A set of watercolours by WE Johns, the author of the Biggles books, looks set to fly when it comes up for sale at Essex auction house Sworders later this month.
Alongside being a celebrated writer, WE Johns (1893-1968) was also a keen artist, and the six detailed watercolours of individual biplanes and WWI dog fights are among the earliest depictions of aerial warfare, and have not been on the market for over 30 years.
Glorying in titles such as ‘Good Shooting, Sir!!’, ‘Tripehounds’ and ‘Close Work!’, the images convey all the speed and daring of the Boy’s Own style that Johns took to its apogee with his later Biggles books.
Intriguingly, one picture is dated 1916, a year before he was commissioned into the Royal Flying Corps. If it was indeed painted then, it is likely that the dogfight scene comes from Johns’ imagination rather than first-hand experience.
Shot down himself while on a bombing mission to Mannheim in Germany in 1918, Johns was lucky to escape with his life – his observer and rear-gunner died of his injuries on the same day – and remained a prisoner-of-war until the Armistice.
Johns stayed in the Royal Air Force after the war and was responsible for rejecting T.E. Lawrence as an RAF recruit for giving a false name, only to be ordered to accept him later.
It was at this time that he started his writing career, publishing more than 160 books, including almost 100 on Biggles, and launching the magazine ‘Popular Flying’ in 1932, just before ‘The Camels are Coming’, which was the first of the Biggles stories to make it into print.
Sworders are delighted to be offering the paintings, not least because Johns was a local man, having been born in Bengeo, and attending the Richard Hale School in Hertford. “These paintings display all the energy and thrills any Biggles fan would associate with Johns,” said Sworders’ Senior Valuer Tim Turner. “He playfully depicts speed and the air rushing past as planes leapt and dived.”
The sale takes place on June 27.