Richard Hillary was born in Sydney, Australia in 1919, and was educated at Shrewsbury School and Trinity College, Oxford. A keen sportsman, and remembered by contemporaries as a dashing if somewhat imperious figure, Hillary joined the University Air Squadron in 1938, and was called up to the RAFVR in October 1939. In July 1940, he was posted to B Flight 603 Squadron, based at Montrose, flying Spitfires. On 27th August, the squadron was posted to RAF Hornchurch and was immediately sent into action against the Luftwaffe. Such was the intensity of combat, and the extremely short life expectancy of fighter pilots, that within his first week Hillary had completed his part in the Battle of Britain. On 3rd September, and shortly after claiming his fifth kill, Hillary was shot down over the North Sea, and whilst extricating himself from his burning plane suffered terrible burns to his face and hands.
Over the next few months he underwent extensive and repeated surgery to reconstruct the damage at the hands of the pioneering plastic surgeon Sir Archibald McIndoe. Although the function of his hands was substantially impaired, Hillary was determined to return to operational flying, and in November 1942 finally achieved this, being posted to the Scottish Borders to train as a night-fighter pilot. However, in January 1943, Hillary’s Blenheim crashed during a night training session and both he and his observer were killed.
Whilst Hillary’s story is an admirable example of bravery and fortitude, where he stands apart from his fellows is in his writing of a remarkable book of his experiences, The Last Enemy. Published in June 1942, it was a great success, both at home and in America, and the combination of the author’s talent for evocative reportage and his presentation of the almost knightly single-combat sorties of the fighter pilots touched a chord with the public. The book gave Hillary a degree of celebrity, and the resulting connection with Kennington, who also drew a ‘standard’ portrait of Hillary (coll. National Portrait Gallery), produced the present work, created post-humously and presented to Hillary's family in his memory. Perhaps now best known for his powerful and emotive portraiture of key figures of WWI, especially Lawrence of Arabia, this highly evocative image of a blinded and bandaged fighter pilot bestriding the belaboured east coast of England is highly unusual within the oeuvre of Kennington. However it is perfectly in keeping with the allegorical and symbolic themes that developed during the darkest years of WWII, and offers an image that captures the spirit so well embodied in Churchill’s famous speech in honour of ‘The Few’.
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