providing Hailstone with an entrée to other wealthy American patrons. He returned to England with enough money to restore the folly Hadlow Tower near Tonbridge, acquire a larger Chelsea studio, and continue an agreeable career painting royals, politicians and actors as well as many more humble folk.

In 1973, Bernard painted one last portrait of my father, by then deputy editor of The Times, struggling with the print unions and my mother’s failing health. It is the most finished portrait of the three, but my father was clearly embarrassed by it, and hid it from general view behind his bedroom door. I do not understand his embarrassment, except perhaps that Hailstone caught a sensitive, even contemplative side of Louis, at odds with his tough East End boy-made-good, foreign-correspondent self-image.

               Louis Heren, Deputy Editor of The Times, London, 1973       

Bernard died in 1987, Louis in 1995, both in their late seventies. There was a postscript a few years later, when the army portrait was damaged during a house move. The restorer, Henry Gentle, had worked as a barman at the Chelsea Arts Club as an art student. Hailstone, by then in his seventies, still worked away in his studio until nine o’clock each night, then walked down to the Arts Club, where Gentle ensured a pint of Guinness was waiting on the bar at precisely ten past.

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