Fireman Artist: The War Art of Wilfred Stanley Haines

I love our arty community. Hardly a day goes by when I am not hit by another amazing piece of art, or artist I have not heard of before thanks to one of the group. Monday saw another corker and it is this gentleman: Wilfred Stanley Haines:

Self portrait
Self-portrait of the artist, in fireman’s uniform of the Second World War

Haines was born in 1905 in Surrey, to William C Haines and Annie Burrows. Haines’s father was tapestry restorer, according to the 1911 census and records show that he worked for the Windsor Tapestry works. Haines himself worked at Morris and Co, Merton and the V&A have an example of his textile design:

Wilfred Stanley Haines. Design for a printed textile, British, c.1935. Pencil and bodycolour.

However, the body of work that is in public hands is very different and is from his time as a Auxillary fireman in the AFS during World War Two in both Bath and London. A comment by JMW Turner springs to mind when looking at these paintings as there is a similarity here when looking at the way he paints the glow of the flames: “My business is to paint what I see, not what I know is there.”

Haines painted what he saw, and what he saw was the brutality of the bombing raids, first hand:

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One work, in particular, has a story: An Observation Post: Flying Bomb Raid, 1944. Held by the Imperial War Museum, this ‘Nevinsonesque’ work shows two firewatchers at their post, the night sky lit up by the explosions of flying bombs. Haines would have worked on this at his watching post in Union Street, Southwark.

Haines, Wilfred Stanley, 1905-1944; An Observation Post: Flying Bomb Raid
An Observation Post: Flying Bomb Raid 1944 Imperial War Museum London

On the night of 19th June 1944, Haines was at his post in Union Street when a V1 rocket hit Union Street at the corner of Guildford Street. Haines was one of 44 people killed that night*. This canvas, according to the IWM Guide of 1948, was damaged in the explosion in the bottom left of the canvas.

In their book, A Wander Through Wartime London: Five Walks Revisiting the Blitz, Clive Harris and Neil Bright describe how the buildings on the North side of the street were obliterated by the blast.

The Flying V1 bombs were newly introduced to the war, the first being dropped over London six days earlier. Their devastation was unlike anything seen so far. Jan Gore, in her book, Send More Shrouds: The V1 Attack on the Guards’ Chapel 1944, which describes, in detail, the V1 attack on the Guards’ Chapel in Westminster the day before, on 18th June 1944, gives this definition of the V1 bombs:

“Only a week after the Normandy landings, the German military started to use a new weapon against England. It was the V1 rocket, an early form of cruise missile, designed for terror bombing. It was a type of pilotless plane with a simple autopilot to regulate altitude and airspeed; the first flying bombs were ground launched from occupied France. They were designed to fly for a maximum range of about 150 miles; at a preset point, the engine would cut out, sending the V1 into a steep dive until it exploded on impact.”

What is astonishing about Haines’s work, is not just that he could paint what he had seen, but that he was painting ‘en plein’ during his breaks- while the bombing was taking place at his watching post! He was known to use hot coals and ash directly on the canvas. This fact, and the tragic circumstances of his death, give these works an added pathos.


This Pathe news reel about artists in the AFS has been brought to my attention ( thanks Nick!) Although Haines isn’t mentioned, I think the poster advertising the exhibition is by him.

Fireman Artists- Flash!

More information:

*V1 & V2 logs SE1 Borough Southwark and Bermondsey

A Wander Through Wartime London: Five Walks Revisiting the Blitz, Clive Harris and Neil Bright

Send More Shrouds: The V1 Attack on the Guards’ Chapel 1944, Jan Gore