The Searchlight, completed in 1943 is an extremely rare example of Kennington’s wartime work. Eric Kennington was one of a small number of artists to be employed as a British official war artist in both world wars. Having established his reputation during the First World War – with masterpieces such as The Kensingtons at Laventie, now in the collection of the Imperial War Museum – the artist was an obvious choice.
Kennington was employed by the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC), the body that oversaw the British official war art scheme, from December 1939. He produced a number of pastel portraits of Royal Navy officers, before he was personally commissioned to do work for the Ministry of Information by Edwin Embleton. Darracott and Loftus describe how in both wars “his drawings and letters show him to be an admirer of the heroism of ordinary men and women”, an admiration which is particularly notable in the poster series “Seeing it Through”.However, Kennington resigned his commission in 1942, as he felt the WAAC were failing to capitalise upon the propaganda value of his work. What is more, he grew continually more frustrated that a commission to the Front Line never arrived.
According to the artist’s son, Christopher, it was at the insistence of Celandine Kennington (1886-1975) that The Searchlight be withheld and not handed over to the War Artist’s Advisory Committee. Kennington rated the picture highly, so agreed and it remained in his study at Eden Cottage until his death in 1960. Celandine moved the painting to the drawing room after his death, where it remained until her passing in 1975 and continued to remain until their son, Christopher Kennington, died in 2015.
The Searchlight belongs to a small series of works Kennington produced between mid-1942 and early 1944 in which he explored figurative symbolism heightened by a near-Expressionist density of colour. This pastel demonstrates the artist’s superb control of the medium.