War Artist John Berry and the Pathfinders

'A Pathfinder' - IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 2939)

Amongst the tens of thousands of items in the care of the Imperial War Museum is an exceptional art collection ranging from the First World War to contemporary conflicts.

Many of the Second World War items were commissioned by the British War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC). Part of the Ministry of Information, it was headed by Sir Kenneth Clarke who was the director of the National Gallery at the start of conflict. Clarke deliberately sought a wide variety of styles, techniques and experience to show both the civilian and military experiences of war to audiences at home and abroad.

Thirty seven artists worked full-time with 100 more commissioned on a part-time basis by the WAAC.

Amongst these artists was John Leslie Berry. He volunteered for the RAF and initially served as a radar operator in Middle East Command before becoming a war artist – the only one drawn from the ranks.

Four of his paintings are in the IWM’s art collection, one of which is entitled ‘A Pathfinder’ (see detail from the painting above), but although it is referenced to No. 8 Group RAF on the IWM’s online web page IWM: Pathfinder this connection seems unlikely.

But there is a Path Finder Force connection of sorts elsewhere in Berry’s body of work.

In the 1960s he illustrated a number of the British ‘Ladybird’ children books including ‘The Airman in the Royal Air Force’ which was first published in 1967.

john berry book

In one of the illustrations for the book Berry depicts an initial interview scene at the Air Crew Selection Centre which was then at RAF Biggin Hill.

Ladybird - senior officer

One of the interview panel is a highly decorated senior officer. He is wearing the Pathfinder badge and – as spotted by the sharp eyes of Dr Jennie Mack Gray – the Aircrew Europe Star and the DFC amongst his other decorations. We are both wondering who this officer was and which Pathfinder squadron he served with – it seems very likely that Berry portrayed a real person.

RICHARD MADDOX


Note by Jennie Mack Gray: What is also very striking is that the officer is still wearing his Pathfinder badge 20 years or more after the war ended. Flicking back over past posts on this website, we find the ace pilot Charles Owen still wearing his in the late 1950s.

As for the Pathfinder painting at the IWM, we are inclined to think that the sitter is a pathfinder with a small ‘p’ rather than a Pathfinder – he is probably a navigator as tools of a navigator’s trade are around him. The painting looks allegorical and the fact that he is muffled up in a leather flying jacket with no insignia on show seems to mitigate against the Pathfinder attribute – if being a Pathfinder was so important that it became the title, why omit the PFF badge?

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