Harold Johns’ ‘VE Day’ 1945

Harold Johns’ ‘VE Day’ 1945

Harold Johns’ exuberant watercolour perfectly captures the jubilant atmosphere of VE day as people all around the world celebrated the surrender of the German army. The war wasn’t completely over, Japan wouldn’t surrender for another four months, but on May 8th 1945 joyous parties spilled out on to the streets and people rejoiced in their freedom.

Harold Johns, VE Day, 1945

Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker just a week earlier and in Harold’s watercolour we can see one of the crowd throwing the Nazi dictator’s portrait under the wheels of the army lorry. Union jacks are flying as well as what appear to be Belgian flags. Harold Johns was serving with the 15th/19th Hussars, part of a reconnaissance unit attached to the 11th Armoured Division that had spearheaded the invasion across Europe, racing through Holland, Belgium and then into Germany.

Harold’s war was eventful to put it mildly. He had been among the many thousands of British soldiers to be rescued from the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940. His training as a map maker meant that he was in great demand and he served in the Desert War in Libya and Egypt, where he won the British Empire medal, before taking part in the D-Day landings in 1944.

Harold Johns, Sandstorm Libyan Desert, 1943

Harold painted mainly in watercolours and his paintings are action-packed and dramatic. His night-time painting of a crowded boatload of soldiers scrambling on to a troop ship is atmospherically lit by a single searchlight and its reflected light. At the same time he could portray his fellow soldiers with great warmth and empathy. The collection of paintings at The Atkinson includes nervous sea-sick soldiers waiting to land on the Normandy beaches on D-Day and soldiers going about everyday tasks, sleeping, washing and writing letters home. 

Harold Johns, Embarcation for home, 1943

Before the war Harold had been studying art at the Victoria College of Art, in the same building that houses The Atkinson. He had met fellow artist Frank Hampson there and, immediately after the war, both artists resumed their studies, this time at Southport School of Arts & Crafts. Harold helped to put together the first dummy edition of The Eagle comic and for the first few years of the its production he was an important part of the team of illustrators that worked on Dan Dare and other Eagle strips. Harold was actually the inspiration for Digby, Dan Dare’s brave and faithful, if sometimes hapless, sidekick.

Harold and his alter ego, Digby

Harold Johns’ paintings will feature in an exhibition at The Atkinson in 2021. An exhibition celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Eagle is also scheduled for Summer 2020 and will include work by Harold and many of his fellow illustrators.

Written by Stephen Whittle (Principal Manager, Museum, Gallery & Operations)

Posted on 8 May 2020 under General news

Share your comments