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Firefighter Artists Of The Blitz

November 14, 2023
by Dinah Winch

Jonathan Pryce will read my short story ‘On Christmas Day’ at the launch at Burley Fisher Books in Haggerston on Thursday 23rd November at 6:30pm.




Today Dinah Winch uncovers the lost history of the ‘Firemen Artists’ 

Resting at a Fire by Reginald Mills


London Fire Brigade has a collection of paintings by the ‘Firemen Artists’ – including some women – who witnessed the terror and turmoil of the Blitz, and documented it in an extraordinary body of work which is now being exhibited under the title Fire in The City .

In March 1941 the Firemen Artists Organising Committee held the first of six exhibitions in London of over 100 paintings. More than 30,000 people visited in three weeks. Further exhibitions were held at the Royal Academy and other London galleries, then in 1941 paintings were sent on a touring exhibition of the United States as part of the government’s efforts to encourage the Americans to join the war.

Yet this is a story which has been largely forgotten, despite examples of paintings by firefighter artists in the collections of the Imperial War Museum and several local museums, as well as London Fire Brigade.

While the LFB Museum is closed for redevelopment and the collections are in storage, the Museum has taken the opportunity to contribute to this year’s commemoration of the anniversary of the death of Sir Christopher Wren by exhibiting from our collection in a number of Wren churches. We are showing paintings and drawings by firefighter artists alongside photographs from London Fire Brigade’s archive, many of which are probably more familiar to the wider public than the paintings.

As the political climate intensified in Europe in the late thirties, plans were drawn up to form an Auxiliary Fire Service drawn from volunteers. Over 28,000 were recruited to supplement London Fire Brigade’s 2500 officers and firefighters, including many men who were too young or too old to join the armed services. It was the first time that women joined the London Fire Brigade and  among the new recruits to the AFS were a number of artists. Some already had established careers  as painters, graphic artists and illustrators, while others were amateurs.

The Blitz started on 7th September 1940, and this first night of bombing was the first experience of firefighting for many of the AFS volunteers.

Portrait of an AFS Messenger, by Bernard Hailstone. Messengers could be as young as sixteen


Artist Reginald Mills, who painted Blitz Scene, East End, 7th September 1940 recorded this incident in The Fireman describing the white heat of the huge fire in the distance  ‘where the glare in the sky brought  back daylight’. However, you can also see a smaller fire to the left of the painting; ‘people in the crowds were calling us to stop and tackle fires nearby, [which] made such a deep impression on my mind that I decided then and there to record it in paint.’

Blitz Scene, East End, 7th September 1940


‘I was riding on a heavy pump at the time, just at the back of the scene I have painted, and next day I made some sketches which I kept by me. The first chance I had of working on the painting was this year during the lull but even though it happened years ago, I can remember the sight that night as if it were but yesterday.’

The docks were a target and the large numbers of warehouses were a particular concern. The anonymous author of The Bells Go Down: The Diary of a London A.F.S. Man recorded his first visit in September 1939. ‘This morning I took a trailer pump all round the East End and the Docks. If this place catches fire all the LFB and the AFS won’t be able to put it out’.

Reginald Mills specialised in painting firefighters in action but there are notable examples of other artists capturing the experience of being at the scene from a different perspective.

Driving by Moonlight by Mary Pitcairn


Mary Pitcairn’s romantically title Driving by Moonlight depicts the extraordinary bravery of AFS Firewoman Gillian ‘Bobbie’ Tanner driving a truck from Dockhead in Bermondsey to deliver supplies of petrol to her AFS colleagues fighting Blitz fires with trailer pumps. Her courage earned her a George Medal and the citation stated, ‘Auxiliary G.K.Tanner volunteered to drive a 30 cwt lorry loaded with 150 gallons of petrol. Six serious fires were in progress and for three hours Miss Tanner drove through intense bombing to the points at which the petrol was needed, showing coolness and courage throughout’. Pitcairn was also instrumental to the success and impact of the firefighter artists as exhibition organiser for the committee.

