It seems timely that we choose this moment to feature the work of Harry Lawrence Oakley (1882-1957), one of the country's leading silhouette artists whose prolific output during his lifetime included portraits of royalty, stars of the sporting and theatrical world and members of high society. Known as the 'the man with the magic scissors' H. L. Oakley, as he signed his work, showed a precocious aptitude for silhouette cutting even as a seven year old child and these earliest examples of his work are among many silhouettes featured in a newly published book from The History Press, 'Profiles of the First World War - The Silhouettes of Captain H. L. Oakley' by Jerry Rendell (Oakley's great-nephew) in association with ourselves here at Mary Evans Picture Library.
Oakley, who trained at the Royal College of Art, had a long career where he combined advertising work for prestigious clients such as Selfridges and L.N.E.R with portraiture, typically working out of booths temporarily installed in department stores or on piers at seaside resorts around Britain during summer months (Llandudno was a particular favourite of his).
'Profiles of the First World War,' as the name suggests, focuses on Oakley's output during the Great War period, when he served with the Yorkshire Regiment, the Green Howards. Before enlisting in the early weeks of the war, Oakley, according to Jerry Rendell, 'left a note in the window of his studio in Scarborough "Off to silhouette the Kaiser" with the small figure of a soldier carrying a German helmet on his rifle.'
By the time Oakley was crossing over to France in 1915, he had already established himself as a commercial artist of note having designed the famous 'Think' recruitment poster, followed later by another version for the Royal Navy - 'Remember'. Both posters appeared in numerous permutations and remain among the most striking and memorable of the era.
Oakley travelled to Armentieres and was attached to the headquarters of the 23rd Division, of which the Green Howards were part. He continued to draw and contributed some silhouettes and drawings to the famous trench newspaper, The Dump. His work first appeared in The Bystander (one of the nine titles making up the Illustrated London News archive represented here at the library) on 8 March 1916, in a spread entitled, 'Trench Life in Silhouette.' It was seen as significant enough for the magazine to flag it up on the cover above the masthead which in itself featured an illustration by The Bystander's star attraction, the cartoonist Bruce Bairnsfather.
As Jerry comments in his book, it was not Oakley's style (nor The Bystander's) to depict the suffering and devastation of war. Instead, his images convey humour and stoicism, and offer a light-hearted view life on the Western Front for British soldiers, as well as the local French people. Oakley would continue to be published in The Bystander throughout the war and beyond - indeed he was often known as 'Oakley of The Bystander'. Considering the popularity of the magazine among soldiers, it must have made him something of a star among those who recognised his name and work. Certainly he was much in demand for his skill as a portraitist during this time and cut hundreds of silhouettes of colleagues, which he carried out free of charge.
As well as scenes from the Western Front, Oakley documented his experiences in Italy, where the division moved in 1917, and in the occupied Rhineland area in the aftermath of the war, silhouettes that through their charm and vitality demonstrate Oakley's keen observational skills and deft cutting. When the 23rd Division moved to the Ypres salient in March 1917, Oakley was made billeting officer and Assistant Adjutant. His artistic skills were called upon when he made a model of the German trenches and terrain along the ridge; "of immense value to offices and N.C.Os who before the attack felt they knew the German trench system as well as their own," according to a divisional history written by Lt.-Col. H. R. Sandiland.
In May 1918, Oakley transferred from the Green Howards to the 96th (Lancashire) Brigade when he became A.D.C to Major-General Lambert who had been given command of the 32nd Division. The Division were actively engaged in the series of battles known as the Hundred Days Offensive and although Oakley was in a staff position, he was a close observer of activity.
We are delighted here at Mary Evans to represent not only Oakley's silhouettes from The Bystander and from the Jerry Rendell's personal collection, but also photographs charting Oakley's Great War career. There are images of him with fellow officers - some of whom lost their lives - and numerous pictures depicting life at the Chateau de Bioul near Annevoire on the Meuse in Belgium after the Armistice including a visit from the Prince of Wales to headquarters in January 1919. Oakley cut the Prince's portrait at this time and entertained the royal visitor including, according to a letter home, accompanying him in a rendition of Polly Wolly Doodle!
Oakley left the Army with the rank of Captain and an M.B.E., and returned full-time to his career as a silhouettist which he continued with great success almost to the end of his life (he died in 1960).
'Profiles of the First World War' showcases the life and work of the 'man with the magic scissors' for the very first time in what is both an intriguingly different perspective on the war and a visual treat. Whether your interest is in the First World War, illustration or both, we'd heartily recommend it.