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by Major F O B Wells
Coldstream Guards

Around 75 years ago, at opposite ends of Britain, two artists were hard at work brightening up their austere wartime surroundings, one in the name of comfort, the other in the name of the Lord.  Rex Whistler’s officers’ mess portraits and murals on Salisbury Plain are among his lesser known works, largely because so little evidence remains today; and Domenico Chiocchetti’s Italian Chapel on the Orcadian island of Lamb Holm is one of the UK’s (and Italy’s) hidden artistic gems, largely because it is so far away.  I have always been meaning to put pen to paper about Whistler’s work at Codford, but a holiday to Orkney this summer spurred me into action to write about these rare and inspiring works of art.

In 1941-2, 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards was based at Codford St Mary, training on Salisbury Plain.  The great society artist Rex Whistler was in the Battalion then, not as a war artist but as an eager 35-year-old platoon commander.  In the Welsh Guards today he is remembered fondly for his many cartoons and drawings, notably his illustrations for his men’s kit layout, and his ‘Strictly between ourselves’ cartoon of two Welsh Guards officers spreading some juicy gossip.  He is known more widely for his work before the war, as a theatre set designer, children’s book illustrator and country house (and Tate tearoom) muralist, much of which has been well documented in previous editions of this magazine.

The ante room as it was

The ante room as it might be

After its defence of Boulogne and subsequent evacuation from Dunkirk in 1940, 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards spent over the next three years in England training and waiting for its call-up to the front.  That time came finally in 1944 with the Normandy invasion and, shortly after, Whistler’s death in Caen on 18th July.  It was during those years in England, while he was based at Codford, that Rex had the opportunity to paint extensively and complete most of his wartime works.

Meanwhile, over 700 miles to the north, 550 Italians were being held as prisoners of war on the Orkney Islands, with around 200 of them at Camp 60 on the tiny island of Lamb Holm.  It is unlikely that these troops anticipated the Orkneys as one of their ‘see the world’ destinations when press-ganged into the army by their recruiting sergenti.  With most of the soldiers coming from northern Italy, from the 6th Anti-Aircraft Regiment of the Mantua Division, the bleak and rolling Scottish archipelago in which they found themselves captive must have been a sharp contrast to their mountainous homeland or the deserts of North Africa where they had been taken prisoner.

Among the Italians at Camp 60 on Lamb Holm was the artist Domenico Chiocchetti.  He, along with the other POWs, was put to work building the Churchill Barriers - concrete causeways between five of the islands, preventing entry from the North Sea into Scapa Flow, to avert another disaster like that of HMS Royal Oak, torpedoed at anchor there by a German submarine in 1939.

Like Whistler, Chiocchetti whiled away much of his war by painting, and notably recording scenes of the Churchill Barriers under construction.  But more than just painting to occupy the free hours, something seized both artists: a desire to make a significant improvement to the morale of their fellow brothers-in-arms.  For Rex, it was to smarten up the squalid conditions of the officers’ mess; for Domenico, it was to build a Catholic chapel for himself and the other POWs on Lamb Holm.

Chiocchetti’s painting of the Churchill Barriers

 under construction

Rex put his idea on paper, producing humorous sketches of ‘The ante room as it was’ and ‘The ante room as it might be’.  Both are annotated with comments criticising the décor in the former and making improvements in the latter.  While the ‘might be’ sketch was just a whimsical suggestion, the officers were so impressed that they persuaded the Commanding Officer to allow Rex to spruce up the mess beyond all recognition.  With the assistance of an able Guardsman, he painted striped poles and swags of fabric to transform it into an elaborate rococo tent.  In the ante room he painted old masters with trompe l’oeil gilt frames onto the walls and in the dining room he hung portraits of his fellow officers, painted on oval pieces of plywood in the style of Roman bas-relief sculptures.

In Orkney, by contrast, the prisoners’ desire for a chapel required more than just their enthusiasm: the camp commandant, a 55-year old First World War veteran called Major (later Colonel) T P Buckland, needed to approve the scheme.  He did, and soon two Nissen huts were erected back-to-back to create a space large enough to accommodate all the worshipping POWs.  They built an Italianate facade to the chapel, and Domenico and other artists from Camp 60 and other POW camps on the islands, transformed the inside of the chapel with frescoes.  The chandeliers were carved from corned beef tins, the font was made from a car exhaust covered in concrete, and the altar was made from wood salvaged from a shipwreck.

The Italian Chapel exterior

The Italian Chapel sanctuary

When the Italian POWs returned home in 1944, Domenico stayed behind to finish his brilliant scheme.  He returned to restore it in 1960 and it was restored again in 2015 by an Italian artist who had previously worked on Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Sistine Chapel.  Today it is one of the go-to destinations for tourists visiting the Orkneys - mostly coach-loads of American tourists off cruise ships.  I’d like to take this opportunity to plug the Orkneys for those that haven’t visited: military history at the Italian Chapel; naval history from both world wars; Stuart, Viking and Neolithic history with ruins and excavations all over the islands.  And if you’re in that part of the world, a visit to the Queen Mother’s Castle of Mey is a must.

The Italian Chapel font

The author getting his bearings in Orkney

When 2nd Battalion Welsh Guards moved from Codford to Yorkshire at the end of 1942, the Coldstream Guards very gratefully took over their painted mess.  Rex painted a Coldstream capstar on the outside before he left, replacing the Welsh Guards leek he’d painted there before.  But the hut was dismantled after the war, leaving no remains except the portraits.  They were sent to Regimental Headquarters for safekeeping, and returned to the officers’ families in 1962.  My grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel Jocelyn Gurney DSO MC*, was one of the fortunate sitters, as the then Number 2 Squadron Commander (not company, because the Battalion was armoured).  My family is lucky to still have the portrait today, one of only three known to still be in existence.  If any readers know of the whereabouts of any others (in addition to those of Majors Jim Windsor Lewis and Timothy Consett) please do let the author know on fobwells@hotmail.com.

War has always been an incredible stimulus for technological advancement.  But throughout history it has also always been an inspiration, in the most austere of circumstances, to produce some of the finest art, be it poetry or, in the case of the Italian Chapel and the Codford officers’ mess, architecture, sculpture and painting.

Rex Whistler painting a Welsh Guards badge

on the exterior of the mess

Major Jocelyn Gurney MC*




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