We’re thrilled to introduce the first in a series of exclusive blogs for RFHG by Meg Parkes, previewing the artwork of previously unrecognised British military artists (both amateurs and trained).
These men took enormous risks to record and keep hidden their documenting of conditions and life in and around POW camps across south east Asia and the Far East during WWII. Since 2012 this artwork – identifying the artists and locating and interpreting their work – has been the main focus of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s Far East POW (FEPOW) documentary art study. In addition to the six recognised British military documentary artists held captive in the Far East (i.e. Searle, Chalker, Meninsky, Rawlings, Thrale and Old), the study has uncovered artwork by over 40 more previously unrecognised FEPOW artists. Largely held in private collections, mostly by the descendants of the artists, much has remained unseen by the public.
LSTM in partnership with the Univeristy of Liverpool, is staging an exhibition to showcase these artists and their work. Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery & Museum will host the show, opening on Saturday 19 October 2019 and running through till mid-June 2020, the 75th anniversary year of the ending of WWII and Far East captivity. LSTM first became involved in the care and treatment of returned FEPOW in late 1945. It has stayed involved ever since.
- Andrew Atholl Duncan
Andrew Atholl Duncan was born in 1918 in St Andrews, Scotland. He studied mechanical engineering at St Andrews university and was proficient in technical drawing. As a member of the university’s Officers’ Training Corps (OTC) he took a commission in the Highland Light Infantry at the outbreak of war. While serving in the British Expeditionary Force in northern France he transferred to 6th Btn Argyll &Sutherland Highlanders (A&SH) and was drafted east in January 1941 to join 2nd Btn A&SH, part of Singapore’s garrison force. He joined HQ staff, trained in ciphers and was transferred to Java under General Wavell to set up British HQ in mid-January 1942. He was promoted in the field to captain shortly before fall of the Netherlands East Indies (NEI).
Captured in late March 1942 he was held at Tandjong Priok transit camp, on the dockside north of Batavia (now Jakarta) in Java, for the first eight months of captivity before being shipped to Japan to work in the coalmining camps in southern Honshu. Later he was transferred to Zentsuji and finally Miyata, a Dutch camp under a harsh regime in the mountains due north of Nagasaki.
He secretly kept diaries throughout his captivity and also made several pencil sketches of the interior and exterior of huts at Zentsuji, as well as detailed plans of three of the four camps he was in, drawn to scale and complete with compass bearings.
‘From My Bedspace’, interior of hut at Zentsuji POW camp, Shikoku Island, Japan 1944, pencil sketch by Capt. A.A. Duncan (© Duncan collection)
Plan of Tandjong Priok camp drawn 1942-1943 by Capt. A.A. Duncan (© Duncan collection)
His pencil sketches and camp plans show an eye for detail. The sketches reveal a good understanding of perspective and give a clear insight as to living conditions in the camp he spent the longest time in (Zentsuji). He kept his diaries and artwork hidden throughout captivity in a false bottom and inside lining of a Dutch kitbag he had acquired.
Following his repatriation in autumn 1945, Atholl Duncan decided not to complete his engineering studies but instead switched courses to study medicine, qualifying in 1950 and becoming a GP in Wirral in 1951. He said his decision to study medicine was in part due to the extraordinary work he witnessed doctors and medical staff doing in camp.
Through much of his post-war life he spoke little of his experiences, taking just a few close friends into his confidence over time. He did not join a FEPOW club. Neither did he ever keep diaries, or draw for pleasure; both had served a purpose.
His diaries were published after his death. Atholl Duncan is one of the “unrecognised” artists whose work will feature in the Liverpool exhibition.