Cuthbert Orde (1888-1968)

Cuthbert Orde (1888-1968). Throughout his life, Orde strongly identified himself as an artist. In the early 1920s he had a painting studio in Paris. His entries in phone directories for forty years – 1929 up to his death in 1968 – register him as ‘Orde, Cuthbert; Artist’.In his book Pilots Of Fighter Command: Sixty Four Portraits, Orde wrote an essay explaining the circumstances of his portraits of World War II pilots.Having been hired to produce illustrations of bomber stations in the summer of 1940, Air Commodore Harald Peake from the Air Ministry saw some of Orde’s drawings and was impressed by his portraiture. It was the height of the Battle of Britain and public attention was focused on the fighter pilots. Peake asked Orde to make a large number of portraits of them, Orde enthusiastically agreed, and at the start of September set off to work. It is unclear how many portraits he drew in the year or so with Fighter Command. Some sources say up to 300, though Orde only lists 160 in his book Pilots Of Fighter Command. What is clear is that he only drew a small fraction of The Few. 'In no case did I choose the sitter myself. He was selected either by Group Headquarters or by the station commander and, generally speaking, four or five in each squadron were chosen, the four or five who were considered the most valuable. So it was for them rather in the nature of a mention in dispatches, I, merely being the scribe who wrote out the dispatch'. Taking around two hours per picture, Orde drew men whose names have become familiar to those interested in the history of the Battle; Douglas Bader, Sailor Malan, Robert Stanford Tuck, Johnnie Johnson, Archie McKellar, John Freeborn. He usually created monochrome pictures of the men using charcoal and white chalk, though some colour portraits were painted, such as that of Bob Stanford Tuck and a second portrait of Sailor Malan. In drawing the cream of the pilots, names and uniforms soon became out of date as subjects were promoted and decorated. On finishing his drawing of Hugh Dundas, Orde joked, ‘I've left room for the DFC. The people I draw always seem to get it’. Four days later Dundas did.The daily peril of these men’s lives was apparent. Orde states that some choices were killed before he had a chance to draw them. Many did not live much longer after their portrait was done. John Drummond was drawn on 5 October 1940, shortly after landing from what turned out to be his final kill, and is pictured still in his aviator jacket instead of the uniformed outfit Orde commonly depicted. He died five days later. However, having flown in combat himself and lost both his brothers in military incidents twenty years earlier, the proximity of death will not have been new to Orde.