Having been commissioned by the Union Government in 1941 to contribute to a war record on the homefront, and following an endorsement from Neville Lewis, the country’s first and most senior Official War Artist, Kay sketched and painted fitting subjects in the aerodromes, batteries, mines, factories and hospitals of Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and the then Transvaal. Working up most of her pictures in her home studio, preferred examples were consistently sent to Pretoria – to ‘H.Q.’ as she called it in her letters – for review and possible purchase by the Government. Rather surprisingly, and despite sending numerous works for vetting, only eight were accepted and later absorbed into the National War Museum’s collection. The identity of the selection panel remained anonymous, but as the artist felt that her best pictures tended to be rejected, one has to wonder whether Lewis, perhaps for fear of comparison with his own work, played an influential part. While most of the returned pictures were painted out or cut up back in the artist’s studio, a small number survived.
The present lot, certainly from this period, shows four elderly men, all past fighting age, each either bespectacled, gaunt, hunched, balding or swollen-knuckled, carefully reading the wartime news. Each man might be utterly absorbed, rigid with uncertainty, disbelief and dread, but each is exquisitely and warmly observed by the artist’s brush. Kay’s palette is typically austere, but the subtle combination of creams, tans and olives is as remarkable as it beautiful. If sketchbooks from early 1943 suggest that the artist chose to set the scene in the Port Elizabeth Public Library, the relative silence and order of this interior only serves to heighten the sense of anxiety, chaos and hopelessness that the pinned broadsheets no doubt describe. Kay’s mid-career style, moreover, deep-rooted in the English academic tradition, and favouring sound, economical draughtsmanship, directness, and restraint in colour, well suited the weighty subject of War News.
Acquired directly from the artist, and thence by descent.