John Worsley’s War. Although his paintings and portraits (including those of Montgomery and Admiral Sir John Cunningham) can be seen in the Imperial War Museum and National Maritime Museum, not all of his work was so public, as he worked tirelessly as a police sketch artist, his facility for capturing a likeness responsible for many arrests.
His ability to accurately report through his work was recognised early
by the Admiralty who ordered Midshipman Worsley into the thick of things
as the youngest official War Artist in the Mediterranean. Worsley had
already survived the sinking of H.M.S. Laurentic by a German U-Boat in
November 1940, and now found himself taking part in the landings at
Sicily, Reggio and Salermo. In 1943 he was amongst the rescue party sent
to establish a base on Lussin Piccola in the North Adriatic, only to
find it overrun by Germans.
Worsley was taken to Germany where he was interrogated, spending much of
the next two months in solitary confinement before being sent to the
POW camp Marlag ‘O’, near Bremen. Amongst the other prisoners was
journalist Guy Morgan who had been badly wounded and was to be
repatriated, smuggling out a number of Worsley’s drawings in the plaster
cast on his arm.
A more daring escapade was the escape plans of
Lieutenant Mewes which required the assistance of a stand-in. Out of
wire and papier mache, Worsley created a dummy, dubbed ‘Albert, R.N.’,
who was held between two soldiers during roll call, fooling the guards
into thinking they had a full compliment of prisoners whilst Mewes made
his way to the coast. For four days, Albert, with his ping-pong ball
eyes and no hands (his sleeves were stuffed into his jacket pockets),
fooled the guards. Unfortunately, Mewes was refused passage on the
northern coast of Germany, and was recaptured. ‘Albert’ was finally
rumbled when a second escape attempt two months later was foiled quickly
and the escapee caught just after roll call, the guards realising they
now had one too many prisoners.
Back in England, Guy Morgan
immortalised 'Albert R.N.' in a play which was filmed in 1953. The movie
starred Jack Warner and Anthony Steel, the latter portraying Geoffrey
Ainsworth, a fictional version of Worsley. Worsley recreated Albert for
the film, the dummy now at the Naval Museum in Portsmouth.
Born in Liverpool on 16 February 1919, Worsley was the son of a Naval
officer who, demobbed six months later, moved his family back to the
family coffee farm in Kabuka, 40 miles north of Nairobi in Kenya. It was
here amidst the spectacular scenery and at an altitude of 6000 feet
that John Worsley grew up, shooting and messing around in the family
Model T Ford when he wasn’t attending school.
This idyllic life
came to a crashing end in 1928 when the recession caused the price of
coffee beans to collapse, and John was sent to St. Winifred’s boarding
school, his fees subsidised by a grant from the Royal Navy Trust. He won
a scholarship to Brighton College, and entered Goldsmiths’ College
School of Art where he studied for three years, subsisting on a £300
legacy which he eked out at £2 a week, still finding the money—£4—to
purchase a second hand Fiat in his third year. This he used, after
leaving College, to travel along the South Coast, making sketches which
he would sell to magazines.
Worsley’s experiences in the Royal Navy, which began with a three week
crash course in seamanship in 1939 did not end with his repatriation. As
allied troops advanced in early 1945, Worsley and other POWs were
forced to march the 80 miles to Lubeck, arriving a few days before the
war ended. When Worsley returned to the UK it was to a small studio in
Baron’s Court where he was asked by the Admiralty to paint portraits of
many high ranking officers.
Worsley found work in illustration through an agency and found himself working on the Eagle
comic soon after its launch painting a full-page advertising strip for
Walls Ice Cream starring Tommy Walls, a young lad whose heroics were
always accomplished by making the Lucky Walls Sign, and whose reward
was, inevitably, lashings of ice cream.
It was as the artist for "The Adventures of PC 49" that Worsley really
reached an audience; from his first episode in August 1951, he would
eventually draw the tales of Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby until his
final appearance in March 1957. 290 episodes appeared in Eagle comic alone, with further tales appearing in Eagle Annual
and various spin-off books. Worsley’s was, to most fans, the definitive
portrait, and Worsley himself commented "You cannot portray a character
three thousand times without getting to know him pretty well." Three
quarters of a million schoolboys relished every brushstroke each week.
Worsley also worked for the Eagle’s companion paper, Girl,
drawing "The Story of Miriam" (1951-52) and "Belle of the Ballet"
(1952-54), and for many years was an illustrator for the educational
nursery paper, Treasure, notably drawing the adventures of "Wee Willie Winkie" (1963-67).
In later years, Worsley was commissioned by Esso to produce a series of
paintings of life on oilfields in Iraq and America. Never standing
still, Worsley also embraced the new medium of independent television,
and produced hundreds of colour illustrations for readings of famous
children’s stories; many of them were later used as illustrations for
large format hardcover books published by Purnell and Deans. An article
about his work by one of his enthusiasts was entitled “The Complete
Artist” and nobody earned that title more than John Worsley.
Worsley died on 3 October 2000, aged 81.
Examples of Worsley's work can be found at the Illustration Art Gallery.