John Godfrey Bernard Worsley was a prolific British artist and illustrator, best known for his naval battle scenes, and portraits of high-ranking officers and political figures. One of the very few active service artists of the Second World War, Worsley was the only person to render contemporary sea-warfare in situ, and the only official war artist captured by the Germans.
Detained in the infamous prisoner-of-war camp Marlag O, Worsley documented prison life with supplies provided by the Red Cross, his expertise was employed in the forging of identity papers, and he was involved in an ingenious escape attempt requiring the construction of a mannequin named Albert R.N. This was then turned into a film after the war.
During his lifetime, Worsley was president of the Royal Society of Marine Artists: Sixty-one of his paintings – including portraits of Field Marshal Montgomery, and the First Sea Lord, Sir John Cunningham – hang in the Imperial War Museum, with another twenty-nine pictures archived in the collections of the National Maritime Museum.
Born in Liverpool, Worsley was the son of a naval officer who settled on the family coffee farm at Kabuku, north of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. It was here, amid spectacular scenery and at an altitude of 6000ft, that Worsley grew up, shooting and messing around in the family model-T Ford when not attending school.
This idyllic life ended in 1928, as coffee prices collapsed. John was sent to St Winifred’s boarding school, his fees subsidised by the Royal Navy Trust. He won a scholarship to Brighton College, and spent three years at Goldsmiths College school of art. In his final year, he purchased a second-hand Fiat for £4, and, after leaving college, travelled the south coast, making sketches to sell to magazines.
Worsley’s naval experiences began in 1939, with a three-week crash course in seamanship. His ability to accurately report through his work helped him to become the youngest official war artist in the Mediterranean. He had already survived the sinking of HMS Laurentic, by a German U-boat in 1940, and now found himself taking part in the landings at Sicily, Reggio and Salerno.
In 1943, he was among the rescue party sent to establish a base on Lussin Piccolo, in the north Adriatic, only to find it overrun by Germans. Worsley was taken to Germany for interrogation, and spent almost two months in solitary confinement before being sent to Marlag O. It was there that he met the journalist Guy Morgan, who was about to be repatriated with serious war wounds, and who smuggled out a number of Worsley’s drawings in the plaster cast on his arm. Then came the Albert RN escapade.
As allied troops advanced in early 1945, Worsley and other PoWs were forced to march the 80 miles to Lübeck, arriving a few days before the war ended. Returning to Britain, he settled in a small studio in Barons Court, West London. He was asked by the Admiralty to paint portraits of high ranking officers, and found illustration work on the Eagle comic soon after its launch, painting a full-page advertising/ adventure strip for Walls ice cream, starring Tommy Walls, a lad whose heroics were always accomplished by the Lucky Walls Sign, and whose reward was, inevitably, lashings of ice cream. PC49 followed.
In later years, Worsley produced for Esso a series of paintings showing life on oilfields in Iraq and America. He made hundreds of colour illustrations for television readings of children’s stories; many of them later found their way into books. Even in his late 70s, he could still be found busy, always working on a marine painting, sculpture or glass engraving.
He was a gracious guest of honour at dinners organised by PC49 fans, and impressed a new generation with his collection of wartime sketches, John Worsley’s War. Many of his paintings and portraits – including those of Montgomery and Admiral Sir John Cunningham – can be seen at the Imperial War Museum and the National Maritime Museum. He also worked as a police sketch artist, his facility for capturing a likeness being responsible for many arrests.
A recent article about his work by one of his enthusiasts was entitled The Complete Artist; nobody earned that title more than John Worsley.
National Maritime Museum
Imperial War Museum
Royal Signals Museum
Manchester Art Gallery