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Harold Speed (1872-1957)

 

The heart of the city,

Signed and dated 1942,

Inscribed on the original Royal Academy Exhibition label attached to the reverse,

"462/ The heart of the city/ by Harold Speed/ 23 Campden Hill Sq/ W8",

Oil on canvas,

35 x 40 inches

Exhibited:

Royal Academy 1943, no.462 as title

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Click on image to enlarge

This magnificent large-scale painting, imbued with an ethereal light, provides a significant historical document.

The title, The heart of the city, perfectly captures the ambiguity of the image and the miraculous survival of St Paul's during the Blitz. St Paul's was a symbol of London's resilience against the relentless air attacks by the Luftwaffe during 1940/1941, a fact which Sir Winston Churchill was acutely aware of, leading to his imperative that, "St Paul's must be saved at all costs". 

 

The heart embodies the spirit and life force but also by the same token a great vulnerability; with a violent assault this vitality could be extinguished. This is encapsulated by the celestial glow of the dome of St Paul's set against the most extraordinary twilit sky; both power and uncertainty are conveyed in the same scene. Similarly, the lumpen debris and twisted steel of the foreground serve to both contrast with the majesty of St Paul's but also to pose the question of how long this symbol of the nation's spirit could be defended against the persistent raids of the Luftwaffe.

By the time this painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1943, the Luftwaffe raids on London had ceased so this image could have been viewed, cautiously, as symbolising the indomitable spirit of the British people and as an encouragement to steel themselves in the ongoing fight against the Nazis.

The artist's address, 23 Campden Hill Square (W8), inscribed on the Royal Academy Exhibition label, has an interesting history. In the 1890s, it was the home of the Llewelyn Davies family; the four boys of the family became the inspiration for J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan. Harold Speed owned the house from 1920 until his death in 1957. From 1925-1932 the writer and poet Siegfried Sassoon was one of his tenants there, during which time he wrote, Memoirs of a Fox Hunting Man (1928) and Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930).

 

 

 

Harold Speed initially followed his father's footsteps by training as an architect at the Royal College of Art but subsequently concentrated his efforts on painting, studying at the Royal Academy Schools from 1891-1896. He won a gold medal there and a travelling scholarship in 1893. In 1896 he was elected as a member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. 

He exhibited extensively throughout his lifetime; at the Royal Academy for virtually his entire career from 1893 until 1955 and at commercial galleries including the Leicester Galleries. He was very sought after as a portrait painter; his Royal Academy exhibits read as a Who's Who of British society from the first half of the 20th century.

He wrote two highly regarded treatises on drawing and painting which are considered a valuable resource to this day:

The Practice and Science of Drawing (1913) and Oil Painting Techniques and Materials (1924).

His work is held in numerous public and private collections including Tate Britain and the National Portrait Gallery. Examples of his work can be viewed on the ArtUK website.