The Coventry Cathedral Portrait Study of George VI, 1940
The Coventry Cathedral Portrait Study of George VI, 1940
The Coventry Cathedral Portrait Study of George VI, 1940
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The Coventry Cathedral Portrait Study of George VI, 1940

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Overall: 48cm (19in) x 40.5cm (16in)

Watercolour and body colour on paper. Half length study of King George VI in military uniform by Fred Roe for his 1941 oil painting of the King visiting the ruins of Coventry Cathedral on 16 November 1940. Signed and dated 1941. Sheet: 30cm x 19.5cm.

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On the night of 14 November 1940, 515 bombers from Luftflotte 3 and pathfinders from Kampfgruppe 100 delivered the devastating air attack on the city of Coventry, codenamed Operation Mondscheinsonate (Moonlight Sonata). At around 20:00hrs the 14th century cathedral, was set ablaze by incendiaries. Volunteer firefighters managed to extinguish the flames but other direct hits followed and soon new fires broke out. Accelerated by a firestorm, the flames quickly spread gutting the structure. During the same period, more than 200 other fires were started across the city. The telephone network was crippled, and, as the Germans had intended, the water mains were damaged by high explosives, severely restricting firefighting operations. The raid reached its climax around midnight with the final all clear sounding at 06:15 on the morning of 15 November. The raid was of such severity that the Nazi propaganda minster Goebbels coined the term coventriert ('coventried') to describe similar levels of Teutonic destruction.

King George VI learnt of Coventry's ordeal that afternoon, and resolved to visit the next day as a gesture of his solidarity with the people of Coventry. The visit was not publicly announced, and only the mayor was pre-warned. The initial reaction was that there were no facilities to entertain the King. Buckingham Palace assured the mayor that the king, in the Keep Calm and Carry On spirit of the times, would bring his own sandwiches. The cathedral was an obvious place for him to visit, yet it took the Provost R. T. Howard completely by surprise. The king made a great impression on everyone present, and in Howard's words; ‘His whole attitude was one of intense sympathy and grief.’ One of the pinnacles, which had fallen from an outer wall, was later erected on the spot where King George stood, and is now known as ‘The King's Pinnacle’.

Frederick Roe, R.I. (1864-1947) was born in Cambridge, the son of Robert Henry Roe, painter and engraver. He trained at the Heatherley School of Fine Art under Seymour Lucas and served as part time soldier in the Artists' Rifles. Roe exhibited at the Royal Academy, and was elected to the R.B.A. in 1895, and to the Royal Institute of British Painters in 1909. Roe developed a successful career as a portraitist and a painter of historical genre subjects. His painting of George VI and the newly appointed Home Secretary Herbert Morrison visiting Coventry Cathedral was reproduced as a popular print. He lived in Hampstead with his wife and son Frederic Gordon Roe who became an art critic.