The Rountree Tryon Gallery has discovered a long-lost painting, The evacuation of St Nazaire, by celebrated war artist Charles Pears (1873–1958), in a Sydney auction house.
Foremost, I was drawn to The evacuation of St Nazaire because of its atmospheric feel and the meticulous precision with which it captured the drama and tension of the event, as if the viewer was placed in a boat edging closer to the action. I was excited to discover it was work from Charles Pears, an artist whose work we have sold for two decades, and we are delighted to have brought it back to the gallery, highlighting an important moment in UK maritime history.
The haunting, atmospheric Evacuation of St Nazaire (oil on canvas, 17 June 1940) depicts the worst disaster ever recorded in UK maritime history. It shows the Lancastria, a vessel with unblemished regular service to Australia from the UK, involved in a Second World War conflict off the Atlantic coast in France, where up to 6,500 men are thought to have lost their lives. About 2,500 were rescued, many being carried by small boats onto a nearby P&O vessel, the Oronsay. This picture was probably commissioned by P&O as a gift to the captain of the Oronsay, whose courageous crew saved many lives. The incident was ruthlessly covered up by the then prime minister Winston Churchill, only becoming public knowledge twenty years ago.
The evacuation of St Nazaire is regarded as one of Pears' finest paintings, and typifies his stylised charm and meticulous detail. Pears started his career as an illustrator before being appointed an official war artist to the Admiralty at the start of the Second World War.
The evacuation of St Nazaire will be shown at at our London gallery as part of London Art Week (30 June – 7 July) alongside important British sporting paintings by acclaimed artists Sir Alfred James Munnings and George Stubbs.