Bells Down by Julia Lowenthal


Women joined the fire service for the first time through the AFS and, though they were not trained as frontline firefighters, they worked in a variety of roles from control operators to motorbike despatch riders, as well as more conventional female roles in the canteens that provided relief to exhausted firefighters on the incident ground.

While many firefighter artists’ paintings have the intensity of being at the scene even though they were painted later, some give an insight behind the scenes. Julia Lowenthal was based at Kilburn Fire Station and drew her fellow firefighters, at rest or on their way into action.

Cannon Street by Paul Dessau


In the background of Paul Dessau’s Cannon Street is St Paul’s Cathedral, symbol of resilience to Londoners and the Nation, and in the foreground, a trailer pump, providing the water for the firefighters. Trailer pumps were easier to move in bomb-damaged areas that were inaccessible to fire engines, and were a critical piece of equipment featuring in many paintings including Mills’ Resting at a Fire.

Red Sunday, 29th December 1940 by W S Haines


W S Haines’ dramatic Red Sunday shows the skyline of the city with St Pauls and several church spires through the distinctive silhouette of Tower Bridge. Haines had an unusual perspective amongst the artists as a firefighter with the London River Service, which gave him a wider view of the City. The night of 29th December 1940 was one of the worst nights of the Blitz and sometimes known as the Second Fire of London.

Nearly all of Wren’s great churches in the City, built after the first conflagration of 1666, suffered damage in the Blitz and many were completely destroyed. The direct hit from an incendiary bomb which destroyed the church of St Clement Danes was captured by Reginald Mills in his painting Fire on the Strand.

Fire on the Strand by Reginald Mills


Other paintings are considerably more than documentary, exploring the psychological terror of the experience. Paul Dessau’s quartet of paintings Menace were conceived as the movements of a symphony, charting the terrible escalation of the demon fire and its eventual defeat.

Menace No.4, Diminuendo, by Paul Dessau

Self Portrait, 1941, by Paul Dessau


When AFS firefighters first joined the service they experienced resistance and disdain with regular firefighters and civilians alike thinking they were ‘army dodgers’. Their bravery and dogged hard work in the Blitz led Churchill to hail them as ‘heroes with grimy faces’. The artists amongst them contributed to this change in fortunes through their paintings which created a shared visual culture of the London Blitz.


Fire in the City is on display in five churches, St Clement Danes, the Temple Church, St Brides, St Andrew Holborn and St James Piccadilly until 8th December.


Click here for more information about the exhibition


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Jack Corbett, London’s Oldest Fireman

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Greg T permalink
    November 14, 2023

    I still have my ate father’s official government publicity “book” on the Blitz, containing some of the best-known photographs of the time & some not so well-known, now.

  2. November 14, 2023

    The Blitz over London — the horror captured in impressive art. Red Sunday in particular is eerily beautiful to look at.

    The background is of course clear: the V2 rocket from Germany was responsible for the destruction in London. The answer followed immediately: on 22 October 1943, Sir Arthur Harris flew his attack on Kassel and turned the city to ashes. That was 80 years ago, and there have now been various commemorative events.

    As a consequence, we should realise that war is nothing but horror and absolutely senseless!

    Love & Peace

  3. Derek Grover permalink
    November 14, 2023

    A great post, thank you. These pictures were a revelation.

  4. November 14, 2023

    This past weekend I was at the Royal Armouries at Fort Nelson for their Remembrance Day observance… in one of the first galleries, where the anti-aircraft guns are displayed, there is an AV video, in the style of a 1940s newsreel.

    It is devastatingly effective. “Terror from the Skies.” Indeed. If you have any doubts that the AFS firefighters were heroes, this will convince you.

  5. Sue permalink
    November 14, 2023

    What wonderful evocative paintings. To work so hard then go home and paint is amazing.

  6. Pence permalink
    November 16, 2023

    I wish there was a complete catalogue of this collection. I’d definitely purchase it.
    Wonderful paintings.

  7. Mr Peter J Washington permalink
    December 13, 2023

    Unfortunately the book isn’t available at a decent price, but the film with Tommy Trinder is on You Tube.

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