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On the 80th Anniversary of Churchill’s speech ‘The Few’, the Battle of Britain still proves the most sought after subject matter in aviation art

August 21, 2020 Aviation No Comments Email Email
On the 20th of August, 1940, the Battle of Britain had reached a critical point as the RAF fought off the German Luftwaffe in an unprecedented duel for air superiority over the South of England.

That day Winston Churchill addressed the House of Commons paying tribute to the bravery of the RAF pilots with those famous words: ‘Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few’. This speech would become known as one of Churchill’s most memorable, and emblematic of the efforts of the RAF throughout the Battle of Britain.
Also emblematic of Britain’s defiance in the air from looming invasion was the iconic fighter plane, the Supermarine Spitfire. As we fast approach the 80th anniversary of Churchill’s speech, Sydney aviation artist Steven Heyen acknowledges the aircraft’s impact 80 years on. “Out of all the aircraft, the Spitfire is the most requested commission I receive from my clients. It’s a beautiful plane, and a symbol for many of the triumph over the considerable might of the Luftwaffe.” While lighter in build than the Hawker Hurricane, the Spitfire’s advanced all-metal construction made it faster and more responsive in the air, and a worthy opponent for the well-tested German Messerschmitt Bf109E.

Across history, art has been used as an instrumental rallying, educational and commemorative tool to document and memorialise military events and make them widely known to the public. Aviation art was first popularised by the futurists in the late 19th Century. American artist Keith Ferris painted original works of first and second world war aircraft in the US in the 1960s, however it was the pioneering work of British artist Robert Taylor that brought about the so-called golden age of aviation art in the 1980s and 90s. Taylor marketed a series of limited edition prints signed by legendary fighter aces, garnering the attention of the public eye, even using television advertisements. Heyen himself produced a print signed by Australian Wing Commander Bobby Gibbs, who flew Curtiss Kittyhawks in the desert of North Africa and later Spitfires from Darwin against the Japanese.

Currently, Heyen prefers to sell original paintings, and with 120 aviation art clients across 12 countries he is one of the biggest sellers of original aviation art in the world. An expert in his field, he was the winner of the RAAF Heritage Award in 2005, 2008 and 2018 and the runner up in 2003 and 2007. Unlike other artistic genres, aviation art involves in-depth historical and geographical research and technical accuracy. With immense respect for their broad historical knowledge, Heyen suggests that due to the nature of the genre his clients tend to be very prescriptive: “Clients expect a highly evocative image, but not at the cost of realism and technical accuracy. Some aircraft, the Spitfire in particular, have complex lines and subtle curves. Collectors are quick to point out even the smallest issue. In addition, understanding light play on matt and glossy surfaces, as well as depicting paint weathering is important in producing a unique painting.”
He has fostered strong relationships with enthusiasts across the world, whether through Facebook or the many aviation art societies. “My clients tend to be very loyal, some of whom have bought as many as twenty of my works. As an artist with a niche market I am lucky, as very few collectors ever buy only one painting.” With a career spanning 30 years, Heyen finds that the Battle of Britain remains the most popular composition. He is currently working on a series of paintings from the period featuring both Spitfires and Hurricanes, a subject matter he never tires of. His art is a dedication to the incredible efforts of pilots across the world, namely during the first and second world wars, and represents the ongoing interest and respect that many enthusiasts still hold for this historical period.

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