FEPOW Documentary Art Study: Ashley George Old

In the second in her blog series focusing on the artists celebrated in LSTM’s 2019 Art of Survival exhibition, Meg Parkes remembers Ashley George Old, a remarkable British Far East POW artist who, had he lived, would have been 105 on 3 November 2018.

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Framed original 1943 watercolour portrait of Far East POW dental officer, Captain David Arkush RDC, painted at Chungkai hospital camp in Thailand by Gunner Ashley Old, 5th Sherwood Foresters (courtesy of the Arkush family).

Ashley George Old was born in 1913 and grew up in Northamptonshire. He studied at the Northampton School of Art and later worked pre-war as a commercial artist in the men’s fashion industry. During WWII he served as a Gunner in the 5th Sherwood Foresters. Captured in Singapore following the capitulation on 15 February 1942, he was first held at Changi POW camp before being moved to Thailand.

Throughout captivity, Old used his artistic talent to create watercolour portraits of fellow POWs in exchange for a fill of tobacco. Many examples, like the one above, are to be found in private ownership and museum collections. He used the local laterite clay, which when dried, ground and mixed with water created his signature rusty reddish hues, so familiar in much of his work.

Old’s medical artwork is remarkable. Along with a handful of other British servicemen who were trained artists, in particular Gunners Chalker, Searle and Meninsky, Old worked secretly for the POW medical staff in the hospital camps of the Thai-Burma railway (the Japanese had banned the keeping of any records, written, drawn or painted). Working often when they too were sick, these courageous men documented the scenes before them, recording for future reference the realities of the herculean battle to keep desperately sick men alive.

Old’s detailed and graphic depictions add greatly to our understanding of the conditions that prevailed, including the extraordinary medical ingenuity employed by Allied POW in the base hospital camp at Chungkai in Thailand. Following liberation, Old and Meninsky stayed on at the request of Australian POW surgeon Major Arthur Moon, working in Rangoon for a few weeks recording medical cases in hospital.

Throughout his post-war life Ashley Old struggled with the after-effects of his captivity. He was one of the most talented and yet remains perhaps the least well-known of the British FEPOW medical artists. He died, aged 88, in 2001.

Old’s work will feature in the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine’s forthcoming Art of Survival exhibition. It will be the first time that artwork uncovered by researchers at the Tropical School will be seen in public, all of it created during captivity by over 50 previously unrecognised British Far East POW artists.

The exhibition opens in mid-October 2019 at Liverpool’s Victoria Gallery & Museum and runs until mid-June 2020, marking the 75th year since the ending of WWII and the liberation of Far East captives.