Harry Sheldon

A LITTLE bit of Scottish military history died recently with the passing of Harry Sheldon at the age of 84 in Hemel Hempstead.

Sheldon was the official Indian Army war artist whom the legendary Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck "discovered" waiting to be invalided from a Karachi hospital back to Britain in 1943.

Auchinleck, whose distinguished family had played a leading role in Scottish history for more than 200 years, had the rank of General at the time and C-in-C India. He was impressed by an unofficial exhibition of war art that Lt Harry Sheldon, 8th Gurkha Rifles, Indian Army, had mounted there and persuaded him to remain behind and become his official war artist.

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Sheldon, however, had another claim to fame: Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supremo, South-East Asia Command, had also been highly impressed with his work and had pleaded with "The Auk" for his services. This request was swiftly thwarted by Auchinleck, who saw it as a dangerous move by the Supremo to project further his charismatic frontline image. Many of the other generals in the theatre of war shared the same, jealous view.

More than half a century after the event, Sheldon, who left the services as a captain and was elected FRSA in 1953, still treasured the original letter from Mountbatten pleading for his services for his own command.

It all began when Auchinleck presented Lord Louis with a Sheldon work which he had particularly admired: a portrait of a turbaned, bearded Sikh in the Viceroy’s Bodyguard.

The artist (who lived at the bottom of my road in Berkhamsted) showed me Mountbatten’s letter to him. It read: "It really is a magnificent picture." He added that he was taking it to hang in Government House in Singapore "to remind distinguished visitors of what we owe to the Indian Army." Mountbatten revealed that he had asked Auchinleck for his services. But Auchinleck didn’t want to lose his "art discovery" - to Mountbatten.

"You don’t want to join him," Auchinleck moaned to Sheldon - then lost no time dispatching him in the very opposite direction to make lightning sketches of the Gurkhas fighting in the snows of Italy.

As for that much-admired Sikh portrait? Mountbatten took it to Broadlands for permanent display.

Without doubt, Sheldon, a watercolourist, was the outstanding war artist of his time in that theatre; only the River Kwai sketches may be considered more thought-provoking and emotionally-charged.

Born in Marple, Cheshire, in 1917, he studied under LS Lowry, no less, at Salford Technical School, Lancashire. There are four generations of artists - stained glass window-designers and draughtsmen - in his family background. "My son, Paul, is probably the finest scraperboard artist in Europe," he told me proudly.

By the end of the war, Sheldon, then only 28, had left behind a formidable artistic legacy in the fading light of the British Raj. He had painted most of the famous Indian Army commanders: the future Admiral of the Fleet, Earl Mountbatten of Burma himself; Field-Marshall Lord Wavell, Viceroy of India; Auchinleck; Lt-Gen Sir Frederick "Boy" Browning; Field Marshal Viscount Slim - and all the Indian Army VCs. Today, Sheldon’s works are scattered throughout the sub-continent in museums.

In peacetime, he exhibited frequently at the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolours and Royal Society of Portrait Painters. His one-man shows ranged from Delhi to Cairo to London. His work has been preserved for War Office records and other examples are in most British military museums. The Sheldon war-art legacy is assured for the nation.

Mountbatten of Burma would have been pleased. But Sir Claude Auchinleck who takes the greatest pride in having discovered him in the heat of battle.